Worldly wise 9. The information age will widen the gap between rich and poor and erode the power of the state, Manuel Castells tells Martin Ince, on the Internet
Not many academics would be upset at being compared to Hegel, Marx or Weber - all intellectuals who wrote big analyses of the world as they found it. But, for Manuel Castells, accolades such as these have become too frequent to be exciting. As a sociologist he also finds such generalisations irritating in their inaccuracy.
Weber, Castells concedes, is closest to being an accurate comparison because he did empirical work on the state of the world. Castells has just spent 14 years touring the world to produce his three-volume epic, The Information Age, and says, only half-jokingly, that he will spend the next 14 years talking about it. Its 1,435 pages include thousands of references - everything from Russian newspaper articles to books published in Brazil. He insists that he has read the lot, most of it in the vernacular, with some exceptions such as Russian and Japanese.
Naturally a world citizen such as Castells cannot simply marry the girl next door: instead he went to Siberia in 1984 to attend a seminar at the Academy of Sciences where he met Emma Kiselyova, deputy director of the Institute of Economics in Novosibirsk. The path of true love has rarely involved more tangles, more bureaucracy or more flying time, but they were eventually married after she was able to leave Russia for Berkeley, California in 1993.
Whatever his work's failings - critics have said that the series is very long and sometimes loses focus - his work is based on deep, empirical and theoretical research that few intellectuals can match. Much of 1983 to 1997 was spent on fieldwork in universities across the globe because Castells, despite his extensive contacts, trusts only himself when it comes to interpreting data. As he says, sociological research is still in the era of handicraft production and cannot yet be automated.
In his trilogy Castells, professor of sociology and of planning at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the origin and development of the information age, the early stages of which we are living through. Technology is the key feature of the age - it allows things to happen and be known about immediately and world-wide, whether by mobile phones or the Internet. It makes new forms of dialogue possible. Our interview, for instance. Although Castells and I have met briefly in London, this article is based mainly on an email correspondence that ran from March to May.
Among other, unexpected, beneficiaries are insurgent groups such as the Zapatistas of Mexico - one of the first political groupings to use the World Wide Web extensively - the US militia movement and the murderous Aum cult in Japan. International criminals were enthusiastic "early adopters" of light-speed communications, and of the effectively untraceable cross-border electronic transfer of money. Castells writes off attempts to stop this $4 billion a day business, which already dominates the economies of many countries from Russia and Italy to South America - indeed, police action against groups like the Colombian cartel of the late Pablo Escobar is good for the criminals' business because it constitutes a classic economist's "barrier to entry" against possible competitors.
In The Information Age, Castells analyses what he terms the "fourth world", of people so marginalised, poor and unproductive that they are not even worth exploiting. Naturally many of these are in developing countries - in the many African states, for instance, that have become unable to defend their citizens against crime and social collapse. But poor areas of inner London, isolated Paris suburbs or the ghettoes of Los Angeles also form part of the fourth world. So do entities such as prisons - which in the US house 2.8 per cent of men. While some people escape the fourth world, membership involves both informal stigma and real economic and educational disadvantages that are hard to overcome.
His analysis, expressed in English which is clear and exuberant but not 100 per cent fluent, centres on the concept of the "space of flows", in which movement, for example of people, information and money, but also of physical objects, has become as important as their original location. This is why adverts designed to attract inward investors always stress how quickly you can leave the place they want you to go to - how close the location is to an airport or railway station, for instance. Alongside this is the blurring of our present conception of time. When everything happens at once, people are subject to an acute arrhythmia that attacks their balance and sense of self.
People's ideas about who they are form the crux of Castells's second volume, The Power of Identity, which identifies religious fundamentalisms, social movements such as the Zapatistas and the green movement as being devices invented to oppose the helplessness of placeless people in timeless time. He finds these types of organisation more interesting than party politicians, although he knows plenty of the latter including Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist colleague now president of Brazil. He takes a sociologist's view of green organisations, regarding them as new social movements that, like their predecessors, tend to produce fundamentalists. Although he sympathises with much of what they say, he points out that environmentalists often underestimate the power of technology to solve problems.
Castells writes too about the media - a key influence on our increasing detachment from time and place. Politicians have always had to deal with the media. But, in a world of instant communications, politics essentially happens in the media and has become an unforgiving blood sport. Tony Blair, he thinks, is one of the new generation of politicians who have realised this, which is why he was able to make use of the media sleaze allegations in the run-up to the last general election. Nonetheless, Castells is unsurprised that the press marked Blair's landslide election victory by relevations about Robin Cook. It was, he says, a case of the media reminding new Labour who is in charge.
This does not mean that politicians cannot do anything or are unimportant. It does mean that they cannot affect anything vital. Government attempts to provide economic success by encouraging enterprise are probably doomed. Business executives who need such incentives are probably not going to succeed anyway.
Indeed one of Castells's surprise enthusiasms is for elements, at least, of the business community. As he says, a former Marxist is bound to be suspicious of business, and there are people in it who are greedy and short-sighted, "just as there are in trade unions or among the political class". But he says that it is necessary "to make strategic alliances" with more far-sighted executives such as the Silicon Valley leaders who are interested in his work.
For countries and regions seeking economic success in the information age, Castells insists that it is not possible for new imitators to turn into Silicon Valley. The synergies at such a centre, with innovation driving innovation, are just too large to replicate. However, the regional technology centres in Japan have been able to fight back against the tendency for all high technology to concentrate in major metropolitan areas.
In fact one of the biggest economic levers that governments can control, says Castells, are universities, "the biggest piece of social structure for the information age". The strength of universities is their detachment from the immediate practicalities of business, culture and politics. The problem he sees is that most universities are "a place for not doing very much". For example, they tend to "mimic" research rather than doing anything very original, and they can turn, like schools, into places for "warehousing" young people.
It is "harder than you think", he says, to establish genuine university teaching and research. But when it works, the cultural and economic effects can be immense. He points to Stanford's role in establishing Silicon Valley, and says that something similar seems to be happening in Cambridge, England, and has already occurred in Cambridge, Massachussetts, around MIT.
The full three volumes of The Information Age are an exhilarating read. But people who have spent time with the books disagree on one fundamental - is Castells optimistic or pessimistic about the world?
In person, Castells is cheerful, as befits someone with a critically acclaimed book series just published, a successful result to recent cancer treatment, and a happy marriage interrupted only by constant demands for his wisdom from all corners of the globe. He is an optimist in that he thinks we are entering a world of great wealth and productivity. But it is also a world that is to the taste of only a small elite. Too many others have to face poverty, insecurity and stress. He has called for far more intensive debate on solving these problems - in Britain, perhaps, taking place in special political economy pubs to rival the philosophy cafes of Paris.
Despite his unwillingness to prescribe what others should do, it is possible to corner Castells by asking him what he would do if he had $10,000 to give to any good cause. He chooses Medecins sans Fronti res, an organisation that exists to do something about the world rather than simply say what is wrong with it.
The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture is published by Blackwell in three volumes: The Rise of the Network Society, The Power of Identity and End Of Millennium.