It turns out we are living in an Internet Galaxy – notes from the amazing Manual Castells

I have been working on my literature review – this post is focused on Manuel Castells who is a Sociologist / Communications academic and a major commentator on the Information Society. You can find out more about him here.

Lots of things interest me about Castells; the scope of his work is vast and he is comfortable (and credible) in his attempt to create a unified view on the effect that the internet and the network society is having on our culture. Its also really interesting to read an academic who is properly bi-lingual (English / Spanish) and to realise how different a perspective you have when you are truly multi-cultural.

His analysis of the relationship between the media and politics is compelling and he manages to narrate this against a backdrop of the impact of the internet on both of these strands of society.

More than that he is very good at teasing out the newness of what a networked society means as well as putting this into a global perspective. He also write beautifully – and passionately – which as you know always pleases me.

I also agree with the way that despite seeing many flaws in our political and democratic systems he also sees them as a starting place to make things work better in our new context:

“ Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing”

Anyway – you get the picture – but that’s probably enough for anyone not doing a literature review. If you want to read more then please feel free.

Internet culture

Castells describes internet culture as being in four layers:

  • Techno-meritocratic
  • Hacker
  • Virtual Communitarian
  • Entrepreneurial

By doing this he is able to highlight some of the tensions within the internet culture – for example that between entrepreneurial success and true freedom. In many ways this latter analysis puts me in mind of the Sunstein work which talks of the need for legal rules to support freedom of speech. Freedom is such a compelling concept its intriguing to dwell upon the limits that need to exist in order to allow it to flourish.

He also talks of reputation and power online – and the way in which it is in a state of constant renegotiation: “The community accepts the hierarchy of excellence and seniority only as long as this authority is exercised for the well-being of the community as a whole, which means that, often, new tribes emerge and face each other”.

This links into the idea of identity which is again picked up when he talks of virtual communities – and the discussion of the links between virtual and real communities – as well as the fact that hacker culture is far more global and coherent that the virtual communities which use the internet in order to reinforce their offline selves. The exceptions to this being the MUDs and people more formally role playing. (NB in my world there are very strong links between this discussion of identity and the questions raised by democracy online)

“The emergence of the Internet as a new communication medium has been associated with conflicting claims about the rise of new patterns of social interaction. On the one hand, the formation of virtual communities, primarily based on online communication, was interpreted as the culmination of an historical process of separation between locality and sociability in the formation of community: new, selective patterns of social relations substitute for territorially bound forms if human interaction. On the other hand, critics of the internet, and media reports, sometimes relying on studies by academic researchers,argue that the spread of the internet is leading to social isolation, to a breakdown of social communication and family life, as faceless individuals practice random sociability, while abandoning face-to-face interaction in real settings.” (p.116)

Much of this tension is, according to Castells, bound up in a discussion of what people are actually doing online as well as by a tendency to generalise internet culture from the behaviours of early adopters. My observation also is that Castells in comfortable with the idea of people have multiple facets to themselves and that an active online life doesn’t preclude an active offline life as well.

“Perhaps the necessary analytical step to understanding the new forms of social interaction in the age of the internet is to build on a redefinition of community, de-emphasizing its cultural component, emphasizing its supportive role to individuals and families, and de-linking its social existence from a single kind of material support.” (P.127)

“Communities are networks or interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and social identity” (Barry Wellman – Physical place and cyberplace: the rise of the networked individualism – international journal of urban and regional research)

Castells then goes on to highlight the difference between community and networks – the essence being that communities are built on shared values where networks are built on shared objective. Castells talks of shared values being rooted in the nuclear family – I wonder what this means in modern families of choice?  The issue he outlines around local communities is that the fact that the family is no longer co-located with neighbourhoods and we need to find some substitute for this social structure.

We also need to make sure that we don’t put too much emphasis on the strong ties of community “...the fact that most ties people have are “weak ties” does not mean that they are unimportant. They are sources of information, of work performance, of leisure, of communication, of civic involvement , and of enjoyment.” (P.128)

The other shift which Castells describes is the “rise of individualism” – described as the “emergence of a new system of social relationships centred on the individual. After the transition from the predominance of primary relationships (e,bodied in families and relationships) to secondary relationships (embodied on associations), the new, dominant pattern seems to be built on what would be called tertiary relationships, or what Wellman calls “personalised communities”, embodied in me-centred networks.”

Castells then talks about this in terms of socio-economic shifts towards the individual being the unit of production in terms of capital and labour as well as a ‘crisis of patriarchalism and the subsequent disintegration of the traditional nuclear family’.

Castells cites Pew Research (p.129) as “showing the internet is effective in maintaining weak ties” which “would be lost in the trade-off between the effort to engage in physical interaction (including telephone interaction) and the value of the communication.” He goes on to describe the ability of the Internet to create new ‘weak ties’ and he claims “they rarely build, lasting personal relationships.” I would disagree here – some of these relationships may be transient but they are not necessarily weak as a result and online relationships can be enormously significant to people (see Turkle). What we have not seen yet is where we have online/offline community interacting in terms of the hyperlocal communities – what happens when your online relationships no longer need to be transient and in fact can’t be owing to the fact you will pass these people every day on the street?

As Castells says “networked individualism is a social pattern, not a collection isolated individuals” but this social pattern needs to be related to the communities which people actually live in.

“the investigation carried out by Gustavo Cardoso (1998) on PT-net, one of the earlier online communities in Portuguese, showed a closed interaction between off-line and on-line sociability, each one with its own rhythm, and specific features, yet forming an indissoluble socal process. As Cardoso puts it “we are in the presence of a new notion of space, where physical and virtual influence each other, laying the ground for the emergence of new forms of socialisation, new life styles, and new forms of social organisation.”

When talking about civic society Castells focuses on 4 areas:

  • The new dynamics of social movements
  • The computer networking of local communities and their relevance for citizen participation
  • the uses of the internet in the practice of informational politics
  • the emergence of “noo-politik” and cyberwarfare on the geopolitical stage

Castells observes the fact that new social movements are largely mobilised around values – making them less tribal and providing a greater sense of differentiation for participants when compared to a more homogeneous networked society. He also talks about the power of global networks to bypass the nation state and that this one of the most significant factors in their growth. He talks about the link between global and local power – “They need the legitimacy and support provided by their reliance on local groups, yet they cannot remain local or they lose their capacity to act upon the real sources of power in our world. Reversing the popular motto of twenty-five years ago, social movements must think local (relating to their own concerns and identity) and act global”.

He goes on to narrate the growth of ‘Citizen Networks’ from the mid 1980s – 1990s and describes their 3 shared characteristics:

  • Providing information from Local Authorities – a technologically updated bulletin board of city life (NB would query this point)
  • Organised horizontal and electronic conversation among the participants
  • allowed access to online networking etc to people who were not ‘in to’ the emerging internet

This last point is described as a tension between the desire to get out of the locality via the internet and the fact that it is the locality that facilitates this initial access.

Primarily however he talks about the internet as a tool for ‘informational politics’ in that it provides an alternative to media based politics. With this in mind it is surprising that Castells is not more optimistic about the ability of the internet to build trust for politicians – though its not a surprising conclusion in its own right given the barriers between politicians and the authenticity that the internet culture demands. He in fact goes on to say “Therefore, for the time being, rather than strengthening democracy by fostering the knowledge and participation of the citizens, use of the internet tends to deepen the crisis of political legitimacy by providing a broader launching platform for the politics of scandal. The problem, naturally, is not with the internet, but with the kind of polity our societies are generating. A polity that ultimately shapes the power of the state at a time when states are confronting a transformation of their security environment.

In a further exploration of what politics is he talks about changes in warfare and the way that a networked military strategy functions – he uses the phrase ‘swarming’ which is vivid enough to make me pleased to move on to more civic chapters.

Privacy and Liberty in Cyberspace

The internet is built on a foundation of free speech – partly due to its culture and partly due to the leading role the US, with its freedom of speech legislation, played in its initial development. Anonymity was accepted as benign and the internet community had a great deal of freedom as it grew from its academic roots to the global network it is today. However – with an increase in commercialisation Castells feels we see a corresponding reduction in freedom. Anonymity does not pay – not when advertising is at stake.

I was also struck by his observation that “in much of this analysis, as in the ideology of most of the grassroots of early Internet users, there is an implicit assumption that governments are not the allies of liberty. And yet, we know from history that institutional democracy, not libertarian ideology, has been the main rampart against tyranny.” But he then goes on to say that “In the last analysis, and on a variety of pretexts, governments distrust their citizens – they know better. And citizens distrust their governments – they know enough”. What’s more then points out that its not surprising that the internet, which is built on freedom, should be the place where this distrust becomes most acute and then goes on to argue for openness in data and process from government as being the change which could transform this relationship – “governments, not people’s private lives, should become a glasshouse”. Brilliant.

The Geography of the Internet: Networked Places

I am going to write more about place in my next post where I will be writing up my notes from the awesome Doreen Massey…..but having not really enjoyed David Mitchell’s book “City of Bits” I was very struck by this quote and will have to go back and read this again:

Mitchell (2000:155) “The power of place will still prevail…..Physical settings and virtual venues will function independently and will mostly complement each other within transformed patterns of urban life rather than substitute within existing ones. Sometimes, still, we will use networks to avoid going places. But sometimes, still, we will go places to network.”

The Challenges of the Network Society

The internet is having a profound effect on our society and brings with it opportunities and threats in equal measure. However when examining ways to meet these challenges Castell’s final conclusion is clear:

“However, we still need institutions, we still need political representation, participatory democracy, consensus-building procedures and effective public policy. This starts with responsible, truly democratic governments. I believe that, in most societies, the practice of these principles is in a shambles, and a large proportion of citizens do not count on it. This is the weak link in the network society. Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing. And if democratic, political institutions cannot do it, no one else will or can. So either we enact political change (whatever that means, in its various forms) or you and I will have to take care of reconfiguring the networks of our world around the projects of our lives.”

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