Between 2000 and 2002 the three volumes of Manuel Castells' illuminating 1,500-page work The Information Age , began to appear and multiply in its editions, reprints and translations. It has been the only attempt at a Gesamtwerk of the digital age, and it was written in a haste dictated by the fact that Castells' life was at the time threatened by mortal illness (but later saved by surgery).
In trying to write down every understanding about society and the internet's impact upon it, he came to be the only person of our time who has tackled the entire realm of contemporary knowledge. The Information Age undertakes a remit of a kind that has not been tackled by academics since the 19th century.
These conversations, conducted by The THES 's Martin Ince, provide a highly interesting commentary by Castells on his own phenomenon and a (very compact) tour d'horizon of his ideas about every current political and social issue and every continent.
His opinions stem from a recognisable starting point: the convergence of ideas about modern networks ("real" as well as computer-based) with ideas about the role of identity, the anchoring of people's minds in their history, geography, cultures. What they talk about is the whole of our our 21st-century transportation into a new social and intellectual landscape.
One can pick out merely what seem to be the nodal points of Castells' system. The US is at the centre of the modern world not because of its military might but because of its acceptance of innovation and the welcome it provides for knowledge. It is able to propagate its way of life across the world because of the science and technology burgeoning in its universities, and its openness to the world and immigration (half of its PhDs are granted to people who come to study from abroad), in its institutional flexibility and its entrepreneurial culture. The US is a society made up of people who went there to do what they wanted to do. Its ideology of freedom, notwithstanding its appalling inequalities, "appeals to the young, to the independently minded and to the daring of all countries".
Castells abandoned the left long ago but has not become an apologist for the modern knowledge corporation; he says that history has no direction and the one navigating passion present throughout these conversations is his engagement with the personal freedoms that the networks can supply. He points to the creative role of modern social movements, such as the greens who use our increasing knowledge of ecosystems to foresee the consequences of human action.
He points to the positive value of "glocalism", which enables the networked power centres of the world to coexist with enhanced regional identity in, say, Catalonia and Scotland. He has a good word for life tenure in universities as a protection against bureaucrats and speculators. In fact, he is an unashamed apologist for the confident university, dedicated to the production of knowledge. Absent now in Europe, surviving in Britain and flourishing in the US, these institutions are essential to economic development, with the social sciences being the key to other forms of scientific knowledge.
The fundamental feature of good universities is their independence, rooted in ideology, tradition and networks of social protection. "The cultural conservatism of universities, and their aristocratic elitism, does not constitute a sufficient argument to downgrade them into human resource departments of the corporate world." Interdisciplinary research is the essential tool of modern discovery.
Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.
Conversations with Manuel Castells
Author - Manuel Castells and Martin Ince
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 174
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2848 6 and 2849 4