Where a single girl can meet a guerrilla

November 23, 2001

A survey of the internet's effect on societycovers lots of ground but leaves some holes, Richard Clayton writes.

Manuel Castells is a sociology professor based in Berkeley, California, whose trilogy, The Information Age , was very well received. His new book is a series of essays covering the impact of the internet on society at the start of the new century. It is aimed at a general reader rather than at an academic audience.

Castells eschews crystal-ball gazing to concentrate on documenting his perception of the present. The Internet Galaxy is right up to date in describing realities after the dotcom crash. However, "internet time" moves so fast that it is already almost a history text. To get maximum value from this book, you need to read it sooner rather than later.

In a single volume, there is no hope of encyclopedic coverage and just a handful of issues are tackled. The overall aim is to show that a new social form, the network society, is arising from the communication made possible by the physical network, although the consequences of this structural change are going to be far from uniform. However, the book's limited scope weakens its ability to achieve its aim. Much of this review will inevitably have to criticise the book for its omissions rather than laud the material that is present.

Castells starts by recalling how the internet came to be developed, then moves on to assess its culture. He divides this into four groups: the techno-elite who control the standards by which the internet works; the hackers who create the programs; the virtual communitarians who are using the internet to promote their lifestyles; and the entrepreneurs who are using the internet to try to make money. Unfortunately, the story stops there, with these four groups and their interactions. There is no assessment of how this culture might rub off, if at all, onto the 99.9 per cent of internet users who have never learnt C++, built a counter-culture website or registered a dotcom domain name. An eminent sociologist must surely have something to say about the "me-too" stereotype of the AOL user who arrived in 1993 to create the "endless September" of clueless newbies; or the economic impact of the teenager swapping MP3 files through Gnutella; or even the cultural contribution of my mother, who extols the virtues of the web as the ideal way to reserve library books.

The chapter on e-business and the new economy starts with the usual projections of trillions of dollars of business, though these figures seem to be accepted at face value without emphasising that many of the success stories of web-based business-to-business dealings have a very traditional underpinning. Companies may have outsourced order-entry systems and put product manuals on the web, but they have just as many pre-sales and post-sales staff as before.

Castells is on stronger ground in examining the network enterprise as exemplified by Nokia, Cisco or Zara, a ready-to-wear garment-maker based in La Coru$a. There is also an interesting discussion of the nature of the dotcom crash, with the hyping of Y2K ascribed a contributory role. However, the concentration is on real companies delivering real goods - there is little here on the new economics for digital material that has created Microsoft and that now threatens the business models of Hollywood and the record industry.

The focus then moves away from technology and economics towards virtual communities, network society and the politics of the internet. Some have predicted that the net will renew a sense of community, perhaps envisaging everyone consulting the parish council website. Others have anticipated increasing alienation, in which spotty-faced nerds hide away from the world with only a screen for company. Castells agrees with neither: he quotes from study after study showing that the internet has made little difference to most people's lives. The main effect has been that they use email to keep in touch more.

The approach is curiously disappointing. Although accepting that most businesses were nearly unaffected by the internet, Castells had been prepared to look closely at the trendsetters who were restructuring themselves. But in the event, he offers no case studies, just summaries of research findings. Use of the net is being transformed by the falling costs of telephone calls and multi-megabit links into dorms and workplaces. Castells gives us insight into adjusting research statistics for social class but overlooks the classless effect of access to bandwidth. There are now many thousands of people who first met their partners online, perhaps sharing messages across an ocean. Yet Castells points only to some studies of "networked individualism" and then moves on; he fails to discuss how the net is destroying geographical separation for single people more than any invention since the train.

The chapter on networked social movements is far better. After touching on the Zapatistas and the growth of Independent Media Centers to support the anti-globalisation movement, he gives an excellent account of the Amsterdam Digital City experience (DDS) from its earliest days, through its various spin-offs such as XS4all, to its effective demise in 2000 as commercial realities finally won out over neo-anarchist visions of a new form of civic participation. Castells acknowledges that social change and political reform can take place only in society as a whole, but he believes that the internet can expedite change by bringing people into contact to form a movement; and that maintaining the freedom to communicate over the internet is of fundamental importance.

However, although he acknowledges the importance of privacy and liberty in cyberspace, his chapter on this topic is one of the weakest. The encryption debate, over control of this critical technology, is absent. The deep divide between data-protection practices in Europe and the US is mentioned, but the ramifications are barely explored. The traceability of individuals by marketeers gets coverage, but the risks inherent in allowing governments to track every citizen's mobile phone and to record who they swap emails and phone calls with is overlooked. Castells was born in fascist Spain, and he will have seen the attempts of the Stasi to control East Germany. Yet he barely mentions the risks we in the democracies are all running in handing the levers of a police state over to policemen, keeping merely a statute or two to prevent their use.

Bouncing back from this low point, there is then a masterly account of the hopes of convergence between television, computers and the internet, and how these have all come to naught. Castells first identifies the fundamental problem as lack of bandwidth, but on looking deeper realises that demand for entertainment is not unlimited and people will seldom pay for access to content on the internet. When he extends the analysis to see how other media such as books, newspapers, radio and even pornographic videos are faring, he sees paradoxes: for instant news, people turn to newspaper websites, and local radio is flourishing on the net so that expats can keep up with events in their home town. He also points out that pornography is the one internet area where people will pay, because they can purchase the privacy that is unavailable at the local video store. But he does not explore the role of the sex industry as an early adopter of technology, from Super-8 through pre-recorded videos to webcams. It may not be respectable, but it has been important in persuading punters to try the new medium.

The book examines the "geography" of the internet: where the websites and dotcom firms are located. This is based on Matthew Zook's work in examining domain-registration databases to determine physical location. The technique has significant flaws in that some companies speculatively stockpile domain names, while some ISPs (internet service providers) substitute their own details in the databases so that you simply determine where their head office is located. But such analysis can give some indication as to where cyberspace touches reality; it turns out to be in the world's major cities.

Castells uses these results to debunk predictions that the internet means the end of the city. He finds that tele-working from country cottages has failed to become important and that more than half of all home workers do not use a computer, let alone the internet. He concludes that a major effect on the city will be an abundance of small specialist areas, "glocal nodes", where state-of-the-art telecommunications gives better connections to similar areas on other continents than to their own hinterland.

He also suggests some more subtle changes to the city as the nature of work becomes more local, and here he draws attention to the rise of the call centre, increasingly sited in low-cost areas in the suburbs. Mobile communications will allow people to take the network with them into cars and trains, and the same technology will expand the workplace into bedrooms and vacations. Conversely, shopping and banking activities will blur into working hours. Overall, Castells concludes that the evidence shows that cities will survive, but as more hybrid spaces than they are now.

The final chapter looks at the "digital divide" in internet access. It exists at every level of society: between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, whites and Hispanics, in the United States; between the US and Europe, Europe and Asia; and between Africa and everywhere else. As late as 1999, more than half the people on the planet had never made or received a telephone call, so it is unsurprising that only a few hundred thousand people in Africa (excluding South Africa) have access to the internet. Castells argues that these divides will increase rather than decrease as the "haves" improve their connectivity faster than the "have-nots" can catch up, and those segments of societies that add little value to the connected whole are discarded.

Although this book did not fulfil my initial high hopes, the best parts of it are unsurpassed - it may be some time before I read a better account of how the internet is really affecting society. However, Castells has left room for many more snapshots of the evolving world as the network starts to dominate our lives.

Richard Clayton worked in the ISP industry for many years and is currently a PhD candidate in the security group at the University of Cambridge.

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