Communication Theory/Network Society

Introduction to the Network Society edit

Information has been a central theme in 21st century research, just as capital was in the 20th century. It is frequently said that society is now living in an information age, which has provided various information technologies (i.e. the Internet and cellular phones). However the "information age" has not been clearly defined. Although many define the current economy as an information economy, there is still no universally accepted definition to refer to the current society. Currently, over thirty different labels for referring to contemporary society are used in academic fields and casual conversation (Alvarez & Kilbourn, 2002). Some of these labels include: information society, global village, digital society, wired society, post-industrial society, and network society. Some of the terms describe the same phenomena, while others do not.

Among the numerous scholars trying to define this new society, Manuel Castells is the most foremost and unique, in terms of at least two aspects: Firstly, he is an incredibly prolific and energetic theorist on the subject of the information age. He has written over twenty books, published over one hundred academic journal articles, and co-authored over fifteen books. He is currently a professor of Sociology and City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also served on many national and international organizations such as: the Advisory Council to the United Nations Task Force on Information and Communication Technology, the International Advisory Council to the President of South Africa on Information Technology and Development, the United Nations Secretary General's High Level Panel on Global Civil Society and the United Nations, and UNESCO. Secondly, his critical viewpoint toward networks and the information economy has made him more unique than other information economists and sociologists. Castells is distinguishable from “the Utopians who have taken over the information society camp” (Duff, 1998, p. 375), since he believes that the dark side of a new economy is embedded in the intrinsic characteristics of new technologies. Thus, Castells maintains a deterministic view of technology, whereas the Utopians regard information technologies as instruments for human evolution.

Castells has become one of the most influential theorists over the past thirty years since his wide array of works has provided a unique and critical framework for examining contemporary society. Castells has been called the first great philosopher of cyberspace for his work on the information economy (Gerstner, 1999). His trilogy published between 1996 and 1998 is recognized as a compendium of his theory about the information age. In the trilogy, consisting of The Network Society, The Power of Identity, and End of Millennium, Castells' analysis of the new economy colligates several strands of the new society: new technological paradigms, globalization, social movements, and the demise of the sovereign nation-state. The Network Society deals with the "new techno-economic system" (Castells, 2001, p. 4). The Power of Identity discusses social movements and politics resisting or adapting to the network society. End of Millennium, the last work of the trilogy, describes the results of the previous two factors in the world. This chapter thus explores what a Castellian network society is, through exploration of his trilogy and other articles.

New Economy edit

New forms of time and space edit

The concept of an information economy or network economy is undoubtedly related to new information technologies. According to economists, the definition of an information economy can mean not only an abundant use of information technologies, but also a new something that affects the way individuals work, produce, and consume. Human processes are changed by these technologies. Thus, to understand the information economy, one should first understand the characteristics of new information technologies, and then study the paradigm shift into the network society.

Castells (1996, 1997a, 2000) defined the network society as a social structure which is characterized by networked communications technologies and information processing. This includes such social phenomena as economic interdependence among nations as well as globalization and social movements related to individual identity. Based on this definition, Castells (2000) hypothesized that the network society is organized around two new forms of time and space: timeless time and the space of flows.

In terms of timeless time, new technologies, such as biotechnologies and communication networks, are breaking down the biological sense of time as well as logical sequences of time. Castells’ (1997b) example of new biological reproductive technologies blur life cycle patterns in conditions of parenting by either slowing down or speeding up the life cycle.

Space of flow infers that physical distances are closer among organizations in the society, and information can be easily transmitted from one point to another point by new communication technologies. This means the annihilation of logical concept of space. For example, the hyperlink on webpage collapses succession of things in time and space span, because it brings one from one location to another location in an instant. Castells (2000) stated: “Space and Time, the material foundations of human experience, have been transformed, as the space of flows dominates the space of places, and timeless time supersedes clock time of the industrial era” (p. 1).

New Techno-Economy Paradigm edit

Castells stated that the new network society is dominated by “a new techno-economic paradigm based on information networks-informationalism” (Cabot, 2003, p. 1148). Castells (2004) definition of informationalism is “a technological paradigm based on the augmentation of the human capacity of information processing and communication made possible by the revolutions in microelectronics, software, and genetic engineering” (p. 11). Information processing and communication, like newspapers, radios, and televisions, existed in history too. However, information technologies were not fundamental materials for development in the past industrial economy. The informational economy depends on the capacity of networks. Thus, without the capacity provided by these new technologies, the new economy would not be able to operate, as the industrial society could not fully expand without electricity (Castells, 2004).

Whereas the industrial economy was based on a value chain from manufacturers to retailers, the information economy created various positions related to information technologies and the networks in the value chain such as designers, operators, and integrators. The information economy requires a greater number of highly intelligent laborers that can manage and control the technologies than in an industrial economy. Moreover, there are comparatively more opportunities to create a profit in the network industry or information industry than in other industries. Due to the importance of the networks and communication technologies in the new economy, networks, as a new material for new economy, began to formulate social power, and the members exploiting the ability of networks began to acquire social power (Gerstner, 1999). For example, the network enterprise is the prevailing form of business organization in information economy, since it follows “a complete transformation of relationships of production and management” (Castells, 2000b, p. 607).

Global Economy edit

Since the modern digital networks that the new paradigm emphasizes have no geographical limitation, the information economy is largely characteristic of global economy. The global economy can be defined as “a network of financial transactions, production sites, markets, and labor pools on a planetary scale” (Castells, 2000b, p. 695). This definition places emphasis on the “linkages between economic agents,” which are essentially horizontal and flexible relationships in which the operating economic agents, as nodes in networks, enact a project (Fields, 2002, p. 56). Thus, these linkages are not really firms, but instead can be seen as networking nodes.

The nature of technologies and networks generally affects the structure of the economy. The flexibility of modern business organizations reflects the flexible nature of new networks, so that the linkages are occasionally transformed and reconstructed for its profitability. Since current networks have few physical limitations and open systems, they can “increase their value exponentially as they add nodes” (Castells, 2000c, p. 698) and can create infinite linkages among other agents for their goals. Thus, the structure of information economy is not constrained by geographical restrictions. At the definition of the global economy, the planetary scale does not require highly internationalized organizations or wide geographical ranges. Rather, in terms of the space of flows made of bits and pieces of places, global economy exists in the reconstructed time and space. Gupta (2003) uses the example of NASDAQ, an electronically wired stock market, for the case of global economy. The global economy is a concept that values the speed with which knowledge, goods, and people are transacted. Spatial distance is no longer significant.

On the contrary, rails and telegraph have also influenced the structure of the past industrial economy. Richard R. Jone (2000) estimated that new digital revolution in the past half century is comparable to the role of railroads and telegraphy in the 19th century, in terms of “information infrastructure” (pp. 68–86). In the case of the 19th century, the railroad and telegraph, as new networks, contributed to compress geographical distance, which accelerated industrial development. However, since the networks were less flexible under their physical limitations, the industrial structure, based on the networks, was less flexible than today. In the 19th century, the structure of business was generally vertically integrated, relying on mass-production systems, and mass-distribution networks. In sum, new technology alters the structure of society and industry by its inherent nature, so that the structure in the new economy is flexible and horizontal with production and consumption relying on the new global and digital networks.

Main Features of New Economy edit

Individualization of Work edit

In the new global economy, a cleavage or gap seems to increase between "'generic labour' (casual substitutable labour) and 'self-reprogrammable labour' (those with the ability to adapt their skills throughout their lives)" (Kaldor, 1998, p. 899). Generic labour refers to a person who is unskilled or possesses lower skills or has a low level of education. These individuals usually work for low-wage labor, and according to Castells (2004) can be, "disposable, except if they assert their right to exist as humans and citizens through their collective action" (p. 40). On the contrary, self-reprogrammable labour refers to highly educated people who manage and control information with high creativity. Castells (2004) states:

"The more our information systems are complex, and interactively connected to data bases and information sources, the more what is required from labor is to be able of this searching and recombining capacity. This demands the appropriate training, not in terms of skills, but in terms of creative capacity, and ability to evolve with organizations and with the addition of knowledge in society" (p. 40).

Since the matter of labour in the global economy is related to capacity and creativity, Castells (2001) suggests that education is a more important solution today.

Another problem in the cleavage between both types of labours is that labor organizations cannot function properly, and rather divide the self-reprogrammable labour from the generic labour. Another example of the cleavage is that within the industrial system, the employment of "flexible woman" increased, but that of "organized man" decreased, over the last couple of decades. The more valuable segments in the value chain of global economy can survive.

Since the global economy allows flexible and arbitrary linkage between nodes, a business organization can easily redeploy their labour sources from one market to the other market in a planetary scope. Thus, globalization of the economic activities enables the situation that one labour market is supplied for abundant works, but, at the same time, one market experiences a serious unemployment. The other problem of labour in global economy is that new technologies increase the productivity of blue-collar worker, so that the network enterprises downsize its own system. This is reminiscent of the mass layoffs in the 19th century.

Castells (1997b) views these trends as "the reversal trend of socialization of labour that characterized the industrial age" (p. 9). He warns of the alienation of workers in the network society by using Carnoy's terms of "individualization of work".

"Networking and individualization of work leaves workers to themselves. Which is all right when they are strong, but becomes a dramatic condition when they do not have proper skills, or they fall into some of the traps of the system (illness, additions, psychological problems, lack of housing, or of health insurance)" (Castells, 1999).

Inequality in the Global Economy edit

The central point of Castells' information economy is that the inherent logic of the system is exclusionary, and the gap is increasing (Gerstner, 1999). Castells (2000a) defines the global economy as “still-capitalism”, since the purpose of production in the new economy is still for profit and the economy system is still based on property rights (p. 373). Castells (2004) states: "Capitalism has not disappeared, but it is not, against the ideologically suggested perception, the only source of value in the global town" (p. 39).

Castells suggests that Africa, as the fourth world, is “dropping further and further behind the global economy with each leap forward by the techno-elite” (Gerstner, 1999). This is not because of political purposes, but because of the inherent nature of technology. Why does the inequality increase if tremendous technological advancements are supplied to society? New networks and communication technologies enable people or nodes to build relations with others. However, the decision of making relations is up to the comparative value of each node. Thus, Africa, which has no legacy from an industrial era, is composed of less valuable segments, which remain isolated or utilized for cheap wage labor in the new economy. Poor children in Africa and Latin America are still exploited at work by global business organizations.

The inequality occurs in information consumption. Alvin Toffler and Nicolas Negroponte believed that the new information technologies would lead a radical, positive change in the economy. Castells foresees that technical changes are not equally beneficial to everyone in the global economy. His attention is focused on the digital divide, which refers inequitable distribution or access to information. Wireless communication, Broadband cable, and other new technologies made it possible to hyperlink instantly among multiple spots. However, the majority of the populations remain unwired. According to Castells, information, like the capitals in industrial economy, is always insufficient to all the people.

Since Castells considers the new techno-economic paradigm in network society a "socially embedded process, not as an exogenous factor affecting society," he can be categorized as a technology determinist. However, he has never blamed the technology itself, even if he thinks that the nature of modern technology increases the inequity of global societies. Castells states: "This is not an opinion. It's an empirical observation. However, this is not the fault of technology, it is the way we use it.... Unequal, undemocratic, exclusionary societies, on the contrary, will see the power of technology dramatically increases social exclusion" (Gerstner, 1999).

The demise of the Sovereign Nation-State edit

Another main trend of the new economy is the “demise of the sovereign nation-state" (Castells, 2000c, p. 694). Since both global networks and communication technologies have increased the strength and frequency of transforming information, capitals, and labour among other nodes in the networks, all nations and states have become more interdependent. The increased relations stimulate the necessity of transnational institutions such as the EU, NATO, ASEAN, and UN. Castells (2001) argues that the degree of freedom of nation states has shrunk to an extraordinary degree in the last ten years, because of the European Union. Member nations in the European Union have decentralized markets in order to strengthen their bargaining power and socio-economic control. Consequently, each member state in the Union has experienced diminishing social power over their national issues and more complex relations with each other. Nodes in information economies or network economies do not necessarily exist in the form of an organization, but occasionally exist as a individuals, such as Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of Federal Reserve Board (Castells, 2001).

However, the demise of sovereignty for Castells does not mean that the current nations or states will disappear through global networks, but that their social power should be shared or restricted by other institutions, nations, or states.

Skepticism edit

Castells’ theory revisits Marxist skepticism regarding industrialism. The theory of the network society uses many concepts and viewpoints traditionally held by Marxists. Castells replaces the position of capital in industrialism by the concept of information. In his analysis, Castells recognizes that the rise of informationalism and the nature of networks has led global societies toward inequality and social exclusion, widening the cleavage between "generic labour" and "self-reprogrammable labour," global city and local city, information-rich and information-poor. Thus, Tony Giddens, Alain Touraine, Peter Hall, and Chris Freeman compare Castells to such sociologists of importance as Marx and Weber (Cabot, 2003). During the 1970s, Castells exhibited a Marxist intellectual trajectory, and he confessed that he felt the need of Marxism for probing political change in information age.

Legacy edit

Castell's most important contribution was that he attempted to build a grand theory of the information age in macro-perspective. Even though his work is still progressing, his wide ranging analysis has provided an in-depth, yet macro understanding about the information society. The majority of his approach has been empirical in an attempt to diagnose the contemporary problems in the information society. Castells states his high dissatisfaction with the apparent superficiality of the prophecies that futurists such as Toffler and Gilder had announced for the "new" society. Although there are some criticisms that Castells overemphasized the negative effects of the information economy, his analysis for each case, such as the collapse of Soviet Union, was empirical and very accurate.

In addition, Castells analysis is globalized, even if he warns of the dark side of globalization. As most information infrastructures are centralized on U.S. or Western European nations, most of the academic analysis on information economy concerns those countries. However, Castells’ empirical studies range from the fourth-world countries to the European Union.

References edit

Alvarez, I., & Kilbourn, B. (2002). Mapping the information society literature: topics, perspectives, and root metaphors. First Monday, 7. Retrieved from

Arunachalam, S. (1999). Information and knowledge in the age of electronic communication: A developing country perspective. Journal of Information Science, 25, 465-177.

Cabot, J.E. (2003). The information age; Manuel Castells; the rise of the network society. Research Policy, 32, 1141.

Carnoy, M. (1999). Sustaining flexibility: work, family, and community in the Information Age. New York: Russell Sage.

Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. New York: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (1997a). The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (1997b). An introduction to the information age. City, 7, p. 6-16.

Castells, M. (1999). The Social Implications of Information & Communication Technologies. UNESCO's World Social Science Report. Retrieved November 8. 2005 from

Castells, M. (2000a). End of Millennium. Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2000b). Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society. The British Journal of Sociology, 51, 5-24.

Castells, M.(2000c). Toward a sociology of the network society. Contemporary Sociology, 29, 693-699.

Castells, M.(2001, May 9). Conversation with History[Webcast], UCTV. Retrieved November 8, 2005 from

Castells, M.(2004). Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: a Theoretical Blueprinting, The network society: a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Duff, A. F. (1998). Daniel Bell's theory of the information society. Journal of Information Science, 24, 373-393.

Fields, G. (2002). From Communications and Innovation, to Business Organization and Territory: The Production Networks of Swift Meat Packing and Dell Computer, BRIE. Retrieved November 8, 2005 from

Gerstner, J. (1999). The Other Side of Cyberspace: An Interview with Manuel Castells, Cyber-Scientist, IABC's Communication World Magazine, March 1999. Retrieved November 8, 2005 from

Gupta, D. (2003). Meeting “Felt Aspirations”: Globalization and Equity from an Anthropological Perspective, presented in the 4th Annual Global Development Conferences, Global Development Conference, January 2003, Cairo, Egypt.

Hutchins, B. (2004). Castells, regional news media and the information age. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 18, 577–590.

Jone, R. R. (2000). Recasting the Information Infrastructure for the Industrial Age. A National Transformed by Information, Chandler, A. D. & Cortada, J. W(ED.).

Kaldor, M. (1998). End of millennium: The information age: Economy, society, and culture. Regional Studies, 32, 899-900.

Lucas, H. (1999). "Information technology and the productivity paradox". New York: Oxford University Press.

Winkel, O. (2001). The democratic potentials of interactive information technologies under discussion. International Journal of Communications Law and Policy.

Sociological Systems ·

Sociological Systems · Communication Theory

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