RAND Corporation (Marshall):  The initial idea for the Center came up in a mid-2012 breakfast where Mark Stahlman and Dave Farber decided that what was needed was a "Digital RAND" to study the impact of digital technology on society.  The notion was that RAND had been formed in the late-1940s from a select group of researchers tasked to think through the implications of the "nuclear bomb," whereas today what we are living with are the effects of the "digital bomb" on all of our lives.  Then, Mark's old friend Phil Midland, with whom he first travelled to China in 1997, was brought into the discussion -- leading to a series of meetings with Andy Marshall, who had been a part of the early days at RAND before founding the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon.  Marshall's organizational essay (draft version, early 2014), "Perspective -- The Flaring of Intellectual Outliers: An Organizational Interpretation of the Generation of Novelty in the RAND Corporation" (published in 2015, co-authored by Mia Augier and James March), then served as a foundational template for the effort to organize CSDL.

Centre for Culture and Technology (McLuhan): Following his success with his anthropologist colleague Edmund "Ted" Carpenter in the Explorations effort in the 1950s, Marshall McLuhan launched his own Centre for Culture and Technology in the early 1960s at the University of Toronto.  This work began in 1953 with a Ford Foundation grant to organize a seminar on "Changing Patterns of Language and Behavior and the New Media of Communications."  In 1956, McLuhan and Carpenter published their first widely read summary with the title "The New Languages," underscoring how new media technologies should be understood as languages in their own right and intersecting the lively debates at that time about the ways that language shape behaviors and attitudes.  In many ways, this work was a continuation -- albeit increasingly focused on the effects of television -- of the famous 1930s Radio Research Project at Princeton and Columbia Universities. Since first reading McLuhan when he was a college student, Mark has considered himself to be a "disciple" of McLuhan, whose "metaphorical" approach to pattern recognition became the deliberate basis of his successful stock-picking career on Wall Street.  CSDL hopes to pick up where McLuhan left off in his "sensory" studies, developing a thorough understanding of how our "memory" is extended by digital technologies.

Norbert Wiener's "Genius Project" (MIT): Mark's father was a protege of Norber Wiener, beginning when his his father arrived at MIT just before WW II.  When Mark was growing up, he recalls being told of Wiener's career and, in particular, how Wiener was forced out of the field of Cybernetics -- a term that Wiener had coined in 1946, with a group including Mark's father -- when he started to raise uncomfortable questions about the social/cultural implications of digital computing.  Subsequently, Wiener and his closest associates, including Giorgio de Santillana and Karl Deutsch, withdrew from Cybernetics and organized what he called his "Genius Project" in the hopes of recording the influences of historic geniuses on human history.  Mark presented a paper on Wiener's project at an IEEE conference on the 50th anniversary of Wiener's death in 2014, which introduced many details of those tumultuous years for the first time publicly.  Much as the early RAND sought to collect "intellectual outliers," the Center hopes to build a "faculty" of today's outliers, who might well have been considered by Wiener as "geniuses" for their ability to recognize patterns in contemporary events.

Harvard University Department of Government (Huntington): The effects of new technologies are both personal and broadly social and the study of civilizations in the 20th century passed from Arnold Toynbee (Royal Institute of International Affairs) to Carroll Quigley (Georgetown) to Samuel Huntington (Harvard).  In the 1990s, Huntington attempted to introduce the notion of a "clash" between civilizations as the Grand Strategic successor to the just-ended Cold War.  Two of those involved with the Center worked with Prof. Huntington: co-founder Phil Midland, who studied with him while still a Navy officer in the 1980s and Tom Lipscomb, who tried to clear the way for Huntington in such venues as the Council on Foriegn Relations.  The failure of this effort, driven by the continuting commitment of many to an out-dated notion of "globalism," has now been thoroughly swept aside by digital technology.  The Center has taken up this analytical challenge with its theme of the "3 Spheres" -- having replaced the earlier notion of "civilizations" with multiple "Spheres," each of which has full global reach and each of which has developed an "operating system for society" (OSS) based on its incorporation of digital technology with its own cultural legacy.  And, for the first time, the Center will take up the study of a "Digital Sphere" which is autonomous from human civilizations, echoing the early concerns of Norbert Wiener in his 1950 "The Human Use of Human Beings."


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