Old(er) research interests

This text was written soon after completing my undergrad thesis. Some things have changed, many themes are still the same

Brief Description of Research Interests——

July 2001

I’ve recently started referring to my area of concentration as “Cultural Mechanics” In the broadest sense, I’m interested in the fundamental parameters underlying the phenomena of cultural transmission and real-world socially mediated information exchange. Obviously there are tremendous number of areas which can fit under such a heading. I’m interested in evolutionary theory and questions about gene-culture co-evolution and the impact of the inclusion of cultural parameters into fitness descriptions. I’m intrigued by work being done on mathematical descriptions of cultural transmission processes.

I see questions about interface design and environmental perception and cognition as being implicitly related to questions about culture, so I’m devoting some time to ideas about graphical design and techniques for the effective presentation and communication of information. I’m interested in what the field of social psychology has to say about patterns in social structure and the communication and interpretation of information by individuals. I’ve done some reading in cognition, semantics, and perceptual theory as well. Obviously culture is a crucial element in anthropology and economics, but I have yet to devote much time to these areas.

I recently completed my undergraduate thesis which touches on the implications of social networks on the transmission of information and culture. I discussed some of the findings about biases and patterns in communication. I also developed some crude methodologies for measuring and tracking communication patterns on the Bennington College campus -mostly employing a social network approach. The thesis also included preliminary analysis of my data from a multi-wave, web-based name recognition and conversational frequency survey of the current freshmen class.

Part of me doesn’t believe that the beauty and craziness and sheer creativity of people can really be reduced to a set of differential equations – no matter how complex. It is more that I am searching for simple classes of systems in which some of the more salient features of culture and social process can still arise. My hope is that if I can begin to understand the dynamics and relevant parameters of a few simple systems my understanding and appreciation of the real messy world will deepen. Although it seems unlikely that any theoretical construct can be complex and detailed enough to be deterministically predictive of behavior, a model which is a least qualitatively accurate or in line with the actual processes seems to be a less dangerous framework for policy and decision making than one that is wholly disconnected from the actual dynamics of culture and social structure.

There are several directions I’d like to take in future work. For one, I’d like to work on developing methodologies for tracking culture and information transmission in social processes. I’ve done some projects in the past in which I adapted some medical image analysis software to extract spatio-temporal trajectories of people in video recordings of public spaces. I’d like to do further research and experimentation to see if this is a viable technique for empirical data collection. For example, are there consistent, measurable deflections of trajectories when an information sources like a television enters a persons visual field? Can time spent in interaction be correlated with some measure of information exchange? (Interaction logging and semantic indexing also may be promising areas…)

I hope to do further research on social network based descriptions of cultural transmission. I’m especially interested in developing and exploring simulations models which explicitly include temporal dynamics and probabilistic or “fuzzy” connectivity. I think there may be some interesting questions about their information theoretical properties and correspondence to neural network descriptions.

Although I’m not experienced in low-level languages like C (or in the UNIX OS environment), I’m pretty well versed in Java. I have experience in several other simulation and scripting languages (REPAST) and I’m quite good at adapting to new environments. Mathematical computation is not my strong point, but I’ve got good analytic skills and I’m most comfortable with mathematical descriptions and concepts. I’ve got some background in social psychology, information theory, and dynamical systems. I’ve had a pretty good overview of most complex systems related fields and concepts, and some experience with non-liner data analysis. (Mostly in a Macintosh port of the TISEAN package). I’ve recently become familiar with several social network analysis visualization programs (UCINET, Pajek, Stocnet, etc) and concepts. I’m also got some experience doing graphic design, digital media, and web-work.

My defense against spending too much time staring at computer screens is to play music, and work totally different jobs. I have some background in technical theatre, (set construction, etc) due to four years as a master carpenter in Bennington College’s scene shop. I love the challenge of pulling all the various elements and people together to support a good performance.

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