Five Seshat Workshops


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Over the last five weeks I have been away from home, and I find that when I am traveling, it’s difficult to get in the mood for blog-writing. The whole point of blogging for me is that it should be relatively effortless. I typically write blogs in the evenings, and almost never during the workday. When I am in the travel mode, I don’t have those time windows. It’s a pity, because I get an influx of new ideas and potential blog topics precisely when I am meeting new people and visiting new places.

In any case, I am now back in Connecticut and I have a lot of topics to discuss in the next few weeks.

The first part of my trip I was in Oxford, where I ran or participated in five workshops devoted to different aspects of our massive database project, Seshat.

Oxford 1551_1_1

Oxford. Christ Church Meadows (photograph by the author)

The first workshop, organized by Kevin Feeney and Rob Brennan, our knowledge engineering colleagues from the Trinity College Dublin (TCD), was devoted to developing a proposal for Horizon 2020, the huge EU research and innovation program – €80 billion funding that will be disbursed between 2014 and 2020! Folks, that’s billions, not millions

The proposal is to study the evolution of technology (EvoTech) over the long run, using the methods of cultural evolution and complexity science. We have teamed up with the group led by Doyne Farmer, whom I have known from the time when I spent a sabbatical year at the Santa Fe Institute (he is now based at INET – the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford).


The EvoTech proposal is the third that we have submitted to Horizon 2020 this year (all spearheaded by the amazing duo of Kevin and Rob). With the previous two, one was turned down and another was funded, which is not a bad success rate, given how competitive these things are (and how lucrative – the one that succeeded brought in €4 million of funding to the consortium headed by TCD). This is really great news. It means that now we have the resources to move Seshat from the current implementation as Wiki to a full-featured RDF database. It will allow us to connect to other databases using the Linked Data method. Most importantly, Rob and Kevin will be developing a sociotechnical system that will increase our efficiency of gathering historical and archaeological data by an order of magnitude. What it means in plain language is that we will use computers and smart software to do 90 percent of the work that is currently done by humans (our research assistants and postdocs). There is more, and perhaps I will be able to induce Kevin or Rob to explain in non-technical language eventually.

The second workshop was organized by me. It was the first workshop of the project funded by a big grant of the John Templeton Foundation, which focuses on the Z-curve of human egalitarianism (the idea is explained in this blog). For two days we brainstormed on how we can pin down the various hypotheses, what kind of data we need to test them empirically, and how we will go about collecting these data.

Next came the workshop organized by Pieter Francois and Harvey Whitehouse, in which we discussed how we can extend our approach for data gathering, which has been developed for historically attested societies, into the more distant past that is known only archaeologically. What kind of archaeological proxies can we develop for various variables of interest? Some of them are relatively straightforward, for example, estimating the population of ancient cities from their areas in hectares. But others are much more problematic. How do we gain data on the rituals in those societies? I continue to be impressed by how inventive and effective the archaeologists are about gleaning insights into the lives of people who left no records for us to read. There eventually will be a paper on these issues, led by Arek Marciniak, an archaeologist at the University of Poznan.

The fourth workshop took a different tack. It was organized by Joe Manning, an ancient historian at Yale University (actually, he is pretty spry for his age, having climbed Kilimanjaro recently). It brought together a group of scholars with expertise on Egypt, ranging from the Old Kingdom to the Islamic period – that’s more than four millennia. What we did in this workshop was to take one variable at a time (for example, the hierarchical organization of the bureaucracy, the army, and the priesthood) and trace it across the four millennia. It was a remarkably illuminating experience.



The final workshop was spearheaded by Tom Currie and focused on agriculture and resources. We delved into the intricacies of the agricultural technology and how it evolved in different parts of the world. How can we develop a coding scheme that can capture the bewildering variety of cropping methods, including swidden agriculture, two-field and three-field systems, multicropping, polycultures, manuring, plowing, and so on? Understanding the resources available to societies for building states and supporting rulers, bureaucrats, and priests is probably the most important thing we need to know, and certainly is the first logical step in trying to understand how complex large-scale societies evolved.

So this was quite an amazing experience. We finally have the resources we need to transform Seshat from an idea into an incredibly powerful way of learning about our past and gaining understanding of the processes driving human social evolution. Within a year or two we should be able to start analyzing these data. I can’t wait.


Note on the margin: check out this video that explains why we need a database like Seshat

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Quite a marathon

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