TALKS@MFM: Simon DeDeo (2016)

Information Theory, Big History, and the Minds of Others[Sussex Humanities Lab Seminar Series]” by DR SIMON DEDEO, April 25, 2016 [Video Recording]  at the School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex, April 25, 2016


When did the French Revolution become revolutionary? How did pre-20th Century London manage violence? How did Darwin synthesize Victorian science to write the ‘On the Origin of Species’? Historical archives are the raw material that can answer questions like these, and information theory provides new ways to understand the thoughts and experiences of the individuals who created them. Invented to describe the flow of signals through the transcontinental telephone network, information theory can be used to quantify both the processing of vast bureaucracies and the attention and cognition of individuals. Simon DeDeo provided an introduction to the theory, and—drawing on recent collaborative research with scientists and scholars in the humanities—three case studies described above. He showed how we can leverage the hard labour of digital archivists to get a new picture of history and, often, a glimpse of the minds—elite and non-elite—of the past.


Simon DeDeo is external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute and assistant professor at Indiana University in Complex Systems and in Cognitive Science, where he runs the Lab for Social Minds. The Lab conducts research aimed at understanding both the origins and the possible futures of human society. Recent collaborative work ranges from the centuries-long timescales of linguistic evolution, decade-by-decade shifts in European culture, the month-by-month dynamics of cooperation in indigenous society, day-by-day renegotiation of implicit collusion in distributed economies, and the second-by-second emergence of social hierarchies in online systems such as Wikipedia and in the social animals. The Civilizing Process in London’s Old Bailey used text mining jury trials at London’s Central Criminal Court between the late 18th and early 20th centuries to investigate the emergence of a new bureaucratic and social order.

Video production by Catalina Balan