February 24, 2020

A Chicken and Egg on Drugs — The role of substances for creatives

The ideal for many of us is that we already have a robust process for teasing out the little bits of fleeting creativity to produce something, but sometimes (or often) that doesn’t happen so easily and we need a bit of “help” to get things going. But do drugs like cannabis and alcohol actually make us more creative?

Convergent vs Divergent thinking

While there are certainly a plethora of drugs that improve the mental capacity to support creative endeavors (such as stimulants like modafinil for focus and other nootropics), to narrow things down, we’re going to focus on the two drugs most popularly associated with the creative genius in authors and artists, alcohol and cannabis.

As for the creative side, two types of thinking are commonly tested in researching creativity: convergent and divergent thinking. The distinction between these two comes most famously thanks to the work of American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford. In a nutshell:

  • Convergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at a single or a few answers from many stimuli.
  • Divergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at multiple possible answers from a single stimulus.

While the human mind doesn’t strictly think (or create) this way, the dynamic of being able to think broadly for multiple solutions or hone in on a few targeted ones is one creatives frequently have to call upon.

The science

Anecdotal and personal experience suggests that ideas can flow a little more smoothly after a few hits (or bites) or drinks such as a Fernet Hunter and soda — or the improvised “pick-me-up” known as the Earl Simmons. But we also know all too well that we don’t produce the best ideas or even the most relevant ideas when we’re absolutely stoned or trashed.

The science lends some credence to this:

  • Cannabis does help if you’re not already creative: one 2012 study showed that people with low creativity benefited from being intoxicated through cannabis while the already creative group showed less change.
  • Too much = diminishing returns: in contrast, a study in 2014 concluded that “cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking.”

But here’s where we get to the chicken and egg problem: are people more creative because they take drugs or are they already creative in principle but happen to like drugs?

The answer is evidently a bit of both, but a recent study measuring the link between cannabis and creativity suggests there might be some weight to the latter. Here are the highlights of that study on cannabis:

  • ”Sober cannabis users showed enhanced self-reported creativity to non-users.”
  • ”Sober cannabis users demonstrated superior convergent thinking ability to non-users.”
  • ”Cannabis users were more extraverted, open to experience and less conscientious.”
  • ”Differences in openness to experience explained cannabis users’ enhanced creativity.”

For creatives, take our interpretation of the science with a grain of salt, but the research seems to somewhat reinforce what we know or can readily find out with any personal experiments at home: regardless of whether you need to think broadly or narrowly, your mind has to be open.

The culture factor

It goes without saying that subculture promotes the enjoyment of substances at a rate that exceeds clarity and education on its abuse while the mainstream consciousness misunderstands the whole dynamic. When fondly remembered in art, music, and literature, drugs have a disproportionate, almost mythical weight that ignores the truth: Hemmingway’s philosophy of “Write drunk. Edit sober?” Great marketing, terrible advice and simply not true according to his granddaughter.

In reality, people smoke and drink and they might happen to be creatives. But not only can they do so as a healthy habit in their lifestyle, but they can also do so whether it’s part of their creative process or not. They can also do other things to get them to a creative headspace that doesn’t involve drugs (though we’ll give the caffeine hit of morning coffee a pass in this case).

The Takeaway

Everybody’s personality and process are different, so there’s no hard or fast judgment on how much is enough to get the juices flowing when they’ve stopped — when we’re down to mentally “wringing the cloth dry” to come up with something. If you find yourself constantly moistening that cloth to have something to squeeze or rolling it up and smoking it to get every last bit out, that’s probably a sign something else needs to change.

But if the nature of our modern work means either a lot of stress to cope with or just a lot of creating on the daily, what’s wrong with using some of the oldest chemical technology to keep us going — even in combination through the delightfully-named crossfade (the pairing of cannabis and alcohol)?

Nothing, really. All that matters is when we can recognize for ourselves a difference between on-off quick fixes, reliable if only one of many tools in the creative toolkit, and chronically debilitating crutches. Otherwise, being able to create in any direction means a loose and open mind. However you get there is entirely up to you.

February 21, 2020

Managing procrastination is about managing many things, not just time.

We used to think that procrastination and the decreased productivity that accompanies it was a time issue, but we’ve since broadened our understanding to factor emotion into the equation. But does it end there?

Time: Why we thought people procrastinate

Until more recently, the pervading theory behind procrastination was that it was purely due to a problem with time management — the idea that people who procrastinate can’t do the following properly, among others:

  • Budget: judge how long a task will take.
  • Schedule: make time for the tasks they have to do.
  • Commit: control the number of tasks they take on.

While poor time management can certainly lead to procrastination, it’s not necessarily the root cause for everyone that does it.

Emotion: What also needs to be managed

Recently, the exclusive focus on time management has shifted instead to the management of emotion. A BBC article by Dr Christian Jarrett highlights the obvious fact that no, people don’t do things like watch cat videos or check IG because they failed to properly allocate time for these activities (they likely don’t even want to). Instead, they procrastinate simply because they want to:

  • Avoid discomfort: the task they’re supposed to be doing feels extremely unpleasant at that moment.
  • Lift moods: the task they’re going to do instead is going to life their mood and they know that.

More importantly, we have a mood that needs to be lifted because the task is boring, too unclear or too complex, or it makes us contemplate and fear failure. The solution? One proposed in the article is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is an offshoot of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy used to address mental health improvement. In a nutshell, ACT proposes that we :

  • Accept the discomfort we’re feeling.
  • Choose a direction that aligns with our values.
  • Take action.

But what can you do in the event and all likelihood that you don’t have the time or will to start a full mindfulness regiment of any kind to address the occasional bout of procrastination?

Christian points to Tim Pychyl of Carleton University, who studies the emotional angle of procrastination with collaborator Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield. He proposes a familiar solution: “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.”

Energy: What often gets forgotten

Regardless of how much we wrangle our time and our emotions, the “2:30 Feeling” (the midday slump in energy) is still a thing. Of course, most work arrangements mean that you’ll have to find ways to fight through that slump, especially if you work in an office that hasn’t invested in nap pods or the nap culture that’s already normal in many companies.

The point is that our energy levels — or focus, wakefulness or engagement, depending on what you prefer — have tie-ins with our natural circadian rhythm and are finite regardless of our lifestyle choices.

What’s more, many will agree creative work, unless you’ve figured the much vaunted “process,” often isn’t something you can accomplish by throwing time directly at it: staring straight at a blank page for hours, doesn’t always result in a better product much less progress. Some solutions to avoid creating yourself into a corner?

  • Prioritize: prioritizing important, urgent and the most mentally taxing tasks means you’ll tackle them when you have the most energy in the tank.
  • Bob and Weave: if you hit a solid wall in one task, don’t force creativity by smashing into if it’s not due immediately, but rather, tackle other related sub-tasks or take a break from it by chipping away at another task with a similar priority. This way, you might be moving sideways, but you’re still heading forward.
  • Break it down: getting started can sometimes be daunting because we contemplate (and catastrophize) the entirety of a task — something that wastes our energy but doesn’t accomplish as much. The solution? Break the task down into smaller actionable pieces. As previously mentioned, getting started is often the hardest. Why not get started with the smallest thing you could do?
  • Actually take a break: this means actually getting up from your work area and moving around or doing something unrelated that doesn’t take any additional focus (like long reads or getting stuck on Reddit). Better yet, how about feeding the meter by taking a power nap?

By working on the hardest tasks when you’re the most mentally “on,” there isn’t just a chance you’ll finish them, you might also finish faster and at a higher level of quality (versus slapping together the work to get it done or slogging towards the finish line). This in turn, can give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment that will fuel the next task.

The Takeaway

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional bout of distraction and it should be mentioned that distraction (and some degree of procrastination) can be “a feature, not a bug” in creative people.

But if it’s something that happens more often or suddenly, it helps to dig down towards the root causes.

Again, the short answer is that it takes two key factors to tango: people procrastinate because they are avoiding the discomfort of the task before them and because they believe the activity they’re choosing instead will make them feel better.

Addressing this dynamic means having a grasp of several things in combination — your time, emotions and your energy — to minimize how much you have to ‘fight’ yourself to stay on task throughout a given day. The more you work with yourself while keeping an eye on your priorities, you’ll be better positioned to win on the big things, even if you don’t win at everything that day.


February 17, 2020

The art of storytelling through data

Data visualization helps us to make sense of complex and difficult topics, but in the process, they can also produce some aesthetically pleasing images. How do we approach its use as a form of storytelling as it becomes more popular?

What is data visualization

In his comprehensive guide “The Art and Science of Data Visualization,” analyst Michael Mahoney defines it simply as “the graphical display of data.” It’s how you take different data points and find ways to differentiate them according to certain variables (such as size, color and shape), and arrange them in a way that can be understood. In his words, “Visualizations are often the main way complicated problems are explained to decision makers.”

In his guide, he provides mantras that underscore four key factors in creating good data visualizations:

  • Effective: “A good graphic tells a story.” Because of the size and breadth of modern data sets, the visualization needs to include only the elements that make identifying patterns and trends easier to comprehend.
  • Simple: “Everything should be made as simple as possible — but no simpler.” Practices like using only 2D or cutting down on extraneous visual elements keep it lightweight.
  • Efficient: “Use the right tool for the job.” Using the right methods to depict the data correctly.
  • Digital: “Ink is cheap. Electrons are even cheaper.” Make more than one graph to split data to show difference between different categories and groupings.

And if not to these decision makers, Mahoney says visualizations are used to help identify patterns in a data set or explain those patterns to wider audiences. To this end, they have to be both truthful and easier to decode.

There is no “one chart fits all”

However, Dear Data’s hand drawn approach also challenges the expectation of how a data story should be told. The project is the brainchild of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec who began it as a form of visual correspondence between the two, who would use hand-made postcards to share information about their lives over the course of their year. Their first week of their exchange tracked the number of times they checked the time, while subsequent ones tracked everything from smartphone addiction to number of times they saw their reflections..

Looking at them, it’s not always apparent that the drawing is in fact a representation of data points (perhaps more-so to the untrained eye), much less a picture of someone’s life. Still, “data is a way to filter reality in a way that words cannot,” Lupi says. This consideration adds a layer of nuance and complexity to data visualization that is at odds with the transparent science aspect of it.

Does data visualization need to be easy to understand for everyone? After all, the deep perspectives we can gain from examining our own very personal data might, like many codified narratives, be better reserved for the select interpretation of just us or very specific people. Put another way, some stories are told for specific audiences. Could data stories be told in a similar way that is deemed ‘art’ to the initiated but comparatively opaque to others?

Our reaction to data visualization

Not unlike how editorial illustrations contextualize a much longer and larger story, data visualizations offer us the perception-altering perspectives that accompany drawings. However, our treatment of them might differ because they lie at the intersection of our current preoccupation with:

  • Metrics: Facts that emanate from the scientific or academic community give us a grounding in reality that helps us pierce through conflicting opinions and misinformation, as well as use that knowledge to help us get ahead in life. For better or worse, metrics and figures give us standards we can use to measure our lives against and improve.
  • Visuals: The shift in audience preference for video means visual representations of a topic will rank higher than a few thousand words of even well-written text (and likely even more than charts full of raw data points).
  • Digestibility: Like infographics, data visualizations give people with significantly less experience with a subject the ability to digest a much larger, more complex story.

But beyond just using data visualization as a way of understanding topics we want to know more about, they also could pique our curiosity in others that we otherwise wouldn’t. A look at some of the visualizations from Nathan Yau’s Flowingdata likewise could put us onto important topics like saving for retirement (or decidedly less urgent matters like burger rankings).

The point is that the role of data visualizations in the diverse media landscape will become more pronounced so long as audiences recognize their potential to broaden understanding and fight misinformation..

The Takeaway

Data visualizations provide a way to contextualize phenomena and make sense of complex and difficult topics. However, they are only as honest as the people who design them. Like all stories, it’s important that we also think critically about the larger themes of the topics themselves and especially simplifications of them. When data sets become condensed into comparatively small but pleasing gold “nuggets” of information, those nuggets become as easy to misconstrue and abuse as they are to share.

In short, the facts might be embedded into the image and one story told through their arrangement, but any truths are still unfortunately up to us to figure out.

February 13, 2020

Making It Up 115: Spotify acquires The Ringer and black music in white spaces

On Making It Up 115, Charis and Eugene talk about Spotify’s recent acquisition of The Ringer and the effects of media consolidation. They also discuss a personal essay that describes the discomfort felt in hearing black music become the default choice for high end spaces and how black music is cherrypicked as being beneficial to commercial spaces.


00:01:52 Spotify and The Ringer
00:26:26 Black music


February 13, 2020

Pleasant surprises — the link between exceeded expectations and musical pleasure

A recent study provides evidence that we gain pleasure when music is better than we expected. We take a look at how music gives us pleasure (and just as importantly, how it doesn’t).

How music surprises us

In a study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, researchers used machine learning to quantify the uncertainty and surprise of 80,000 chords in US Billboard pop songs. What they found was that there were high pleasure ratings when they deviated substantially from their expectations of what chords came next, whether the person was relatively or highly uncertain to begin with.

Here are some other important factors behind the study:

  • Memories: to account for memories a participant might have around a song, the song was stripped of its recognizable elements like lyrics and melody.
  • Nucleus Accumbens: this region of the brain plays a big role in processing motivation, aversion and reward (among other things). The MRIs in the study found this area was associated with the uncertainty aspect but not the surprise.
  • Pleasure: the findings suggest the nucleus accumbens might not fully account for why or how we derive pleasure from music and that our expectations play an important role.

If you’re interested to learn more in detail, you can watch a video explaining the study here.

What is Musical Anhedonia?

We’re going to be upfront, this particular Analysis stemmed from one team member that has a pronounced lack of interest in music (though necessarily dislike) but was genuinely moved by a song — perhaps for the first time ever. That song? It was Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa’s live rendition of “See You Again,” performed in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. Given the fact this team member normally doesn’t talk (much less gush) about a musical event in this way, let’s just say it led to some poking around the Internet. Ok let’s just go out and say it, Eugene has musical anhedonia.

Musical Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from music. It can either be a structural difference (your brain just doesn’t value music that way reward-wise) or as a symptom of something else such as hearing loss with age that deadens the impact of music or even depression where those with it have trouble deriving pleasure from many things in life.

This isn’t to say the eye-opening experience was a reversal of musical anhedonia. After all, it was due to a combination of a popular song, a heartfelt performance, the ambiance of a live event and a tragic emotional context. If you’re interested, Charis and Eugene further discuss musical anhedonia on episode 109 of Making It Up.

The Takeaway

“On one hand, our results could be applied to assist composers or even computers in writing music,” says Vincent K.M Cheung, one of the authors of the study on expectations and music. “On the other, algorithms could be developed to predict musical trends and how well a song would do based on its structure. The possibilities are endless.” For people who don’t create music (or algorithms for that matter), you can rejoice knowing that it’s perfectly fine even if you don’t like music at all. In fact, 3-5% of the world doesn’t. It’s a reminder that there are many pathways to move us emotionally so long as we are open to the experience. So with that, we’ll leave off by saying you should keep seeking out uncertainty if you’re already doing so or better yet, surprise yourself.

February 10, 2020

Making It Up 114: “American Dirt” and giving good waiting staff respect

On Making It Up 114, Charis and Eugene talk about the complex conversation surrounding “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins (a novel about a Mexican mom and her son fleeing for the United States) which revolves around the question of who should tell what stories. They also discuss the perception of waiting staff in restaurants and what the effects are of good service on dining experiences.


00:13:44 “American Dirt”
00:43:09 Good service


February 10, 2020

The uncanny resemblance in editorial and product illustrations

Thanks to the ubiquity of tech products, we’re all familiar with the flat colorful illustration style that accompanies them and now, many other situations that call for illustrations. How did this style get popular and how did it spill over into editorial drawings too?

What the style is

In his blog Subtraction, graphic designer and former Design Director for the New York Times Khoi Vinh calls the style “safety minimalism” and tracks this trend on a Pinterest board aptly titled “monoculture illustrations.” This style is defined by its particular approach to:

  • Colors: range from primary to bright pastels
  • Figures: clean drawing, and frequently rendered with vectors
  • Details: highly abstracted
  • Shading: geometric if used at all
  • Composition: minimal with occasional limited elements in the background

Khoi summarizes the style as having a sense of infantile simplicity despite the fact it’s used to “depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things.”

How we got here

It’s not necessarily clear when or how this trend started, but Jared Long of The Startup for one, thinks it could go back to a renewed interest in screen printing along with a departure from vector-based 3D skeuomorphic (meaning to look more photorealistic) designs back in the early 2010s. At this period, the move towards a flatter aesthetic was to stand out, as most things do before they become popular.

Since then, however, the style has become widespread and has a particularly strong association with tech products, particularly due to efficiency. This makes sense given that doing illustrations this way ticks off the following:

  • Approachable: the “safeness” of safety minimalism means the illustrations are easy to understand and approachable, which is important for tech products that are more complex. It’s also worth mentioning that simple graphics are much easier to animate as well, which also play into the accessibility factor.
  • Adaptable: the simplicity of the style means it could be executed in-house, where designers could theoretically learn to imitate the aesthetic if not adapt it from readily available stock assets. Designing it digitally also removes the unpredictability of analog mediums, allowing for precision and creative control.
  • Economical: saving on the time of researching and hiring an illustrator with a particular style as well as the cost of producing large amounts of the illustrations needed.

Vinh suggests that the illustrations could, in fact, be handled by the same designers that also designed the app they were promoting versus a professional illustrator. All that’s required is the same tools available to every designer: a vector drawing and an image editing app. “Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance,” Vinh says. “That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.”

The jump to publications

In a Quartz article by Anne Quito, she echoes the aforementioned factors that have made the “flatter, sharper, and arguably more generic” illustrations ubiquitous, but also adds others that explain how the style also increasingly appears in publications:

  • Versatility: simpler graphics not only scale better on all types of displays, they tend to load faster as well.
  • Deadlines: digital illustrations are (assuming they’re layered and organized) easier to make modifications to, allowing illustrators to address client requests faster.
  • Taste: flat illustrations have always appeared in publications. Qito cites the influence of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s clean shapes in the 1980s, considered “a pleasing counterpoint to the scrapbook punk aesthetic of the decade.”
  • Social Media: in the article, illustrator Xiao Hua Yang points out illustrations that are well received on social media will inevitably spark curiosity into how they were made.

However, Qito concludes that it is in the end, all about economics, citing a 2018 global survey of over 1,400 illustrators by Ben O’Brien where 70% of them believed they couldn’t survive on drawing alone. Further, she found that New York magazine, when adjusted for inflation, paid 30% more in the ’70s for smaller spot illustrations than what they offer today.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact we see this flattened visual style everywhere, this is by no means an indictment of the style itself and especially not the people who produce it, whether it’s their personal style or they create in it out of necessity. After all, if it ensures a regular stream of income, why not?

Unfortunately, what we see as current trends are often the four-way collision of economics, audience and client tastes, increasingly sophisticated digital tools and the needs of creatives. There’s no shortage of homogeneity around us whether it’s Instagram, cafes, or just general bits of design.

We recognize illustrators and other artists creating with the stroke of a pen, brush, stylus or mouse have the unique power to create very appealing and specific visual images by themselves and often without having to leave their workspace. Through their work, they have the ability to bring us deeper into text stories that would otherwise be passed up by today’s shorter attention spans that are compounded by declining literacy.

For that reason, despite our emphasis on photos, we’ve made efforts to employ and fairly compensate illustrators to create work in a style that values their abilities as much as their time. This has ultimately helped us to tell better stories that might otherwise not have been possible with any other medium. As such, we’ll close by inviting you to check out some of our stories that have been visually brought to life by Charis Poon, Jeremy Leung, Joan Wong, Naomi Otsu and Jonathan Jay Lee.


February 6, 2020

Is crowdsourced branding ever a good choice?

With the advent of increased connectivity, crowdsourcing has been used to accomplish countless goals including branding. But should such an important part of a company be left up to anonymous masses?

At the national level

With crowdsourcing having become a firmly embedded practice for brands, the concept is still being applied to all levels all the way up to and including branding whole countries. For one, the United Arab Emirates recently decided on a new logo and slogan, “Make it happen.”

Thankfully, to do that, it didn’t task citizens of the world with actually submitting new designs, but rather by voting for one of three logos. In the end, the design that won out was a seven-line map of the UAE (representing each of the emirates) in the red, green and black colors of the national flag after scoring the majority of 10.6 million votes cast.

It’s also not the only country to seek out the public in helping to brand itself: Back in 2016, New Zealand got as far as choosing a new design for its flag — one that replaces the Union Jack on it with the silver fern, another strong national symbol — out of a staggering 10,000 designs and then out of a long list of 40. In the end, however, that winning design by Kyle Lockwood didn’t pass the national vote between switching to his flag and keeping the original (his scored 43.1%). The cost to not rebrand in this case? $26 million New Zealand Dollars, or almost $17 million American dollars.

It’s trickier than it seems

We’re no strangers to the notorious design contest and unpaid spec work, but is all crowdsourcing done this way? Looking around the Internet, it doesn’t seem so simple. Taken at face value, crowdsourcing simply means leveraging the resources of a large group of outside parties to achieve a certain goal.

But even when we narrow it down to crowdsourced branding, it’s still not that simple because depending on the context, a brand is sourcing different elements that will eventually contribute to producing something carrying the brand message or image:

  • Opinion: much like the above examples with voting on pre-selected choices, this outsources the decision making power for the voting period depending on whether you agree with the results, or reject it simply because you don’t like the most popular choice.
  • Ideas: similarly with calls for suggestions or responses to prompts (such as asking questions on Instagram), this outsources the creativity and the time to write a suggestion or submit an idea that could be implemented immediately, not at all or far into the future.
  • Content: just like ideas, crowdsourcing content is popular with contests, campaigns and ads, because the participation is once again voluntary and intrinsically motivated, leading to a large number of high quality submissions.
  • Assets: this is where much of the focus on crowdsourced branding lies, particularly with logos and understandably so, because we can clearly see where it results in quantifiable rejected designs, wasted hours and lost compensation.

The Takeaway

We can say right away that for a brand’s defining visual assets like logos, most would recommend the average person doesn’t make their own unless you’re say, MAEKAN founder Alex Maeland, himself a talented designer and photographer. Otherwise, a crowdsourced brand logo or similarly important asset sends a strong message in itself: that the brand didn’t or doesn’t intend to do either the soul-searching of knowing what they represent — or the legwork of sourcing skilled designers to work closely with to execute their vision.

For opinions (including votes) and ideas, where the participation is voluntary and the minimum lift for the crowd in question is assumed to be low, we’d say it’s a valuable way to get feedback and perspective from “outside the box” that smaller pools of talent (say, a start-up team like ours) can find ourselves in.

What we’re left with is the fine line around content, which we need to observe carefully: When is it presenting an enticing prize to a crowd of fans and when is it dangling a carrot to a crowd of people willing to work for free? Large companies that can afford creative teams still use UGC and are praised for the refreshing content produced, but evidently that’s employed as part of a more extensive strategy and toolset.

Maybe the key here is the mix: a test of how much of a brand’s identity is suitable for crowdsourcing hinges on how much participation the brand wants (or how much power to outsource) — and more importantly, how much the crowd cares to contribute.

February 5, 2020

Making It Up 113: Record number of new podcasts in 2019 and the future of fashion PR

On Making It Up 113, Charis and Eugene discuss what it means for podcasting that there were a record number of new podcasts launched in 2019. They also talk about Brian Phillips deciding to close his art and fashion public relations company Black Frame and the shift in fashion public relations as a whole.

February 3, 2020

Do culture and nature evolve in the same way?

A recent study argues that culture actually evolves very slowly — at almost the same rate as nature. But does cultural evolution work so neatly in our current culture?

The Study

In a recently published study titled The pace of modern culture, a group of British researchers used metrics designed by evolutionary biologists to compare the rates of change in a species of bird, two kinds of moth and a snail to:

  • Popular songs: They reviewed Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1960-2010.
  • Cars: They tracked changes in the traits of cars sold in the States between 1950-2010.
  • Literature: They also looked at American, Irish and English novels published between 1840-1890
  • Clinical articles: articles from the British Medical Journal published between 1960-2008.

Their conclusion? The two evolve at about the same rate, which means according to Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and one of the researchers on the study: “We are surprisingly conservative about our choices, and what we like changes very slowly.”

He also likens cultural artifacts to organisms in that they evolve and survive according to whether conditions are hospitable to change or not: “When we make something new, be it a scientific paper or an artwork, we take that thing and throw it into the world and it either lives or dies,” Leroi says. “Its success depends on whether people want it or not, just like natural selection.”

Despite the results, however, Leroi is not concerned about the speed of evolution so much as demonstrating the potential to use tools from one field (in this case, evolutionary biology) to study and track changes in another such as culture.

The other side

Arizona State University human and cultural evolution professor, Charles Perreault holds a different view. He concluded in 2012 that human culture actually moves 50 percent faster than biological evolution. This applies even when controlling for the phenotypic plasticity (the ability of an organism to change in response to its environment) of species with shorter lifespans. Basically, these sorts of species can “iterate” faster and more often over these shorter intervals, but Perreault argues that our cultures still evolve faster in our longer generation times (measured in spans of 20 years).

In his abstract, he also contrasts the biological “vertical” sharing of genetic information (through reproduction) with the transmission of information in culture:

“While cultural information can be transmitted from parents to offspring, it is also transmitted obliquely, between non-parents from a previous generation, and horizontally, between contemporaries. This transmission mode gives cultural evolution the potential to spread rapidly in a population, much like an epidemic disease.”

The Takeaway

Looking at how culture evolves through this lens certainly draws some interesting parallels that support both arguments: for one, the culture of a given society can be slow to adopt change even if it’s constantly exposed to different stimuli and yet it also has the potential to disproportionately influence another or more societies.

We’ve seen the rise of “strong” and “viral” culture exerting undue influence throughout the world, which would lend some troubling evidence to cultural evolution’s problematic origins that followed shortly after the emergence of Darwinism. Is it really a matter of the loudest, most popular (and most funded) culture that survives?

One thing we’ve discussed at length is the idea and impact of media fragmentation. It’s harder than ever to get people on the same wavelength because there’s literally an infinite number of wavelengths for you to tune into. This makes the consolidated sharing of ideas much more difficult than ever.

While history has shown many unfortunate tendencies of this, the power of technology has the power to both perpetuate this trend and amplify smaller, lesser known cultural products and ideas to exert disproportionate influence (to “reproduce”) elsewhere. If these dynamics could be reduced to a science, should we be trying to hack the formula to get the results we want, or should we willfully “devolve” and let cultural nature run its course?


Play Pause