Cultural evolution in digital societies

The researchers in the project are studying the emergence and consequences of new technologies for the dissemination and processing of information, based on evolutionary thinking.

There is a pressing concern about the consequences of digital information technologies on human society. For instance, how will these technologies affect cooperation, exploitation, equality, and democracy? How will they impact the quality of the information that is circulated and the spread of knowledge and misinformation? As machines becoming increasingly autonomous, how can the consequences on society be foreseen?

The starting point of this research is the hypothesis that the emergence of modern IT, such as computer software, the internet, social media, databases and AI, can be understood as “a transition in evolution”, in which the way in which information is stored, spread and manipulated undergoes drastic change. A number of transitions of this kind have occurred during the history of life on Earth, and also during the history of humankind, with the advent of language and later the printed word.

In the burgeoning field of cultural evolution, studies are under way of how information is disseminated, and societies formed on the basis of current technologies. The researchers will build on evolutionary models and insights to study how conditions change when new information pathways are formed, when AI are capable of processing and transmitting information on their own, and when they act with increasing autonomy from human control.

Digital information technologies promise to have far-reaching implications for cultural evolution in general. The overall purpose of the project is to study these implications, and how individuals and society are impacted, with an emphasis on:

  • Knowledge and misinformation
  • Polarization and segregation
  • Social influence and trust

The researchers will study these issues using two distinct evolutionary analyses. The first builds on extant theories in the field of cultural evolution by developing mathematical models and agent-based computer simulation to encompass a range of digital information technologies, from databases to artificial intelligence, to electronic life forms. The second analysis is a comparative study of the consequences of known evolutionary transitions in biological evolution and in human history. The findings will be used to make predictions about potential consequences of digital information technologies and will also be compared with the results from the project’s mathematical models and simulations.

Insights from the project may improve public awareness and provide information for decision makers on the implications of new information technologies in relation to political decisions.

The project is interdisciplinary, combining epistemology, evolutionary thinking, psychology, social science, and mathematics.

Cultural evolution in digital societies

Principal investigator:
Magnus Enquist

Fredrik Jansson
Anandi Hattiangadi

Stockholm University

SEK 9.2 million