The Logic of Networks
Social Landscapes vis-a-vis the Space of Flows
Castells, Manuel, The Rise of
the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol.
I. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996)
Castells, Manuel, The Power
of Identity, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol.
II. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997)
In the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society and
Culture Berkeley sociologist Manuel Castells (* 1942) concludes a decade of
research presenting an empirically grounded, cross-cultural account of the major
social, economic and political transformations which reconfigure the landscapes
of human life and experience across the globe. While detailing the diversity of
their manifestations, Castells attempts to fit them into a comprehensive
analytical framework in which many of the conflicting observations can be
integrated as two sides of the same medal. Undoubtedly, this trilogy is one of
the, if not the, most significant analysis of the current transformations which
center around the uneven spread of information technology around the globe. In
scope as well as in quality, Castells' opus magum is outstanding.
"Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar
opposition of the Net and the Self" (1996: 3). These two emerging centers of
gravity and their dynamic interplay form the axis of analysis. The first volume
of his monumental presentation (some 1000 pages, so far) is devoted to the first
engine of change - the Net - and the second volume to the other - the Self. The
trilogy (the final volume is forthcoming) aims at providing a comprehensive
overview of the forces and actors which drive the world towards globalization as
well as of those fueling the struggles to maintain or reconstitute historically
specific group identities vis-a-vis those intricate forces. In the resulting
dynamic Castells senses "the embryos of a new society, labored in the fields of
history" (1997: 362).
Castells' method to achieve this ambitious project is "communicating
theory by analyzing practice" (1997: 3). In his writing this means that very
distinct theoretical models inform the analysis but are hardly specified.
Rather, they structure the account implicitly. To understand Castells' approach,
however, it is worth looking at these models a bit more closely.
The model underlying the first volume is a dialectical interaction of
social relations and technology, or, in Castells' terminology, modes of
production and modes of development. While this model is pervasive throughout
the whole book, its theory has been elaborated in greater detail in an earlier
book, The Informational City (1989).
"The modes of production are the social relationships of the
production process, for example, class relations. Since the industrial
revolution, the prevalent mode of production in Western societies has been
capitalism, embodied in historically and locally specific institutions for the
creation of surplus and the regulation of its distribution." The modes of
development, on the other hand, "are the technological arrangements through
which labor acts upon matter to generate a product... Social relationships of
production, defining modes of production, and technical relationships of
production, defining the modes of development, do not overlap, although they
interact... There are between the two structural processes complex and
significant interactions which constitute a fundamental element in the dynamics
of our societies." (1989: 10-12)
The evolution of the capitalist modes of production is driven by
private capital's competitive pressure to maximize profits. Modes of
development, however, evolve according to their own logic; they do not respond
mechanically to the demands of modes of production or other instances of
society. Modes of development emerge from the interaction between scientific and
technological discovery and the organizational integration of such discoveries
in the process of production and management. The evolutionary model of two
separate modes bears, as has been observed (Webster 1995: 196), strong
resemblance to the Althusserian distinction between the relations of production
(classes) and the forces of production (technique). However, Castells, despite
his Marxist roots and familiarity with Althusser, makes no explicit references
to these concepts.
The evolutionary logic of the current, "informational mode of
development" 1 is defined
by five characteristics which together form the "Information Technology
Paradigm" (1996: 60-65).
1. Information is the raw material as well as the outcome. The new
technologies act on information rather than on matter.
2. Because information is an integral part of all human activity, these
technologies are pervasive.
3. Information technologies foster a networking logic, because it allows
one to deal with complexity and unpredictability, which in itself is increased
by these technologies.
4. The networking logic is based on flexibility.
5. Specific technologies converge into highly integrated systems.
The evolutionary process of this mode of development goes, Castells
argues (1996: 32), through three distinct stages: automation of tasks
(rationalization of existing processes), experimentation of uses (innovation of
new processes), reconfiguration of applications (implementation of new
processes, thus creating new tasks). The reflexivity of the technologies, the
fact that every outcome can be turned instantly into raw material for the next
cycle because both are information, has allowed for the speed-up of the process
This process - the "historical sequence of the Information Technology
Revolution" (1996: 40-65) - is the starting point of his empirical account. Its
first major section is a macro-structural account of the informational economy,
the process of globalization and international division of labour. What
differentiates Castells' from many other accounts of these processes is the
depth with which he describes how they are played out between and within various
social and regional contexts. Rather than evolving into one direction, then, the
global economy is characterized "by its interdependence, its asymmetry, its
regionalization, the increased diversification within each region, its selective
inclusiveness, its exclusionary segmentation, and, as a result of all those
features, an extraordinarily variable geometry that tends to dissolve
historical, economic geography." (1996: 106).
These new patterns of the global economy have been developed under the
drive of restructuring the capitalist enterprise since the 1970s and with
increasing pace in the 1980s. This restructuring is based on new organizational
arrangements which incorporate the networking logic. The resulting network
enterprise is a phenomenon comprising not only shifting internal hierarchies but
also changing patterns of competition and cooperation across institutions. The
network enterprise is "that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is
constituted by the intersection of autonomous systems of goals" (1996: 171). The
working conditions in such enterprises are significantly different from those of
traditional industrial corporation and, as a mass phenomenon, result in changing
work and employment patterns. Here again, Castells argues against common
oversimplifications, this time in the form of theories of "Post-Industrialism"
which have been "biased by an American ethnocentrism that did not fully
represent even the American experience" (1996: 221). It is the specific quality
of Castells' analysis that acknowledging differences - even among highly
developed countries - between a "Service Economy Model" (USA, England, Canada)
and "Industrial Production Model" (Japan, Germany) does not obscure the view of
the common trends towards individualization of work and flexibilization of
The common theme underlying the diversity of regional and sectoral
patterns of economic change is the incorporation of the new informational mode
of development into the modes of production in their historically determined
heterogeneity of institutional arrangements. Its most distinct result is the
emergence of what Castells calls the space of flows: the integrated global
networks. They comprise several connected elements: the private networks, the
company Intranets; the semi-public, closed and proprietary networks such as the
financial networks; and the public, open networks, the Internet. It is this
space of flows vis-a-vis which the social organization constitute themselves.
Vis-a-vis, one of Castells' favourite terms, is deliberately chosen for the way
it expresses the link between these two modes across the distance they have to
one another. It is in this distance that the two modes gain their independence
and it is in the linking that they gain their interdependence.
The space of flows can be described as having at least three layers:
1. Technical: the circuit of electronic impulses (the micro-electronics,
telecommunication, hardware in general) that form the technological
infrastructure of the network.
2. Geographical: the topology of the space formed by its nodes and hubs.
Hubs are defined by the networks but link it to specific places with specific
social and cultural conditions. Nodes are the "location[s] of strategically
important functions that build a series of locality-based activities and
organizations around the key functions of the network." (1996: 413)
3. Social: the spatial organization of the managerial elite using the
The space of flows is characterized by timeless time and placeless
space. "Timeless time... the dominant temporality in our society, occurs when
the characteristics of a given context, namely, the informational paradigm and
the network society, induce systemic perturbation in the sequential order of
phenomena performed in that context" (1996: 464). "The space of flows...
dissolves time by disordering the sequence of events and making them
simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality" (1996: 467).
Castells eschews thinking this idea to its logical conclusion. Developing his
argument further one might say that the characteristic of a timeless time is a
binary time, a time that expresses no sequence but knows only two states: either
presence or absence, either now or never. Within the space of flows everything
that is the case is now, and everything that is not must be introduced from the
outside, that is, it springs suddenly into existence. The space of flows has no
inherent sequence, therefore it can disorder events which in the physical
context are ordered by an inherent, chronological sequence.
In a similar way, geographical distance dissolves in the space of
flows. Here again, Castells does not elaborate a theoretical model of this
placeless space and one is tempted to think of it as binary space where the
distance must be measured as two states: zero distance (inside the network) or
infinite distance (outside the network), here or nowhere. Castells, however, is
more interested in the dynamic intersection between the space of flows and the
physical space. As in most theoretical aspects, he is more detailed in The
Informational City (1989) where he states: "While organizations are located
in places, and their components are place-dependent, the organizational logic is
placeless, being fundamentally dependent on the space of flows that
characterizes information networks. But such flows are structured, not
undetermined. They possess directionality, conferred both by the hierarchical
logic of the organization as reflected in instructions given, and by the
material characteristics of the information systems infrastructure... The space
of flows remains the fundamental spatial dimension of large scale information
processing complexes... The more organizations depend, ultimately, upon flows
and networks, the less they are influenced by the social context associated with
the places of their location. From this follows a growing independence of the
organizational logic from the societal logic" (1989: 169-170).
Increasingly, power is concentrated in the intricate space of flows,
"the power of flows takes precedence over the flows of power" (1996: 469). The
space of flows expresses the dominant social logic in the Network Society. The
financial markets, for example, have turned into the central event of the new
economy to such an extend that "all other [economic] activities (except those of
the dwindling public sector) are primarily the basis to generate the necessary
surplus to invest in the global flows, or the result of investment originated in
these financial flows." (1996: 472)
While the dominant social logic is shaped by the seemingly
identityless space of flows, people live in the physical world, the space of
places. This "condition of structural schizophrenia" introduces massive
perturbation in cultures around the globe. People lose their sense of self and
attempt to reclaim their identity in novel forms. The conflict between
traditional, waning and new, rising identities is the topic of the second
volume, The Power of Identity.
Castells' interest in identities rest on the premise of a correlation
between various types of dominant identity and the social institutions of the
society, that "each type of identity-building process leads to a different
outcome in constituting society" (1997: 8). He differentiates between three
different types of identity (1997: 10-12):
1. Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of
society to extend and rationalize their domination over social actors.
Legitimizing identities generate civil societies in the sense of the original
Gramscian concept of a set of "apparatuses". These reproduce what Max Weber
called "rationale Herrschaft" (rational power).
2. Resistance identity: produced by those actors who are in a
position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination. Identity for
resistance leads to the formation of communes or communities as a way of
coping with otherwise unbearable conditions of oppression.
3. Project identity: proactive movements which aim at transforming society
as a whole, rather than merely establishing the conditions for their own
survival in opposition to the dominant actors. Feminism and environmentalism
fall under this category.
Castells focusses primarily on social movements and politics as they
are shaped by the interplay of the three different types of identity. Identity
is defined as "the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural
attribute, or related set of cultural attributes, that is/are given priority
over other sources of meaning" (1997: 6).
A tour d'horizon of the current state of different types of identity
and the social instances they constitute structures the second volume. Three
examples of resistance identity are examined in detail, chosen for their radical
differences in context and goals: Mexico's Zapatistas, the American Militia, and
Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, the group which released poison gas in Tokyo's subway
system on March 20, 1995. While each movement reflects the historical
differences of their constituency and the threats they perceive in the
transformation of their specific social landscape, "they all challenge current
processes of globalization, on behalf of their constructed identities, in some
instances claiming to represent the interest of their country [US Militia], or
of humankind [Japan's Aum], as well" (1997: 109).
As major pro-active movements are presented environmentalism,
feminism, and gay and lesbian movements. The latter three are jointly framed
along the lines of the end of patriarchalism. They represent the conflictual and
interrelated character of identity building. The possible end of patriarchalism
not only opens up new possibilities of self-determination, but at the same time
provokes very vehement reactions to preserve what is perceived as threatened.
Castells stresses that "there is no predetermined directionality in history... A
fundamentalist restoration, bringing patriarchalism back under the protection of
divine law, may well reverse the process of undermining the patriarchal family,
unwillingly induced by informational capitalism, and willingly pursued by
cultural social movements" (1997: 242).
The classic embodiment of legitimizing identity, the nation state, is
losing its power, "although, and this is essential, not its influence" (1997:
243). The loss of power stems from a loss of sovereignty, effected by the
globalization of core economic activities, of media, of communication and, very
importantly - especially for the developing countries - the globalization of
crime and law enforcement. The latter issue is to be detailed in the upcoming
third volume, The End of the Millennium.
The most obvious example for the loss of sovereignty can be found in
the currency exchange markets which have, in the late 1980s, outgrown the
capacities of the central banks to control them. They now link up national
currencies. This enforces financial coordination undermining the possibilities
of national governments to formulate independent economic policy. The welfare
state is under double stress. Not only are the national budgets tighter under
the coercion of the global financial markets, but also the global firms can take
advantage of cost differentials in social benefits and standards. As a result,
"welfare states are being downsized to the lowest common denominator that keeps
spiraling downwards" (1997: 254).
Nevertheless, the nation state remains crucially important because it
still is the only legitimized entity from which multilateralism can be built to
address increasingly pressing global problems. However, this proves to be a
dilemma. On the one hand it increases the pressure on the nation state to effect
decisions in the international arena and, on the other, it diminishes its
credibility in the area of domestic policy through its being constrained by an
ever more restrictive network of global agreements.
The result is a crisis of democracy. The nation state offloads
responsibility for integrating its own constituency which has been achieved
through locally built instruments of the welfare state and disappears into an
increasingly abstract arena of international organizations. The traditional
institutions of democracy are caught in a "fundamental contradiction". "The more
the states emphasizes communalism, the less effective they become as co-agents
in the global system of shared power. The more they triumph on a planetary
scene, the less they represent their national constituencies" (1997: 308). The
more the nation state withdraws from its citizens, the more the need to find
alternative identities grows. Trapped between the increased articulation of
diverse, often oppositional identities and the need to act on a global scene,
the traditional democratic institutions - the civil society - are being voided
of meaning and legitimacy: they lose their identity. New identity, and new forms
of democracy will arise from the projects of resistance identity, so hopes
Castells at the end of the second volume.
Castells does not present a comprehensive theoretical model of the
Network Society and some of this assumptions, for example framing the crisis of
the nation state as primarily an "identity crisis", might be of limited reach.
Furthermore, a few things are strangely out of perspective: The claim that the
business interests of mass media guarantee for their political neutrality seems
outright naive and his analysis have benefited from some references to critical
studies like those of Noam Chomsky and others.
Nevertheless, he offers the reader a remarkable journey through the
transformation of the social landscapes around the globe. Even though Castells'
most significant contribution lies not in the development of distinct theory but
in his in-depth analysis of the practice of the emergence of the Network
Society. The Information Age trilogy belongs, at least in his aspiration,
to the class of sociological grand theory, in the line of Daniel Bell, Alain
Touraine and Anthony Giddens to whom Castells refers favorably throughout the
whole trilogy. Less explicit, as already mentioned, are the influences Karl Marx
in general and Louis Althusser in particular.
Castells distinctly distances himself from the postmodernist debate
which he calls a "cottage industry" (1996: 29). He is concerned with accounting
for major trends which shape reality across different contexts and independent
of perception or mediation because mediation, the space of flows, itself creates
a new reality, one of "real virtuality". However, the normative certainty which
informs truly modernist approaches has disappeared. Daniel Bell could still
advance an idea of progress towards increased rationality by speculating about
the emergence of an "intellectual technology" which promised the "substitution
of algorithms for intuitive judgment" (Bell 1973: 29). Castells, however, has no
such hopes. He stresses that historical development has no qualitative
directionality and no pre-determined outcome. He, then, is uncertain how to
evaluate the outcomes of the observed transformations whose coherent reality he
does not doubt. "It is the beginning of a new existence, and indeed, the
beginning of a new age, marked by the autonomy of culture [of real virtuality]
vis-a-vis the material basis of our existence. But this is not necessarily an
exhilarating moment. Because, alone at last in our human world, we shall have to
look at ourselves in the mirror of historical reality. And we may not like the
vision" (1996: 477-478).
Bell, Daniel (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in
Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
Castells, Manuel, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic
Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA:
Webster, Frank, Theories of the Information Society. (London; New
York: Routledge, 1995).
Castells draws a distinction between the notions of Information Society and
Informational Society. It parallels the distinction between industry and
industrial: not every society where there is industry is an industrial society,
but only those where the technological and social arrangements of industrial
organization permeate all spheres. In the same sense, not every society in which
information plays an important role is an informational society (otherwise all
societies would be Informational Societies), but only those which a specific
form of organization of information affects all aspects. This form is the
"networking logic". (1996: 21 n33)
Felix Stalder is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, working
on the intersection of networks and money. He is also part of the McLuhan
Program in Culture and Technology.
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