As Marshall McLuhan insisted in the subtitle to his 1964 Understanding Media, the technologies we invent are best understood as the "extensions of man."  So, if the wheel extended our feet and gunpowder our muscles, what do digital technologies extend?

We believe the answer to that question is our memories.  Our view is that digital systems are themselves largely memory hierarchies and that, as humanity participates in the environments generated by these technologies, these digital memory structures become extensions of our own memory.  Much as writing did 2500 years ago.

While many focus on the "disservices" of a world in which much has been recorded -- often viewing this an an invasion of privacy (i.e. private memories) -- we think that the "services" of such a world also need to be considered.  In partitcular, we are very interested in how such widespread "surveillance" will impact our ability to "make-believe."

Famously, McLuhan et al, have refered to technologies such as radio, film and television as electronic environments.  Much of this analysis is based on the view that it is the human nervous system which has been extended by these technologies -- based on the observation that our nerves, like our electronics are based on "electricity" (although, to be sure, there's also a lot of chemistry involved in the human brain).

We think that digital is different.  Unlike these earlier technologies, digital technology is "grounded" in software/code -- which, in turn, requires elaborate memory hierarchies to function.  Yes, computers also "feed" on electricity but, unlike earlier technologies, this is not the structure of their effects on humans.  It is the structure of our inventions which become the "formal" causes of our behaviors and attitudes.

This fundamental difference means that while many who have employed McLuhan's approach have a great deal to contribute, they also tend towards the wrong conclusions by not differentiating the effects of digital technology from the earlier effects of electronics.  These complications will make it even more difficult for the Center to construct its "intellectual outlier" research faculty.


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