Manuel Castells: Theory of Information Age
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Published: Thu, 19 Jul 2018
Manuel Castells is one of the most widely recognised contributors to contemporary debates about globalisation. Indeed his three volume trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture published from 1996 to 2000 was amongst the earliest, full-scale theories of globalisation. Castells transformed globalisation from a fashionable academic concept into a a whole new phase of human history. More recent contributors such as Hardt and Negri, Held, Bauman and Giddens have arguably been writing within Castells’ legacy. Few since however, have been able to match the boldness of Castells venture which some are already characterising as a work in the tradition of previous grand works of sociology such as Karl Marx and Max Weber. Of course, it is too early to place Castells alongside Marx and Weber but the central thesis of his trilogy is certainly all-encompassing. It is nothing less than the claim that new information technologies have not only transformed the technology of communication, they have not merely had a globalising impact but have brought about a new age, within which these technologies are the organising logic and principles. Very little of human life escapes this new age for Castells, from state structures and national sovereignty to the everyday individual reckoning with our own identity.
In the first volume of his trilogy, The Network Society, Castells explains how the new age can be characterised as an age of informationalism. The world has shifted from industrialism to post-industrialism to informationalism (Castells, 1996). In other words the determining technology of our age is not mechanical but informational. This has brought about a whole new way in which economic activity and production is conducted, through networking. This takes place within companies, between companies and between regions. Networking is the new means for ensuring productivity, as opposed to old-fashioned heirarchical managerial strcutures which relied on the controllable logic of mechanical operations. Rather networking is informational and its technological medium is the internet. The networking society has important consequences not only for economic progress but for human relationships and the future of the nation-stae. In economic terms it means that progress is tied inextricably to information technology. If technology is responsible for transferring labor and matter into consumable goods and the production of consumable goods determines economic progress then such progress is determined by information technology, and particular the manipulation of the internet. Furthermore, if human culture is significantly determined by the forms of economic activity that permeate it then the rise of the new information technologies is bound to have a rapid and dramatic impact on everyday human relationships. Perhaps the most significant of these is the impact on our conception of time. The world has become a much smaller place with the onset of information technology as we can interact and respond to each other in real time – about matters of great significance.
This theme is further developed in the second volume of the trilogy The Power of Identity. Here, Castells explains how the new social movements are posing a formidable challenge to the old nation-state system (Castells, 1998). These new social movements are the product of the new global economic order – because this is new order is ruthless, perhaps more ruthless and brutal than previous economic orders. Whole communities and forms of life can simply by cut out or switched of. Individuals are likely to feel that their traditional roots have no value and at the same time there is very little security provided by this new order. In the End of Millenium, the third volume of his trilogy, Castells paints a gloomy picture of the trends that have been set in place by globalisation (Castells, 2000). On the one hand many will feel increasingly lost in the information age – further removed from the forces that are shaping their lives. On the other hand many of those that embrace the new world order will do so at the expense of the moral grounding that upheld previous social orders.
Castells’ trilogy has been both widely discussed and heavily criticised. Much of this criticism has been concerned with the presentation of his ideas, that Castells covers too much ground and is uneccessarily verbose. There are more serious criticisms that can be made however. These criticisms are perhaps best highlighted by contrasting Castells’ work with other theorists of globalisation. Saskia Sassen provides one such contrast. For Sassen departs significantly in her account of globalisation from Castells’ economic and technological determinism. Whereas Castells argues that the new world order is fundamentally a new economic order and that this new economic order is founded on progress in information technology, Sassen argues that there are two main trends that have driven globalisation (Sassen, 1996). According to Sassen these two main trends are both economic and political. And it is the development of political globalisation that tells most significantly against Castells’ thesis. New forms of transnational political association such as the European Union are acquiring a significant measure of political authority over process of global economic and social activities. They must therefore be understood as part of the driving force of globalisation. But political globalisation does not simply entail the transfer of power from national to international institutions. It also includes new human rights regimes. These rights have been centred around the protection, or at least the recognition, of peoples from the abuse of state power by international. Whilst human rights protection is patchy and far from universal it is one aspect of a way of avoiding the pessimistic conclusions made by Castells. Perhaps, even, a new form of global citizenship is possible through both global political institutions and the remaining and still vital democratic institutions of nation-states, which are far from disappearing as one might believe after reading Castells.
But how will this be possible if, as Robertson explains, there is no prospect of any kind of unified global culture that could underpinn it. Well, perhaps it is if we follow Robertson’s definition of globalisation as opposed to Castells. According to Robertson globalisation ‘refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the global whole’. (Robertson, 1992: 8) In contrast to Castells then, who argues that in a globalised world individuals are likely to feel increasingly lost, disconnected from the forces that are shaping their lives, Robertson’s globalisation leads to an increasing interconnectedness between people. This interconnectedness is obviously enabled to a significant degree by the internet. And, to be sure, not everyone is able to access the new communications technologies that are helping to drive globalisation. However, the possibility that those that are excluded from the rights and priviledges enjoyed by citizens of the west might be protected from the consequences of globalisation and might be eventually be included in these privileges is enabled by a key feature of globalisation itself. This is that in a globalised world we are more likely to position our views in relation to a far greater range of human perspectives. In other words, globalisation involves “comparative interaction of different forms of life.’ (Robertson, 1992:27) This process can be called relativisation, which is a process that affects both individuals and states.
A more specific and more detailed exploration of the ways in which the ‘comparative interaction of different forms of life’ may help to transform our world for the better can be found in theories of global civil society. There are many different versions of the theory of global civil society, but at its most optimistic it is envisaged that the key to the democratisation of forces of globalisation lies not in human rights regimes but in the development of networks of cooporation between international actors (NGO’S) who can place pressure on both states and international authorities through the exchange of opinion within a global public sphere (Keane, 2003). Just as national civil societies ensured that national markets were socially embedded with moral and ethical norms, so global civil society may have this impact on the global economic order. The exposure of some of the unsavoury practices of certain global companies, such as Nike and BP, by NGO’S and the paradoxically named anti-globalisation movement, are surely already having such an impact. That said however, if we wanted to understand the forces that might render the prospect of a global civil society unrealized then there are few better theorists to turn to than Castells. That is if we put aside his economic and technological determinism.
Zygmunt Bauman (2000) Liquid Modernity Polity Press
Keane, John (2003) Global Civil Society Cambridge University Press
Castells, Manuel , (1996) The Information age: Economy, Society and Culture volume one. The Network Society Blackwell
Castells, Manuel (1998) The Information age: Economy, Society and Culture volume two. The Power of Identity Blackwell
Castells, Manuel (2000) The Information age: Economy, Society and Culture volume three. The End of Millenium Blackwell
Robertson, Ronald (1992) Globalisation Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage.
Saskia Sassen (1996) Losing Control? Columbia University Press
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