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A Critical Examination of the "Network Society"

By Tim Novak

Media and Social Theory New School for Social Research

December 18, 2005

One of the most important contributions to our understanding of new media technologies can be found in a series of three volumes authored by Manuel Castells, entitled The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Here, Castells argues that we have entered an Information Age characterized by a global network society predicated in large part on advances in informational technologies. Castells notes that networks are not new forms of organization, but he documents a situation that has emerged in recent decades wherein a network society comes to constitute the characteristic social structure of the new society. And while some commentators have accused Castells of engaging in "futurology" and for taking an insufficiently critical stance toward the developments he describes, in this essay I'd like to argue quite the opposite. That is, I'd like to show that Castells's analysis of the network society in fact offers an insightful and timely diagnosis of our Post-9/11 new world disorder. Toward that end, I'll begin by giving an account of the main themes Castells describes as constituting this new, fully networked society. Next, specifically in terms of the dichotomy between what Castells calls the "space of flows" and the "space of places," I'll focus on how these counter-tendencies are working to intensify widespread social and cultural differentiation. Last, I'll consider how, according to Castells, this dynamic is acting to render much of the world's population irrelevant, thereby fostering violent anti-Western actions, most particularly in the form of terrorism. With the first volume of his trilogy, The Rise of the Network Society, Castells (1996) begins by articulating a position opposed to postmodern social theory, which he sees as indulging in "celebrating the end of history, and, to some extent, the end of Reason, giving up on our capacity to understand and make sense" (4). In contrast, Castells proposes what amounts to an overarching "meta-narrative" examining the emergence of a new society, culture, and economy in light of the revolution in informational technology (television, computers, and so on). This revolution led, in turn, to a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist system beginning in the 1980s, and to the 2

emergence of what Castells calls "informational capitalism," which Castells (1996) defines as "a mode of development in which the main source of productivity is the qualitative capacity to optimize the combination and use of factors of production on the basis of knowledge and information" (7). At the heart of Castells's analysis is what he calls the information technology paradigm, consisting of five basic characteristics. First, these are technologies that act on information. Second, since information is part of all human activity, these technologies have a pervasive effect. Third, all systems using information technologies are defined by a "networking logic" that allows them to affect a wide variety of processes and organizations. Fourth, the new technologies are highly flexible, allowing them to adapt and change constantly. Finally, the specific technologies associated with information are merging into a highly integrated system. Out of these developments, according to Castells (1996), in the 1980s there emerged a new, increasingly profitable global informational economy. "It is informational because the productivity and competitiveness of units or agents in this economy (be it firms, regions, or nations) fundamentally depend upon their capacity to generate, process, and apply efficiently knowledgebased information" (66). It is global because it has the "capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale" (92). This was made possible, for the first time, by the new information and communication technologies. While it is indeed global, there are differences, particularly in terms of those regions that lie at the heart of the new global economy, namely, North America, the European Union, and the Asian Pacific. In addition, and of crucial importance, other areas are excluded and suffer grave negative consequences. Whole areas of the world (e.g., sub-Saharan Africa) are marginalized, as are parts of the privileged regions, such as the inner cities in the United States. Accompanying the rise of the new global informational economy is the emergence of a new organizational form, the "network enterprise." Among other things, the network enterprise is 3

characterized by flexible (rather than mass) production, new management systems, organizations based on a horizontal rather than a vertical model, and the intertwining of large corporations in strategic alliances. And for Castells, the fundamental component of this new arrangement is a series of networks. It is this that leads Castells (1996) to argue that "a new organizational form has emerged as characteristic of the informational/global economy: the network enterprise" defined as "that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of segments of autonomous systems of goals" (171). The network enterprise is the materialization of the culture of the global informational economy, and it makes possible the transformation of signals into commodities through the processing of knowledge. As such, Castells (1996) argues that the "dominant functions and processes in the information age are increasingly organized around networks." Thus, "Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in the process of production, experience, power and culture" (469). Here Castells is concerned to point out the historical shift in social structures away from statism, concentrated bureaucracy, and hierarchies organized on national lines. The structural logic of the contemporary age is made up of adaptable information and communication technology networks that spread across the globe, influencing social life and paying limited heed to the national and political boundaries that have governed over the past two centuries. So, like the architecture of the Internet, Castells contends that social institutions--markets, corporations, media--are increasingly organized around a series of flexible and ever-changing nodes and hubs, giving rise to the expression of decentered and unpredictable power relations and new social patterns. With this, Castells says "the new information technology paradigm provides the material basis for its pervasive expansion throughout the entire social structure" (469). Networks are thus open, capable of unlimited expansion, dynamic, and able to innovate without disrupting the system. However, the fact that our age is defined by networks does not mean the end of capitalism. 4

In fact, at least at the moment, networks allow capitalism to become truly global and organized on the basis of global financial flows. "For the first time in history," Castells (1996) concludes, "the basic unit of economic organization is not a subject, be it individual (such as the entrepreneur, or the entrepreneurial family) or collective (such as the capitalist class, the corporation, the state). As I have tried to show, the unit is the network . . ." (198). Taken together, Castells puts forward a sweeping description of a vast transformation and the unfolding of a new global society. And despite claims characterizing Castells as being an uncritical partisan of the network society, a close reading of Castells's analysis reveals a rather sober, decidedly mixed picture of our fully networked future. That is, balanced against those who see the possibility of worldwide access to computer-mediated communication ushering in something akin to Marshall McLuhan's "Global Village," when Castells turns his attention to the issue of unequal development, the truly problematic implications of the network society become apparent. In fact, what Castells describes is a world simultaneously being united together and torn apart. This is occurring, Castells claims, largely as the result of the complex interrelationship developing between society and computer-mediated communication technologies associated with the networks he describes. More specifically, in contrast to the past dominated by what Castells calls "the space of places" (e.g., cities like New York or London), a new pattern of interaction aided by the expansion of global media systems, the "space of flows," is beginning to emerge. For this reason, Castells claims that we are becoming a world dominated by processes rather than physical locations. Castells asserts that the space of flows creates a fundamentally new kind of special logic, one that is characteristic of the social practices that dominate and shape the network society. The space of flows is thus defined by Castells (1996) as:

The material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows [without geographical contiguity]. By flows I understand purposeful, repetitive, programmable


sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors in the economic, political, and symbolic structures of society (412).

The space of flows is thus a privileged formation where the expression of economic and political power takes place and where most socially and culturally dominant activities and global elites exist. An obvious example here is the transnational media conglomerate, a powerful entity within Castells's model of "the network enterprise." These operations and their management exist on a historically unprecedented global scale and are made possible by circuits of electronic impulses existing within networked communications technology (e.g. computers, broadcast systems, satellites, telecommunications, etc.). Networks connect actual places--offices in major cities around the world--simultaneously and their growth has both altered social practices and provided a model for their organization. As a consequence, the space of flows is both a technological and social phenomenon, leading to changes that have resulted from the socially mediated application of technology. Examples include the creation of managerial and cosmopolitan elites, the emergence of global consumer culture, exploitation of workers and entrenched poverty in both developing and developed economies. If the space of transterritorial flows is where the expression of power and dominance occurs, the historically rooted and geographically grounded space of places is where the majority of people live, share experiences, and construct their identities. Thus in contrast to the space of flows, Castells (1996) states:

The overwhelming majority of people, in advanced and traditional societies alike, live in places, and so they perceive their space as place-based. A place is a locale whose form, function and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity (423).

With this separation of and distancing between places and flows, the structural logic of the network society is seen by Castells to actually be intensifying the gap between the developed and


developing worlds. What Castells's analysis shows is that with this new special logic, many communities and territories are bypassed or suffering under the structural dominance of flows, struggling to stay "switched on" in the network society. Consequently, Castells (1996) adds, the

functions, and people, in the multiple space of places, made of locales increasingly segregated and disconnected newly ascendant global society is now:

Organized in networks pertaining to a space of flows that links them up around the world, while fragmenting subordinate from each other (476). As such, Castells concludes:

The social construction of new dominant forms of space and time develops a metanetwork that switches off nonessential functions, subordinate social groups, and devalued territories. By so doing, infinite social distance is created between this meta-network and most individuals, activities, and locales around the world...The new social order, the network society, increasingly appears to most people as a meta-social disorder (476-477).

From this, Castells makes what I believe to be an original contribution to our own moment in history. In exploring the unintended consequences of global networking, Castells is able to lay out the logic underlying not only the increased tendency toward social inequality and polarization, but more importantly, social exclusion. As Castells (2000) explains, the network society creates a "de-linking between people-as-people and people-as-workers/consumers in the dynamics of information capitalism on a global scale" (375). Thus, Castells warns, in the network society, "a considerable number of humans, probably in a growing proportion, are irrelevant, both as producers and consumers, from the perspective of the system's logic" (375). So ironically, technology actually functions to increase social polarization, resulting in pockets of systematic social exclusion Castells terms "black holes of informational capitalism" (367). These black holes largely overlap with areas whose people lack the equipment, tools, or training to access or use information technology. This is part of a broader division between "generic labor" (those who have non-reprogrammable skills and


thus can be replaced by other workers or machines) and "self-programmable labor" (those who through education have acquired the capability to constantly redefine the necessary skills for a given task, and to access the sources for learning these skills). From this, Castells (2000) says, the primary social cleavages of the Information Age are:

First, the internal fragmentation of labor between information producers and replicable generic labor. Secondly, the social exclusion of a significant segment of society made up of discarded individuals whose values as workers/consumers is used up, and whose relevance as people is ignored. And thirdly, the separation between the market logic of global networks of capital flows and the human experience of workers' lives (377).

So as a consequence, on one hand, Castells points to the "retrenchment of dominant global elites in immaterial palaces made out of communication networks and information flows." And on the other, we see more and more of the world's population "confined to multiple, segregated locales, subdued in their existence and fragmented in their consciousness" (383). With nowhere to go, and with the dominant logic of global networks "so pervasive and so penetrating," we can expect that "outbursts of revolt may implode, transformed into everyday senseless violence" (383). In the Information Age, therefore, Castells says it is becoming increasingly apparent that instead of social classes, we are witnessing the rise of "tribes" and "cultural communes." In reaction against social exclusion, marginalization and economic irrelevance, Castells claims we're witnessing the beginnings of "the exclusion of the excluders by the excluded" (386). And as a consequence, in a particularly prescient observation, Castells notes:

Because the whole world is, and will increasingly be, intertwined in the basic structures of life, under the logic of the network society, opting out by people and countries will not be a peaceful withdrawal. It takes, and it will take, the form of fundamentalist affirmation of an alternative set of values and principles of existence, under which no coexistence is possible with the evil system that so deeply damages people's lives (386).


Taken together, this is truly a frightening prospect. By extending his argument beyond simple economic or technological determinism, I think Castells is essentially right to point out that while new communication networks are opening up innovative opportunities for human intervention, they also create new uncertainties and the potential for asymmetrical conflict. Indeed, these new technologies foretell a highly volatile and unpredictable future, with the events of 9/11 being perhaps emblematic. Castells's theory of the network society is, in my view, a thoughtful examination of this century's economy and society that is worth knowing. Castells himself may not offer a way out of the problems created by the developments he describes. But at the same time, in contrast to euphoric predictions of communication technology's unlimited potential to usher in a society of unlimited potential, Castells's consideration of the network society provides an urgently needed reassessment. From this, if we are to develop alternative ways of using computer-mediated communication, we need to develop a more informed understanding of its structural logic and a firmer grasp of what its consequences are for modern society and culture. In the end, as Castells (1996) observes, "in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, observing, analyzing, and theorizing is a way of helping to build a different, better world" (4). Thus by applying deeper understanding to the complex connections between information technology and global conflict, we should be in a better position to use our knowledge to cope more effectively with the current crisis.


References Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume One: The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. _____. 2000. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume Three: The End of the Millennium. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.



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