The Acceleration of Cultural Change

From Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life

The Acceleration of Cultural Change

From Ancestors to Algorithms

By R. Alexander Bentley and Michael J. O'Brien

Foreword by John Maeda

How culture evolves through algorithms rather than knowledge inherited from ancestors.





How culture evolves through algorithms rather than knowledge inherited from ancestors.

From our hunter-gatherer days, we humans evolved to be excellent throwers, chewers, and long-distance runners. We are highly social, crave Paleolithic snacks, and display some gendered difference resulting from mate selection. But we now find ourselves binge-viewing, texting while driving, and playing Minecraft. Only the collective acceleration of cultural and technological evolution explains this development. The evolutionary psychology of individuals—the drive for “food and sex”—explains some of our current habits, but our evolutionary success, Alex Bentley and Mike O'Brien explain, lies in our ability to learn cultural know-how and to teach it to the next generation. Today, we are following social media bots as much as we are learning from our ancestors. We are radically changing the way culture evolves.

Bentley and O'Brien describe how the transmission of culture has become vast and instantaneous across an Internet of people and devices, after millennia of local ancestral knowledge that evolved slowly. Long-evolved cultural knowledge is aggressively discounted by online algorithms, which prioritize popularity and recency. If children are learning more from Minecraft than from tradition, this is a profound shift in cultural evolution.

Bentley and O'Brien examine the broad and shallow model of cultural evolution seen today in the science of networks, prediction markets, and the explosion of digital information. They suggest that in the future, artificial intelligence could be put to work to solve the problem of information overload, learning to integrate concepts over the vast idea space of digitally stored information.


$24.95 T ISBN: 9780262036955 176 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 15 b&w illus.


John Maeda.


  • An entertaining and thought-provoking analysis of the nature of cultural change and how that nature is being transformed, for good or ill, in our ever-more-connected world. A fresh look at our past, and a tantalizing glimpse of our future.

    Nick Chater

    Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick Business School; coauthor of Creating Language

  • Much of our world is a product of our collective imagination—what we call culture. Understanding cultural evolution is the key to understanding economic, social, and technological evolution. The Acceleration of Cultural Change provides a fascinating, insightful, and engaging account that takes readers from the Stone Age to the Social Media Age.

    Eric Beinhocker

    Executive Director, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, University of Oxford; author of The Origin of Wealth