Saturday, October 02, 2004

Style over substance

An academic at UCL has apparently proved that 'fashion and fad' are meaningless.
Such cultural patterns are identical to those produced by a random copying algorithm: Their analysis of the popularity of baby names, pop album sales, dog breeds and the line-and-dot decorations on ancient clay pots has demonstrated that the rise and fall of trends in all of these areas follows a neat mathematical distribution that is predicted by a random copying model.

I am not sure how sound this is - I know almost nothing in this field + haven't read the paper.

My main query is how can you show that the outcome of a random process is void of substance? Surely you need to measure something other than the process. A random process could presumably produce something useful, although it might be very inefficient. How can the process inform us of the outcome in this sense? Hayek taught us that a process does not have to be directed to be useful. Hayekian process is not undirected (it relies on the invisible hand) but it is not directed as a whole. Rather it is directed on the micro level which leads to efficient macro outcomes.

Also, very few things in culture are 100% random. I can't think of many processes that are immune from cultural influences, so trends like the popularity of a particular name are presumably not random in that they are driven by celebrity, which in turn is driven by media, etc...


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