Ties that bind and tear

The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture - The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture - The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture
September 4, 1998

These three volumes provide a monumental and coherent account of the economic, social, personal and cultural changes that are occurring around the world in the age of computerisation. This is not, however, just another book proclaiming the information revolution and prophesying utopia or dystopia. The conception of the work is vast, but it is performed with such clarity and comprehensiveness that one cannot imagine the work getting out of date for a very long time, despite the fact that it is examining rapidly changing phenomena. So full are the shelves now with shallow and indulgent works on the postmodern condition, essays trapped in their own technological determinism or narrow moralism or political wishful thinking, that it has seemed unlikely that a space would be found for an enduring work of sociology examining the new world as it is changing. But Manuel Castells has found and filled that space on the shelf - and for a long time to come.

Why should we put information technology at the heart of the transformation that has globalised the economic system, reduced communism to ashes, intensified everywhere a retreat into religious fundamentalism, ignited the fires of raging nationalisms, marginalised trade unionism and created a new militant environmentalism? Castells begins by showing how this technology has captured all the processes that constitute human societies and altered the terms within which they function. Printing, too, undoubtedly exercised a substantial transforming effect on late medieval societies, and those were societies in which many were illiterate, where the influence was necessarily slow and unidimensional. But the depth and suddenness of the impact of electronic-based information technology is a result of its pervasiveness throughout the social structure. Everyone is immediately affected by it. The industrial system that is being transformed itself prepared the way for the vastness of the influence of electronic text, with its incomparable memory storage capabilities, flexibility and interactive facility. It is now ubiquitous and overcomes the constraints of space and time.

Stephen J. Gould argues that gradualism is not intrinsic to the process of evolutionary change, but a cultural bias, the response of 19th-century liberalism to a world in a state of revolution. The history of the world reads as a series of stable states interspersed by sudden convulsions, major events that make possible a later period of stability. For Castells the last years of this century are being characterised by the hurried arrival of a new technological paradigm, with information machines at its core. The new information society has its roots in 1970s California, because that was a milieu in which established patterns of behaviour, both social and industrial, were being customarily disregarded. California happily fed into the material world the liberationist spirit of the 1960s social movements, and this set of values accelerated the speed and, through constant feed-back, multiplied the scope of the rapidly diversifying technological innovations. Moreover, the engineering of the technological shift took place as a result of a combination of 1960s values and an intensification of the cold war, for the new network architecture that led to the Internet originated in the response of the United States' Department of Defense to Soviet ability to attack western communications: the origin of the Internet was an application of Maoist guerrilla tactics, dispersing one's resources around a vast terrain to overcome a superior enemy.

Today Silicon Valley is lined with imported research institutions, belonging to transworld corporations, symbolically enacting the ending of territorial nationhood and the establishment of the global economy, the concepts of network and flow replacing those of space and time. Increasingly our society is structured around networks, and at global level individuals, groups, regions, whole countries are switched on and off according to their relevance to the relentless flow of strategic decisions. The network is the shaping influence of everything personal and everything public.

The communications technology enables friendships as much as businesses to flourish regardless of the realities of time and space. The clusters of relationships that constitute networks are altering the shape and nature of all societies, changing political processes, all the forms of identity, all our communal loyalties and all of our beliefs. At the same time global markets, similarly transformed by networks, have become the single common dynamic, their needs the defining realities, transcending all other notions of good and evil. We live in a network society.

Thus the silicon innovation has burgeoned into a wholly new system for organising the human experience - a highly dynamic, open system, well suited to a capitalist economy that needs innovation, globalisation and utter flexibility among workers and firms. For network society comes to represent a qualitative change in the business of being human. A new social order appears, an automated random sequence of events derived from the uncontrollable logic of markets. All the major functions and processes of societies come to be organised into networks, linked up around the world, while subordinate functions are fragmented and disconnected from one another. Infinite social distance appears between the meta-network, where power resides and cultural codes are created, and most individuals, activities and locales. "Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of network logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power and culture." Presence or absence in the network defines the relationships of power and determines the full range of outcomes in respect of the construction of identity, social movements, gender relationships, the condition of the state and the political process.

All of these are systematically examined and theorised as the three substantial volumes proceed. Castells is particularly interesting in his account of the resistance identities, the results of a refusal by some to be flushed away with the detritus of a vanishing patriarchal society. There is an explosion of fundamentalist movements around the world that take up a holy text - whether Bible or Koran - to use it as a banner of despair, as a weapon of rage. From Afghanistan to the midwest of the United States they represent the most uncompromising forms of challenge to domination by informational capitalism, and their potential access to weapons of mass destruction must throw all of the optimistic prognostications of our society into doubt.

Castells studies in some detail Mexico's Zapatistas, the American militia and patriot movements of the 1990s, the moderate and rational Catalan nationalism of Jordi Pujol, and Japan's fanatical Aum Shinrikyo - all very different movements with diverse social and cultural roots, all challenging the process of globalisation on behalf of their self-constructed identities. These are all manifestations of what Alain Touraine calls "le grand refus". Some claim to represent the true interests of a country, some appeal to the wider interests of humankind. What they confront is a hitherto successful neo-liberal fantasy of creating a global economy independent of human societies. The crisis of the patriarchal family disrupts the process by which cultural codes are transmitted between the generations and thus shakes the foundations of personal security.

People, including children, have to find new ways of living. The political ideologies that were enshrined in nation-state-based liberal democratic institutions or in trade unions suddenly lose their meaning - and their appeal. The new resistance identities flow into the religious vacuum as well as the political. What they are resisting are the values and consequences of radical individualism.

People attempt to affirm the transcendent value of family and community as God's will. The women's movement fills some of the space of vanished patriarchalism. The environmental movement turns into something more than a defence of nature - it becomes a project that tries to reintegrate humankind and nature. As the networks dissolve the barriers of time and dislocate the forms of consciousness that have previously inhabited defined space, people try to anchor themselves in places and recall historic memories. They search for eternal codes that cannot be broken; they see themselves as physical manifestations of eternal values, the carriers of the will of God through the whirlwind of the information flows.

One question is, in what form is the state capable of coping with the demands of the new identity-based social movements as well as defensive movements from both workers and consumers in the conditions of globalised, informationalised capitalism. The global economy is coming to be governed by a set of multilateral institutions, at the core of which is an elite group of governments and a global elite of experts. Nation states will survive but without their essential sovereignty, subjected to tremendous internal stress, a series of tattered flags, banding together in multilateral networks with unequal responsibilities, locked into a variety of dominations and subordinations. The European Union is emerging without a clear mission, ambivalently uncertain whether its historic role is to build a European society or merely to help a series of European nations not to become the economic colony of Asia and America. The difficulty of nations is that they have to accept the pecking order of geopolitics regardless of the feelings of their citizens. "Nation states have been transformed from sovereign subjects into strategic actors." A new communalism builds and maintains states in the globalised society but it simultaneously weakens them, questioning their very role by reviving submerged internal identities. (Examples are to be found very close to home.)

Castells explains the paradox by which we are witnessing an explosion of nationalism simultaneously with a crisis of the nation state: the explicit goal of most of the nationalist movements is to create a state based on identity rather than historical heritage or territorial control, thus often challenging states that were built on historical alliances. Of course the authority of the nation state has always been shared - with cities, trading alliances, empires, military and diplomatic alliances -but what we see occurring now is a systemic de-centring of the nation state within the realm of shared sovereignty. Moreover, the entity is also being subjected to more inexorable and often indefinable pressures and coercions. These Castells lists at one point as "networks of moving capital, production, communication, crime, international institutions, supra-national military apparatuses, non-governmental organisations, transnational religions and public opinion movements". They may retain their power to make decisions but the system of powers and counter-powers draws them into forms of authority that depend on marshalling a multitude of actors for every action.

Castells excels both in the broad sweep of connected theory and in the detailed narrative account. He draws on extensive knowledge of certain European societies as well as the United States and parts of South America. His account of the information society is surprisingly unskewed towards an Americocentric outlook. Although the work is divided into three separate volumes, it is really a single connected essay, constantly referring back and promising further detail in later volumes. Castells has a gift for the sudden aphoristic summary of a complex idea.

He provides a professional sociologist's analysis of our age - not an extended piece of journalism. But there is lacking an account of how the central techno-economic dynamic actually works within and between societies, driving the strands of change onwards. It is a bit like a police thriller without the chase. But there is a clear point of view running through the work (implicit and occasionally explicit), which is that liberal democracy is the heart of all democracy; this implies that conscious, purposive social action, based on information and supported by legitimacy, can change anything. The dream of the Enlightenment, that reason and science would solve our problems, still lies within our reach in the information age, where enormous productive capacity is being released into the power of the human mind. But there is a gap between technology's power to deliver and the requirements of society, between network and self.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture: Volume One: The Rise of the Network Society

Author - Manuel Castells
ISBN - 1 55786 617 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £15.99
Pages - 576

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