An Information-Theoretic Scale for Cultural Rule Systems

Gross, Jonathan L.

Important cultural messages are expressed in nonverbal media such as food, clothing, or the allocation of space or time. For instance, how and what a group of persons eats on a particular occasion may convey public information about that occasion and about the group of persons eating together. Whereas attention seems to be most commonly directed toward the individual character of the information, the present concern is the quantity of public information, as observed in the pattern of nonverbal cultural signs. To measure this quantity, it is proposed that the pattern of cultural signs be encoded as a sequence of abstract symbols (e.g. letters of the alphabet) and its complexity appraised by a suitably adapted form of the measure of Kolmogorov and Chaitin. That is, an algorithmic language is constructed and the mathematical information quantity is reckoned as the length of the shortest program that yields the sequence. In this cultural context, the measure is called "intricacy". By focusing on syntactic structure and pattern variation rather than on background levels, intricacy resists some influences of material wealth that tend to distort comparisons of individuals and groups. A compact mathematical overview of the theory is presented and an experiment to test it within the social medium of food sharing is briefly described.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Computer Science
Department of Computer Science, Columbia University
Columbia University Computer Science Technical Reports, CUCS-011-81
Published Here
October 18, 2011