Welcome to the Network Society, says Manuel Castells – but watch out for
the informational black holes.
By Jay Ogilvy
Manuel Castells is fond of quoting Kranzberg’s law: „Technology is neither
good, nor bad, nor neutral.“ But unlike many cryptic commentators on the
digital age, Castells backs up the vague theorizing with statistical
documenting the globalization of computing technology and criminal activity,
the rise of POP hosts and the fall of patriarchy. No wonder this Barcelona-born
UC Berkeley sociologist – and his trilogy The Information Age: Economy,
Society, and Culture (Blackwell, 1996-98) – has been embraced as a kind
of Max Weber for the webcentric world. For his part, Castells, 56, calmly
embraces personal and political end-of-millennium contradictions; that,
for example, pure technical innovation has „falsified“ an Orwellian dystopia
while pure economic reform has fomented Russian upheaval. Onetime chair
of an advisory committee on the transition of the former USSR, a sometime
Marxist radical libertarian who now says anarchism may be the most relevant
philosophy, and a self-described obsolete social democrat, Castells will
address next year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on the
promise – and perils – of the network society. Wired caught up with
while workmen were rewiring his corner office overlooking Berkeley’s campus.
Wired: In The Information Age, global networking technology is pulling
us together, while nationalisms, ethnicities, and passionate causes are
pulling us apart. Which way will the pendulum swing?
Castells: There is a long tradition, the illusion of progress from the
Enlightenment, that history has a predetermined direction. But the idea
that by definition technology will lead to human progress – well, technology
can produce horrors as well as paradises. We will have – we already have
– a great world for a relatively small élite that enjoys extraordinary
creativity induced by new technologies and new wealth generation.
This is the hypermobile media world of „real virtuality“?
Civilizations have always been built around symbolic exchanges, but we
are now much further in our historical evolution – our system of virtual
representation is one of our strongest dimensions. We live in a pure cultural
world, an interaction of ourselves with ourselves – real virtuality. But
the purely human world in which the instinct of survival is not the driving
force can be very nasty – our bad instincts as well as the good ones will
Is this what you mean by the black holes of informational capitalism?
By „black holes“ I mean areas of social exclusion that can be marginalized
and the system doesn’t suffer at all. They’re not valuable as producers,
consumers – in fact, if they would disappear, the logic of the overall
system would improve. If you are outside the network, in other words, you
don’t even exist.
Leading, you say, to a new, unequal world order and the birth of the „Fourth
Many, many segments of societies, countries, and regions are being excluded.
Africa lives in a technological apartheid. Yes, maybe it could leapfrog,
but for the moment you don’t have the minimum technological and educational
infrastructure. Instead of pulling at least southern Africa out of this
black hole, the new democratic South Africa is increasing its economic
development by using the other countries as markets, annihilating potential
Creating „the perverse connection of last resort“ – globalized crime.
An increasing number of people not only are being disconnected, but are
reacting to their disconnection. We have the global criminal economy swallowing
up entire states: Mexico, for example; Russia is in a similar process.
Markets are a fundamental element to
ensure the dynamism of an economy, but society needs institutions, society
needs values, society needs rules that can interact with the markets productively.
In the short term, I fear a nationalist, populist reaction in Russia. This
is a script for a nightmare.
In terms of a new class struggle?
Social classes are less and less relevant collectives. In most of our history,
individuals were considered as pre-units in social terms. The network society
restores some level of power and initiative to individuals and networks
of individuals through movements of information. In that sense, in terms
of the classic philosophies, the one that is most relevant to our world
You insist that „all Utopias lead to terror,“ yet you also call for social
coordination. Which invites the question: To plan or not to plan?
To plan the nonplan: that is to equip yourself. If you have a goal in a
very complex world of interdependencies and then try to define all the
actions that lead toward this goal, you’re going to build a rigid bureaucracy
that will collapse.
Yet you call for a convergence of „cultural identity, global networking,
and multidimensional politics.“ Isn’t that a plan?
Look, the process of change needs knowledge, and research is a necessary
tool. On the other hand, to jump from having an analysis to establishing
goals and implementing the path toward these goals from a purely theoretical
scheme, be it ideological or research based, almost by definition will
fail or build a machine that by its rigidity will ultimately fail.
You were in Paris in 1968, then here near the hub of Silicon Valley for
the digital revolution. Any connection?
Revolutions have some imprint from the place and time where they were born.
Looking back, Silicon Valley, starting in the late ’60s, developed a very
strong character, libertarian open-endedness and at the same time political
naïveté. The ultimate irony
in the placeless world is that some places organize the rest. In Nanterre,
and the May ’68 movement, most of the leaders were what I would call, including
myself, radical libertarians – but it was a bit deeper than today’s libertarian
trend for the cultural and business élite. We cared about the problems
of social exclusion.
So the difference is a sense of political connection?
The cultural battles of our time are the most important battles for business,
for people, and for politics. Ultimately society comes back to you – the
logic of networks is only one part. If we are
able to connect the logic of networks with the logic of culture and identity
and then establish bridges and transmit creativity and diffuse information,
then we have a very dynamic equilibrium.
But isn’t the network society the best way to pursue that balance?
If we decide that everything has to be linked up through computers, and
that’s the way society should be organized regardless of the cost … Any
ideology that says this is the one best way to organize the world could
lead to a new form of terror, even the terror of networks. We need Utopias
– on the condition of not trying to make them into practical recipes.
Jay Ogilvy (email@example.com) , cofounder
and vice president of Global Business Network, is the author of Living
Without a Goal and Many Dimensional Man.
Quelle: Wired 6.11