Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Castells’ Network Society and the Space of Flows in 250 Words or More

Castells sets the theoretical stage for the book by boldly arguing that we live in a new society (1970s – present) constructed around microelectronic-based information and communication technologies. This society is organized according to a logic of networks, rather than hierarchies, and is enhanced by the “flexibility, scalability, and survivability” of our sociotechnical environments.

Crucial for understanding his argument is the historical trajectory he paints for the emergence of this new form of social organization. He claims that 3 historical and independent processes converged to create the social structure of the network society:

  • the crisis and restructuring of global political-economic relations associated with the dismantling of the welfare state and widespread deregulation of state-owned markets
  • the freedom-loving hippies, environmentalists, feminists, and other cultural movements that eventually come to symbolize anti-globalization
  • the ‘revolution’ and developments in whacky information electronics and technologies

These processes became intertwined in unintentional ways to constitute a fundamental departure from industrial society (and presumably its predecessors). Its impact was the reconfiguration of work, labor, and value. Most critical to our analysis of Castells are the implications of his theories for power.

In a way clearly influenced by the Actor-Network Theory of B Latour and the disciplinary (productive) capacity of M Foucault’s power, Castells casts networks as an assemblage of overlapping networks governed by rules encoded within protocols of connectivity. Governments, the media institutions, individual leaders, and wealthy classes are not the holders of power. Instead power is exercised via the network itself through sets of exclusions and inclusions, the recoding of network alignments and procedures (“programmers”) or the connecting of different networks (“switchers”).

Castells attempts to distinguish his conception of the network society from other models of social organization. For one, ours in neither a knowledge nor an information age. Rather, information and communication have special meaning because of the specifically digitalized, electric-power nature of our current communications infrastructure. This network society is crucially characterized by simultaneous “time-sharing” without contiguity, a “space of flows” where the spaces of place are subordinated to nodal points within the network. Finally, Castells sees a post-industrial culture of innovation, yes, but also of collaborative and creative processes that supplant even the content flowing throughout the network in importance.

And then there’s chapters 2 – 10.

1 comment:

Davita Veselenak said...

I am feeling quite ambivalent to the study of the Network Society. There are many things in Castell’s characterization that are useful and his work is thorough and has much explanatory power, but, somewhat like Dale commented, there are a few things for me that are not fitting.

Richard’s summary highlights the logic of networks at work in this society, Castell’s point that we are not in a communication or information society any more so than in any other historical period, and the crucial issue of power. These and many other things about the first half of the book I appreciated, along with the goal of conducting “cross-cultural” analysis.

However, after reading the studies contained in the volume, and going back to Castell’s introductory theoretical framework, it seems to me that he throws everything in. Many historical and theoretical ideas and lots of qualifications. Perhaps this is because, as he admits, he wrote his chapter after reading all of the other chapters in the volume, but based on the other things we have read, I think it might just be Castell’s tendency to leave nothing out of his theorizing.

Some parts of that theorizing are odd to me. Even though a stated goal is to not be technologically deterministic, there are points where Castell’s comes across as such. For example, he proposes: “the culture of the global network society is a culture of protocols enabling communication between different cultures on the basis, not necessarily of shared values, but of sharing the value of communication. This is to say: the new culture is not made of content but of process” (p. 39).

Also, I like how Richard put the scare quotes around the word “revolution” in his post. Castell’s frequently refers to this “revolution” or “new revolution” in informational and communication technologies and even uses Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm to describe this technological revolution. But is it really revolution we are talking about here? A scientific revolution in the Kuhnian sense? I am not convinced.

Overall, what my ambivalence stems from most is the idea of studying something while it happens, or while one is surrounded by it. While I think we need studies of technology use in Russia, China, and Detroit, I wonder how difficult it is to understand something that we cannot fully stand outside of.