the mind of culture: tops-down or bottoms-up?

Gerold Firl (
9 Jul 1996 20:17:41 GMT

I will use this post to examine some of the interesting
questions which appear when we try to view a culture as a complex
adaptive system which interacts with similar systems; it processes
information, acts, reacts, and seems to operate as if it were a
semi-conscious (?) entity with something like a mind of its own.

At the risk of excessive anthropomorphism, let us examine culture as
if it had a mind, a soul, a will; the attributes of the individuals
who comprise the culture. Lets see where that leads. I think it could
lead to some interesting conclusions - or at least some interesting

One of the first questions that occured to me is this: if a culture
has a mind, how are decisions made? How does the culture "make up its
mind"? I see this as a critically important question, if only because
of the seductive simplicity of the tops-down model so often seen in
analyses of current events. By "tops-down" I refer to the model where
a decision is made by a small clique of individuals (or even a single
individual) who then impose their view on the entire culture. This is
often formulated in terms of a "conspiracy". The conspiracy model is
attractive because it is simple, easy to understand, and has the
additional benefit of allowing responsibility to be placed on someone

The counterpart of the tops-down model is *bottoms-up*, where the
culture mind is made-up by the attitudes and ideas of the mass of
individuals within the culture. This approach is not as popular as
tops-down; it's more complicated to visualize, the most important
factors are often completely unconscious, and it places an
uncomfortable burden of responsibility on each one of us for the fate
of all of us.

In actuality, both tops-down and bottoms-up information processing and
decision making play a role in how a culture will react in a given
situation, but I will argue that we need to pay more attention to the
latter. Cultures are large, unwieldy, distributed systems, comprised
of largely autonomous sub-units (that's us). They're hard to control,
especially if an attempt is made to steer them in a direction that is
inimical to the desires and ideas of a large part of the population.
And while history abounds with examples of conflict between the ruling
classes and their political organizations with subject populations,
those conflicts operate within tightly circumscribed limits. Those
limits are established by the common assumptions, within the culture,
about what constitutes proper relations between members of the
culture. Taking a cross-cultural view, we see that the range of
political options under contention when cultures are involved in
internal conflict are very narrow; most of the options were ruled-out
at an unconscious level by the participants ahead of time, because
they are inconsistant with the assumptions of that culture.

Here are some examples of issues which are often analyzed in terms of
conspiracies or tops-down manipulation, but which could more
effectively and accurately be viewed in terms of bottoms-up or the

deficit spending
military adventures overseas
ghetto drug abuse and law enforcement
fiscal policy, unemployment, and inflation
IMF/world bank economic austerity guidelines for loan recipients

violent/exploitative entertainment
sensationalistic news coverage

All these are areas where resort to conspiracy models are common, to
the detriment of both understanding and our ability to find solutions.

One example comes to mind which may serve as a counter: the bosnian
war. It is often viewed as the result of age-old ethnic hatreds, and
while they are real and significant, the extent to which they have
been artificially fanned by the serbian and croatian regimes seems to
be under-appreciated.

It is inevitable that some tops-down decision making occurs, since
different people have different levels of influence on public policy.
Rich and powerful people have much more influence than the weak and
the poor. But it should be understood that generally such influence
acts like a small rudder on a large boat; slight adjustments can be
made to the course, but there is no turning back from the inertia and
momentum of the popular mass.

When we look at problems like the american litigation situation, such
as the woman who was awarded a huge settlement because she scalded
herself with a hot cup of mcdonalds coffee, we often hear pleas to
"change the civil justice system". This is missing the real problem.
The problem is not with the system, but rather with the people.
Systems can be changed with a flourish of the pen, which makes them
juicy targets for reform; people, on the other hand, have their own
ideas, which are difficult to change. Ridiculous legal settlements are
the result of the attitudes of the *juries*, not of the system itself.
The idea that everyone is *entitled* to happiness is the result of a
complex set of circumstances affecting american ideas about risk,
reward, and expectations of prosperity; too big a topic to tackle
here. But these attitudes, within the minds of jurors, are what has
created the legal precedents which compensate people for their own
mistakes. These attitudes make up the mind of culture. Each one of us
are personally responsible for the future of the world.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf