Introduction to Cultural Codes

Joachim De Beule

Like all codes of nature, cultural codes are arbitrary mappings between two independent worlds. Examples of cultural codes are the highway code, the Morse code and language.

The highway code establishes a mapping between traffic signals and driving behaviors. Traffic signals and driving behaviors do not exist in the organic world, they are human constructs. Moreover, it only makes sense to have a highway code when several drivers use the same highway system. The traffic code is thus a social construct. It allows human drivers to coordinate.

The Morse code is a mapping between alphanumeric characters and sequences of dots and dashes. Again, the worlds involved and the code that connects them are human constructs. Although the Morse code was invented by a single man – Samuel F.B. Morse – its purpose is to allow communication and coordination over long distances, so that it is in fact also a social construct.

Language is actually an amalgam of different codes. Different worlds are connected depending on the specific form of language under consideration, e.g. speech sounds, gestures and other human behaviors
in dialog, or strings of letters in written language etc. All of these worlds are human, social constructs.
These examples illustrate the following fundamental properties of cultural codes:

  • Cultural codes and the worlds they connect only exist by virtue of human code-makers. They are created as we structure and categorize our sensory-motor modalities and realize relations between them.
  • Cultural codes, like all codes, have a semiotic and dynamic dimension. They are not ''things'' that exist in or by themselves. The Morse code for instance is not just a ''look-up table''. Neither is language just a mapping between ''words'' and their ''meaning''. Conceiving of codes as such without taking into account how they are created and used during cultural semiosis misses the point, so that in fact it is better to speak of coding and languaging [1,2].
  • Cultural codes are social constructs. They arise out of the population-level or ''second order'' conventionalization dynamics resulting from the interaction between human code-makers [3,4,5,6,7,8].
  • The codes of culture are what enable and at the same time force people to coordinate into a higher level of organization or culture.

The question arises why the human species is so much better at creating culture than any other species. It is not the case that only humans have learning abilities or are capable of interpreting the world and make abductive inferences. These capacities already came with the evolution of the brain's ''second modeling system'', which is also present in other animals. But whereas learning in most animals is conditional or emulative, human learning is imitative by default. It involves `joint attention' and an understanding of the intentionallity behind instrumental acts [9,10,11,12]. Moreover, humans have a strong tendency to enforce social norms and conventions on others [13,14], and to comply to existing conventions even if they do not make sense [12,15], which is precisely what seems to be crucial for the spreading of conventions [4]. All these things came with the evolution of the brain's ''third modelling system'', which made it possible to realize and explore a new world of tools and arbitrary symbols, or in short a world of culture [16,17,18,19].


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