Culture, Collective Memory, and Blockchains

When you think about blockchain technology, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps it's your crypto portfolio. Maybe you ponder how decentralized governance works. Or you consider the future of NFTs.

I'll hazard a guess that you're not looking at blockchains as a tool for collective intelligence. That's fair, currently the biggest applications for blockchains are in the financial and art spaces. However, there's also a lot of exploration and experimentation with blockchains for social use, including as a tool to help us think better together. That's the collective intelligence bit, thinking better together.

One of the key components of thinking as a collective is memory, and in this post I'll explain why I'm keen on on blockchain-mediated memory. My exploration is through the lens of communications, media, and culture: from orality to literacy to digital. I'll end with a jumping off point: what's so exciting about blockchain tech as a tool for digital, collective memory?

Humans and Culture

Let's start off easy with culture, you know, all the stuff we humans produce, and the practices we use to create said stuff. From works of art, to norms and customs, to institutions, to practices and habits, and technical innovations.

How we manage to create so much cultural output, in so many different ways can be explained by three very human features:

  1. generally speaking: we're social, we like to connect
  2. related to #1, we learn socially and have a preference for learning together, for developing knowledge collaboratively
  3. related to #2, the outputs of our social learning are cultural processes and artifacts that accumulate over time

Perhaps more simply put: we're social learners who create culture which is passed down over time. In this way, "culture is a system of inheritance" - a kind of living, collective memory.

Speed Running Human History: From Imagistic to Oral to Written Cultural Traditions

This living, collective memory is created, passed and stored in various media forms. What began as symbolic, visual artifacts, moved into speech, and then writing. As the medium of communication changed, so too did our cultural artifacts.

It all moved pretty slowly, too:

  • 300,000 years ago: we communicate largely through visual artifacts: cave paintings and other such markings
  • 150,000 years ago: spoken language shows up and we finetune the arts of orality through story, riddle, proverbs, legends, tales, and so on
  • 5,000 years ago: writing makes its way into the human scene and once again, a whole new slew of communication modalities emerge. New media forms of writing on clay or wooden tablets, papyrus or parchment scrolls, and then the paper! Pamphlets, letters and postcards, newspapers, books, novels, magazines and catalogues, and on, and on.

This turning of the cultural evolutionary wheel is driven largely by our sociality, and our desire to learn together. As we find novel ways of communicating, of connection, we emerge new forms of cultural memory; each successive media building off of and including the prior forms.

For many, many millennia, we have lived with the myriad mediums born out of an imagistic, oral and literate culture, helping us connect, collaborate and cooperate. A slowly burning, sustainable fire of human memory. And then, the internet happened, throwing gasoline on the fire.

The Internet: Cultures Moves Online, and Consolidates Into Corporations

With the birth of the internet, our visual, oral and written cultures - once geographically distributed - were all suddenly accessible through a network of computers. This was indeed a major turn of the cultural evolutionary wheel, and so began human history as a digitally networked society.

It all happened almost over night: it's only been a few decades since the advent of the public world wide web. And in these last 30 or so years, we've experienced yet another Cambrian explosion of cultural memory innovation.

This go-round, we figured out how to package a mix of visual, oral/audio, and written media forms into digital artifacts. And given the instantaneous connection of the internet across space-time, this transition into the information era is momentous. It's staggering, really, the sheer quantity of human cultural memories accessible at any time, anywhere - all through a computer interface.

So we've invented ways to manage our digital media artifacts, our cultural memories. Currently, the largest repositories of our cultural memory are databases controlled by "trusted 3rd party entities", aka tech corporations. Yep, you've got it: Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter and the like.

While the big tech companies have helped humanity in creating global social networks, connecting billions of people across space and time, they are now the managers, and in some ways the gatekeepers, of our memories, our knowledge.

This makes me a bit squirmy, something as valuable as our collective memory shouldn't be subject to a select few in leadership positions at a company, nor should we allow financial markets to so strongly sway our collective memory.

And then, blockchains entered the scene.

Blockchains: New Frontier for Relational Media

Blockchains propel another turn of the cultural evolutionary wheel in terms of how we create, pass, and store our memories. Where the web and tech companies offered us a digital network connection and mode of global communication, blockchains offer a novel form of connection and communication.

The innovation of blockchains can be explained through a few simple tenets:

  • data is stored in blocks
  • blocks are stored in a public database, in the form of a distributed ledger
  • blocks are tamper resistant, once they're input in the database, they cannot be changed
  • all blocks are linked to prior blocks and include a timestamp
  • blocks are shared, or transacted, in a social (peer-to-peer) fashion

While the predominate use cases for this architecture have been financial and artistic (NFTs), alongside the Relational squad, I've spent the last couple of years experimenting with blockchains in various sociocultural applications.

From the pixel art project Exquisite Land, to the internal blogging tool OurLog, to the small-group dialogue space Gathern - what we're most interested in is a world wherein our digital media artifacts are created in a relational context:

Blockchains store not just the information necessary to render an artifact but also contextual information about who made it, the nature of their relationship, where the artifact is referenced and collaged with, and how all of this changes over time.

If we're being honest, we've really got more questions than answers at this stage of the blockchain game:

  • how are our digital cultural memories created, shared, stored when our data has a richer context, a relational quality?
  • what role does machine learning and AI play in navigating these relational data sets?
  • how can we build novel, playful interfaces to explore the potential of this space?

We're building Relational as an organization of social-first builders who will answer these questions by building tools in the digital medium, using blockchain and AI technologies. We're just getting started, and hopefully soon we'll have some semblance of answers to our earliest queries into human communication, memory, and connection.

Thank you to Dave Gorum and Jon Borichevskiy for the editorial support in writing this piece.

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