The Center is starting its research effort with an unusual premise: there are now 3 Spheres which are driving global affairs.  As best we can tell, this approach is unique to the Center.  We are deliberately replacing the earlier notion of civilizations with a new one, which we term Spheres.

By this we mean that the East (particularly China but not limited to them) and the West (primarily the US and Europe but also not limited to them) are now moving in directions that are indepedent of each other.  Furthermore, we believe that Digital -- which is based on technology that isn't even human -- needs to be seen as its own separate Sphere, considered at the same level of analysis as East and West.  We are not "citizens of the world," but instead humanity is spread out among potentially conflicting spheres each with global reach.

As veteran tech-writer Ellen Ullman has commented, "This is an unprecedented situation.  Not only will humanity have to deal with foreign civilizations that have all the same capabilities as their own but, for the first time, we will also have to consider an alien entity as well.  Never before has our need to understand the other been so urgent."

The difference between East and West are ancient and cannot be ignored.  As these civilizations developed their own technologies for literacy (circa 500BC), they diverged.  One picked an ideo/pictographic system and the other came under the influence of the alphabet.  These two technologies have had profound effects on humanity -- dividing us in ways that spoken language could not.  As Harvard scholar Micheal Puett has suggested, East and West have developed into cultures with "opposite" attitudes about the most basic issues.  One, he suggests, is structured about bringing "chaos" to "order" (West) whereas the other has adopted a structure which brings "order" to "chaos" (East). 

While it has become common-place for some to wring their hands over the "decline" in their own civilization (often expressed as techno-dystopianism) or, alternately, to imagine a "singularity" in which everything -- organic and digital -- merge (sometimes considered techno-utopian), we are not inclined to take either of these trajectories.  For the Center, such approaches are viewed as getting in the way of our ability to understand what is actually happening.

Instead, we consider the circumstances on Earth to be without historic parallels.  Not only can one Sphere not conquer/absorb another but digital technology -- a Sphere in its own right -- has already fundamentally inter-penetrated the human Spheres.

As a result, the usual views of these matters will simply no longer work.  Indeed, without an rich and powerful understanding of the effects of digital technology on civilizations -- East and West -- we simply will not be able to navigate the future.  It is this understanding which the Center intends to pursue.


Mark Stahlman

The Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL) is a not-for-profit strategic research group dedicated to understanding the effects of digital technologies on civilizations -- both East and West.

-Mark Stahlman