That was the Y2K that wasn’t


‘No planes fell from the sky, but a lot happened to keep them from doing so’.


This is a common view of the Y2K bug among software engineers and IT professionals in Anglo-American societies. For them it may be true that their hard work saved civilization from digitally-challenged-date Armageddon, but everywhere else in the world, they did next to nothing and yet, conspicuously, planes still didn’t fall from the sky.

So what was going on?

The story of Y2K bug is a marvellous example of how our subjective conceptions don’t just shape our view of reality, they shape objective reality itself.

Was the Y2K bug a serious threat or not? You’d think there’d be a straight and clear answer to this question, but it seems impossible to find one. The distinction between subjective and objective truth appears to dissolve before our eyes and if it can do so in relation to a super-expensive, high-stakes, world-wide emergency like Y2K, where else can it similarly dissolve?

The outcome of the Y2K bug has been used as a vindication of the ‘precautionary principle’ but also as a critique of that principle and an argument in favour of the ‘fix on failure’ principle. Most of the positive reporting has focussed on the positive ‘unintended consequences’, the ‘surprising legacy’ of Y2K preparation (especially the structural development of the IT industry) rather than demonstrating that a disaster actually was averted.

Economist John Quiggin has been the single most cogent thinker on Y2K, especially since his measured scepticism predates the benefit of hindsight. Two of the points he makes are especially worth reflecting on: blame-allocation schemes generally produce bad policy; some form of institutionally-sanctioned scepticism is indispensable.

Below is a list of resources, placed in order of increasing depth of coverage/insight.


Newsweek’s list of most overblown fears

Article from Slate Magazine

US Senate Committee final report

Public Radio miniseries – the surprising legacy of Y2K

Phillimore, J and Davison, A (2002) A precautionary tale: Y2K and the politics of foresight. Futures, 34 (2). pp. 147-157.

John Quiggin paper

More Quiggin


For a fourcultures take on this kind of thing, see The Dam Bursts.



What kind of duty is called for in Call of Duty?

Games have several important effects. One is that they train us to accept the premise of the game.

If I don’t accept that a knight moves two spaces forwards and one sideways, I simply can’t play chess. If I don’t accept that mass murder is necessary, I simply can’t play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Reflecting on this latter experience, one commentator wrote:

I thought, You don’t have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn’t.

Trying to avoid the endless killing doesn’t work, any more than changing the knight’s move would in chess. And mostly, we just go along with the premise imposed on us by the structure of the game. In games we learn very quickly which rules we shouldn’t bother challenging. In real life, we have far more freedom of action, but we rely on social constructions of the rules of life to tell us which obstacles we shouldn’t even bother trying to overcome. We are like cattle that never even touch the electric fence. Even as we proclaim our freedom, we corral ourselves.

It’s hard to break out of that paddock. But what we can’t yet achieve politically we can sometimes achieve artistically. As soon as I heard about the extraordinary sales figures of the latest Call of Duty game sequel, I thought this is a very suitable subject for artist/provocateur Joseph DeLappe (of ‘Dead in Iraq’, 2006 and the Second Life Salt Satyagraha, 2008). It turns out he’s already been there, with a machinima collaboration named 6 Days in Call of Duty 4, an ironic take on the ill-fated game Six Days in Fallujah. It seems what made Six Days in Fallujah unsellable was that it was regarded as too realistic.  DeLappe and his collaborator Joshua Diltz have taken this idea and used it to test the limits of what is possible in an ‘acceptable’ shoot-em-up game.

Here’s the download page.

6 Days

Update: The Onion has a satirical take on a ‘realistic’ wargame, Call of Duty 3, in which players can opt to complain about cell phone reception and  be redeployed to Germany to repair humvees for 10 hours a day.

Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.

Do genes drive culture? New developments in culture-gene coevolutionary theory

A recently published  research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).

The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

This leads to a number of questions:

  1. If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
  2. Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
  3. The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context.  This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
  4. The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.


Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650

Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.

Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.

Open access to publicly-funded knowledge

Seattle Public Library

Image credit: Flickr,wheelo50411

I’ve been thinking a lot about the academic journal industry lately, inspired not least by Prof Jason Baird Jackson’s blog posts from a perspective of American Anthropology. I’ve also been inspired by the news that the Ordinance Survey in the UK is to make its maps available for free.

If the public pays for researchers to produce academic articles, why should the public pay a second time over for research libraries to buy back those articles? And a third time in paying the wages of those same academics when they work for ‘free’ editing commercial scholarly journals?

If the Ordinance Survey did what universities do, they’d give their maps away for nothing to Wiley or Blackwells or Routledge, second their staff to edit them for free, then buy them back at extortionate rates just to put them back on their own shelves. Yet when academics do this, everyone seems to think it’s reasonable or at least inevitable. Why?

I’ll write more on this but for now a couple of thoughts:

  1. How is this not a profiteering exercise? Answers on a postcard, please.
  2. Is this profiteering (if that’s what it is) not a very temporary situation, which will be/ is already being made obsolete by converging technologies of knowledge sharing?
  3. Doesn’t the opposition to such practices sometimes go beyond the perfectly reasonable claim that private firms are making money from free labour, and veer towards the possibly less reasonable claim that academia should keep its hands clean of involvement with the ‘for profit’ sector’? Or is it just me?
  4. Oh and doesn’t fake tilt-shift photography look good?

Read more about open access and GM technology.

Tilt shift: When what you see isn’t what you get

Doesn’t tilt shift photography (or the fake photoshop version) look good? Having seen some of these shots it’s hard not to look at the world in a slightly different way.

Reminds me of Patrick Heron’s claim that art doesn’t reflect what we see but rather dictates what we see. In the case of tilt shift, we thought model villages and railways looked that way because they were models and not the real thing. Tilt shift shows something different is happening: we can now make the real thing look just like a model if we wish.

“I have always claimed that painting’s prime function is to dictate what the world looks like … What we imagine to be the ‘objective’ look of everything and anything is largely a complex, a weave of textures, forms and colours which we have learned, more or less unconsciously, from painting, and have superimposed upon external reality. The actual ‘objective’ appearance of things (of anything and everything) is something that does not exist…”
Patrick Heron, 1996 “Solid Space in Cézanne”, Modern Painters Vol 9 (1).

There’s more at Smashing Magazine.

#approvalmatrix – fourfold typologies make it to Twitter

Here’s an older post from the Savage Minds anthropology blog about Mary Douglas’s grid-group typology (the basis of the four cultures explored on this site). It’s basically a mashup of that typology and an alternative scheme deriving from Pierre Bourdieu (if he wrote for the New York Magazine, that is): highbrow/lowbrow; brilliant/despicable.

I like it because I’ve been very interested in the proliferation of fourfold schemes in the social sciences – and here’s another one. In particular I’m interested in whether these schemes are each as radically new as the author or creator always seems to think, or whether there’s some kind of underlying structure that makes superficially different formulations somehow connect.

This particular juxtaposition reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s understanding of creativity, which comes about where

‘a single situation or idea is perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’.

If you’re interested, the approval matrix has been re-purposed and applied to Twitter posts at O’Reilly Radar.

Koestler, Arthur (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Pan. Quoted in William Byers (2007) How Mathematicians Think. Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 28.

Beyond the Culture of Discipline: What makes a Great company and how Cultural Theory can help

D. Douglas Caulkins, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, has used Grid-Group Cultural Theory to appraise and extend Jim Collins’ well known work on organisational culture, Good to Great (which is explained at and about which you can read an article. )

Jim Collins’s empirical study Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (Harper Business, New York, 2001) has made a worldwide impact on management and leadership practice and research. His concept of “culture of discipline” is central to his ideas for achieving enduring, sustainable organizations, whether in the business or nonprofit sectors. In this essay the culture of discipline is re-theorized in the context of Mary Douglas’s grid-group analysis to provide a home within a broader theory which will locate the culture of discipline in relation to alternative cultures. The framework is illustrated with applications in a study of small, high-technology firms in peripheral areas of the UK, leading to the recognition of an organizational form missing from most of the management literature and furthering the exploration of a model of humble and collaborative leadership as an alternative to the model of charismatic or heroic leadership growing out of American management culture.

[Image credit: Woodleywonderworks]

Prof Caulkins has done a very good job of this. Caulkins’ approach is to equate the ‘great company’, with its long-termism and its culture of responsibility, with the Egalitarian bias of Cultural Theory. If this is so, Collins could be said to achieve this without at any point scaring American business leaders off by sounding like some kind of cheerleader for socialism. To recognise this strand in American business thinking is to call into question the easy assumption that the typical American approach is Individualist. Continue reading “Beyond the Culture of Discipline: What makes a Great company and how Cultural Theory can help”

How to be a better tipper: Learning and working the four cultures of tipping

Are you one of those people who are never quite sure whether it’s appropriate to leave a tip, or is it always quite obvious to you? What about when visiting a different country? Do you rely on the tipping section of your guidebook, or do you figure that since you’ll be leaving tomorrow you can freeload and leave nothing? Have you ever insisted on giving a tip and found this insistence offended your hosts, or have you had the opposite experience of offending by walking straight out? Perhaps like Nigel Richardson, trying to get it right leaves you ‘feeling like a chimp at the Ritz’.

Do you understand tipping culture, or is it all just too subtle?

[Image credit: Marcin Wichary]

In the forty-odd years it has been around Grid-group cultural theory has been used to cast light on many kinds of social interaction, and this year it has been applied to the sometimes fraught process of tipping. Continue reading “How to be a better tipper: Learning and working the four cultures of tipping”