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Information Dialectics

 The Information Age: A New Brand of Dialectic

By Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller (< ) is professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Coventry, England. The review is reprinted with his permission.

Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume 1. The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. xvii + 556. Volume 2. The Power of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. xv + 461. Volume 3. End of Millennium (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. xiv + 418.

The critical response to this trilogy has so far betrayed signs of short-term historical memory loss of the sort associated with IT intoxication. For example, Anthony Giddens begins his review of the first volume in The Times Higher Education Supplement: 'We live today in a period of intense and puzzling transformation, signalling perhaps a move beyond the industrial era altogether. Yet where are the great sociological works that chart this transition?' When this question was first posed a quarter century ago, the obvious answer was Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), the single work most responsible for displaying the impending social, political and economic relevance of information technology.

Yet, despite Bell's clear historic significance, he remains a shadowy figure, typically written out of sociology textbooks and paid only lip service even in texts (such as Castells's) specifically concerned with the 'informatization' of society. An important reason for the silent treatment is that Bell underwent a highly publicized transformation from Trotskyism in the early 1950s, through a series of disillusionments with the American labour movement and leftist intellectuals, which culminated in a staunch defence of the universities in the face of student revolts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The unpronounced verdict is that Bell betrayed the left and has since then refused to seek redemption. However, over the years, Bell suggested that the potential of computers to store, process and distribute knowledge was instrumental to his conclusion that a revolutionary vanguard with a distinct 'proletarian standpoint' was obsolete. Soon, no genuinely valuable form of knowledge would be restricted to a particular class, and in any case, no class could be entrusted with producing genuinely valuable knowledge.

I mention Bell's career as an introduction to Castells because to admit -- as both Bell and Castells do -- that information technology has become the principal mode of production and perhaps even legitimation in today's world is to seriously challenge the Marxist proposition that emancipatory knowledge is integrally tied to class position. Not surprisingly, perhaps, over the past 30 years, Castells's own career has also metamorphosed quite noticeably. Beginning as a Marxist specializing in urban grassroots politics, Castells is now a highly sought-after advisor on the world's changing socioeconomic order who is based in one of the US's premier universities. He has been a member of the European Commission's High Level Expert Group on the Information Society and, in 1992, was invited (along with three collaborators, one of whom is now president of Brazil) to advise Boris Yeltsin on political economic policy.

With a Little Help from his Friends

To be sure, very much like Bell, Castells has taken pains to ensure the academic integrity of his activities (especially in terms of restricting the sources of his research income). However, Castells is strikingly unlike Bell in some important respects. Most noticeably, Castells has relied on the empirical legwork of many students and collaborators over the years. There is much more of the 'Principal Investigator' in Castells's narrative persona than the idiosyncratic Weberian scholar evident in Bell's pages. Stylistically speaking, Bell's digressive footnotes have largely yielded to Castells's seemingly interminable executive summaries. Yet, Castells is conspicuously silent on the supplier of his research labour force, namely, the university, an institution that Bell placed at the centre of the post-industrial revolution. I shall return to the significance of these differences in the course of this review.

The plot structure of the 1500 pages under review is framed in terms of a dialectic that encapsulates 'informationalism,' which Castells defines as capitalism's final frontier. Volumes 1 and 2 of the trilogy usefully separate the 'thesis' and 'antithesis' -- 'network' versus 'identity' -- while Volume 3 offers less a resolution than a recapitulation and update of this tension. The prehistory of the dialectic consists of the efforts taken by the major nation-states at the height of the Cold War to increase their surveillance and military capabilities. They constructed vast electronic information and communication networks, which with the decline of superpower hostilities have unwittingly provided the means to enable large corporations and, increasingly, special interest groups and private individuals to destabilize and even dismantle both state power and the norms of civil society. (The breakdown of the Roman Empire into feudal fiefdoms and free cities comes to mind as a historical precedent.)

However, this electronic subversion of the social order has exacted its own toll from the subversives. Basically, the network mentality strips both firms and individuals of any secure sense of identity. Thus, we see the decline of career employment and the conversion of corporations to investment companies. Nothing can get done unless you become a node in a network, but once the job is done, new jobs force the nodes into new network configurations. Both human and corporate life thus come to defined by the 'project'. The only way to check this reduced sense of identity is to extend the life of the project indefinitely, which serves to revive the fortunes of social movements that are fueled by a non-negotiable sense of resistance or 'identity politics'.

The various fundamentalisms, insurgencies, and lifestyles that pepper the political landscape of our times take full advantage of the network's flexible infrastructure to combat their oppressors, both real and virtual. But unlike culture-based resistance to global capitalism in the 19th century, these movements do not aim for territorial sovereignty backed by a strong state. Such a prospect is seen as undesirable as a future of force-fed McDonaldization. The communities defined by identity politics exist in virtual space and online time. Their presence is felt mainly in their ability to shape the code through which all network transactions occur. For, whereas the informational capitalists treat the network in purely strategic and instrumental terms, the new social movements rely on the network for their sense of solidarity and hence may turn out to be the gatekeepers of the network's democratic potential.

Breaking New Ground

This brings us to the end of Volume 2. Readers of Castells's last major work, The Informational City (1988), may justifiably wonder what The Network Society adds beyond some updating of sources. However, The Power of Identity does break new ground. Castells's deisgnation of the Mexican Zapatistas as an 'informational guerilla movement' (Vol. 2, p. 79) has already become grist for the social theory mill (see P. McNaughten and J. Urry, Contested Natures, 1998). After all, the Zapatista strategy of winning the war of global public opinion by the internet -- and that victory affecting the outcome of the flesh-and-blood war at home -- goes a good way toward remediating Jean Baudrillard's remarks about the 'simulated' character of the Persian Gulf War.

But a more significant feature of this volume is Castells's remarkably even-handed treatment of 'new social movements'. For such social theorists du jour as Ulrich Beck, these movements constitute the locally fragmented successors of world socialism. In contrast, Castells readily includes fundamentalist Islam and Christianity in their number, thereby complicating the political implications of the resistance to global informationalism. Instead of reducing fundamentalism to traditionalism, Castells, to his credit, highlights how the tools of the putative oppressors can be used for liberatory ends. However, the ease with which Castells removes the distinctly ideological character of these movements from his analysis -- by defining them in terms of their common relationship to information technology -- suggests a level of detachment that may have dulled his political sensibility.

This point turns out to have a special poignancy, given Castells's own recent efforts at advising policymakers. Having read the first two volumes of The Information Age six months before the third, I did not expect Castells to conclude the trilogy on a downbeat note. Rather, I supposed that he would continue to sustain the dialectic between network and identity, perhaps blandly predicting that pockets of resistance would thrive in the midst of global capital expansion. However, any whiff of 'have your cake and eat it' is quickly dispelled in the Introduction to End of Millennium. Here Castells makes clear that he originally underestimated the ability of a globally networked criminal economy to pick up the slack left by a downsized and debilitated system of nation-states.

The breakdown of law and order in the former Soviet Union is his personal case in point, which returns us to the advice that Castells and his colleagues gave Yeltsin in 1992. Unfortunately, this crucial point for understanding the trilogy's normative orientation is buried in Chapter 3, footnote 39. Here we learn that Castells told Yeltsin that if legal and other institutional safeguards were not first put in place, a privatized economy would return Russia to a veritable state of nature. But because Yeltsin's economic advisors seemed to associate such safeguards with a continuation of the dreaded socialist regime, they unintentionally opened the door to the mafia culture that currently holds Russia in its grip, typically with help from abroad.

Needed: A New Kind of Batperson

And this may be only the beginning. Much of Volume 3 is spent conjuring up the intriguing, albeit horrific, spectre of information technology enabling the coordination of criminal cartels that shadow, penetrate and ultimately elude the regulation of capital flows, to which everything else is becoming connected. The resulting picture looks very much like the Manichaean struggle between the Forces of Good and Evil that have framed so many action-hero plots since the Great Depression. The likes of Batman rarely battled an alternative regime, but rather an anti-regime that thrived on disorder. However, the 21st century Batperson will need to be more than a hacker with extraordinary cryptographic and computational skills; he or she will also require considerable political skills, since the decline of welfare provision will remove any overriding reason for those left behind by the informational revolution to support existing governments. This emerging 'fourth world', in Castells's terms, is the wild card that holds the fate of the next century.

I find this picture quite compelling, but it would be easy to see how a reader of just The Network Society could be left with the impression that Castells endorses the illusory neoliberal future that Yeltsin's advisors embraced. For, while Castells says early on (Vol. 1, p. 9) that the state is the greatest determinant of technological change, he more persistently observes that the sovereignty of the nation- state is perhaps in irreversible decline. Moreover, since Castells manages to tie changes in virtually every dimension of social life -- from intimate relations to financial flows - - to the innovation and diffusion of information technology, his self-styled 'circumspection' (Vol. 3, p. 359) on political matters can leave the impression that not much can be done at the level of public policy to alter the forward momentum of technological change. Indeed, he even claims that the specific origins of the latest wave of the IT revolution in Silicon Valley, California, has anchored the revolution's subsequent development (Vol. 1, p. 5).

This last point reveals the rhetorical bind in which Castells finds himself. Whereas most forms of technological determinism support the planning impulse, innovations in microprocessing have tended to subvert it. This is probably the clearest infrastructural change that has occurred since The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. The benchmark figure here is Jean-Francois Lyotard. In The Postmodern Condition (1979), Lyotard reversed Bell's generally Keynesian economic vision, which had situated computers in an increasingly observant administrative state designed to curb the excesses of advanced capitalism. In contrast, Lyotard presented such panoptical surveillance as disruptive of what he envisaged as knowledge's naturally fragmented and fluctuating state. Indeed, the dominant image of this revised 'knowledge society' soon became the market, or a 'parallel distributing processing unit', to quote the corresponding model of the brain. Thus, computers are themselves envisioned as many personal terminals connected together in a network rather than all to one mainframe generator. Indeed, Lyotard predicted that even computer languages would be valued less for their algorithmic powers than for the conceptual spaces left open by their 'incompleteness' or 'undecidability'. The significance that Castells assigns to Silicon Valley in his narrative is not unreasonably seen as supplying the material substratum for the conceptual space originally charted by Lyotard.

Deliberate Omissions

But if Castells pays lip service to Bell, he is completely silent about Lyotard. Indeed, these omissions are deliberate, as Castells explains at the very start of The Network Society that he wishes to return to the phenomenon of informationalism without writing a 'book about books' that would wrestle with all the ideologues who have mediated the public's understanding of the emerging information age. No doubt some readers will welcome Castells's independent- mindedness, while others such as myself regret that he did not engage more directly with what Alvin Gouldner called 'the dialectic of ideology and technology'. The most immediately striking feature of Castells's decision is the fact that he was in a position to make it. This testifies not only to his own eminence but, of equal importance, to the resources at his disposal that allow him to add analytic and synthetic value to the empirical work of others. In the grand 19th century tradition of social theory, Castells's own output consists largely of summarizing, rearranging, and labelling large bodies of research. Castells's advantage over his classical forebears is that much of the original work he cites was done by his own students and colleagues, which (presumably) permits him some first-hand knowledge of how the data is collected and reported. In that sense, Castells literally has a better sense of what he is talking about than Marx, Weber and Durkheim, who went on little more than intuition when deciding whether to trust the testimony of their sources.

However, there is a cost to Castells's comprehensiveness that some may associate with the sin of hubris. Although Castells may be in a position to ignore prior theorists and confront informationalism 'in itself,' his readers may not enjoy that luxury. Their views may be an alloy of ideology and fact, as far as Castells is concerned, but unless he takes that into account, his pristine vision of things is bound to be misinterpreted -- as it probably was by Yeltsin's advisors.

Castells's reliance on the concept of networks hardly helps matters here. Castells stresses informationalism's tendency to reduce social norms to a recognition that several parties may realize their goals by temporarily acting in a concerted fashion, which in turn defines a specific network (Vol. 1, p. 171 ff). But stripped of tables and jargon, this sounds like the definition of normativity put forward by the Austrian school of economics which provides the intellectual foundation of contemporary neoliberalism. Such Austrians as Friedrich von Hayek and Fritz Machlup drew a sharp distinction between dispersed and divided labour, the former varying across spacetime and the latter not. According to Austrian thinking, the idea that labour is optimally 'divided' makes sense only if the design of a factory is projected on society at large (i.e. the difference between the economic vision of Adam Smith and the sociological vision of Durkheim). In that case, skill corresponds to a relatively fixed sense of social status. However, in a purely capitalist order unfettered by feudal vestiges of status and hence open to a competitive labour market, 'skill' becomes nothing more than scarce locally relevant knowledge, the value of which may change with market conditions. In that case, your knowledge is most valuable if it complements that of others in your immediate situation, thereby enabling all of you to collaborate in activities that will benefit each of you differently.

Global Class Divisions

The fate of labour in Castells's network society differs from this perspective only in the role assigned to computerization in easing a change in one's interests and sense of situational relevance. And, of course, the Austrians did not anticipate the robustness of social movements who use the network infrastructure to promote more long-term interests that often go against those of the dominant networkers. To be sure, these are significant differences, but are they likely to be noticed, given Castells's drive toward maximum comprehensiveness? Consider how Castells handles the deepening of global class divisions resulting from the polarization of 'info-rich' and 'info-poor' (Vol. 1, p. 220 ff). For the first two volumes, Castells accentuates the positive side of this development. The growing number of highly skilled workers in most nations -- including those of the Third World -- leads him to conclude that, gloomy forecasts notwithstanding, informationalism does not impose any additional barriers to social mobility and may even remove some traditional ones, especially as defined by the boundaries of nation-states. Certainly, informationalism must be credited with the rapid economic growth experienced by certain parts of India and East Asia. However, the transnational nature of networking also means that the rich are more than ever capable of shutting out the concerns of the poor in their own countries, as their interests are increasingly tied to the efforts of fellow elites in other parts of the world. Castells catches this point -- an extension of dependency theory -- in Volume 3.

However, what Castells completely misses is that the overall increase in high-skilled labour means that the value of being highly skilled declines, which in effect makes any given member of the 'elite' more dispensable than ever. Matters are hardly helped by the accelerated drive for technological innovation that is generally celebrated by Castells. That merely threatens to render obsolete the very idea of skills that can be profitably deployed over the course of a lifetime. In that respect, informationalism's openness to 'lifelong learning' backhandedly acknowledges the inability of even the best schooling to shelter one from the vicissitudes of the new global marketplace. Education, though more necessary than ever, appears much like a vaccine that must be repeatedly taken in stronger doses to ward off more virulent strains of the corresponding disease -- in this case, techologically-induced unemployment. If there is an adaptive group in this environment, it is those who endure the entire gamut of the educational system without taking it too seriously. Not surprisingly, informationalism's entrepreneurs are drawn precisely from this group. It would seem that the time is ripe to reinvent Thorstein Veblen's critique of the 'learned incapacities' of the academic class.

Finally, on a methodological note, while Castells disavows the futurologist's mantle, by contemporary social- scientific standards he is remarkably comfortable with the practice of extrapolating from current trends. Indeed, most of the criticisms nowadays lodged against Durkheim's original use of statistics in his classic Suicide could equally apply to The Information Age. He does not draw undue attention to the methodological shortcomings of aggregate data; rather, he dutifully reports official claims about the meanings of the various indicators, barely warning the reader of the incommensurability of national standards lurking beneath his own generalizations.

Hypothetical Data

This would not be such a problem had Castells not devoted nearly a tenth of his pages to charts, figures and tables that inevitably create the illusion of quantitative depth to his claims. At most, these data merely redescribe in superfluous detail what he already claimed by less mathematical means. Indeed, given that Castells makes much of the alleged decline of the nation-state as a political agency, it is odd that he fails to apply the implications of this claim to his own preponderant reliance on cross-national data sets. If the 'network society' is indeed the 'space of flows' bounded by global financial markets and pockets of local resistance, both of which are in their own way 'privatized', then publicly available statistics compiled by the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are prima facie little more than the effects of hypothetical processes for which Castells provides no direct statistical demonstration. Under the circumstances, Castells allusion to a 'triangulation' of data sources (Vol. 1, p. 26) as taking up the methodological slack merely conceals his inability to justify his preferred causal explanation.

Put it this way: someone already inclined to plough through Castells's trilogy probably does not need to be persuaded that popular support for mainstream political parties has declined over the past generation or that an increasing percentage of the gross national product of many countries has been devoted to service sector activities. In short, virtually all of the non-verbal trappings, which distinguish Castells's work from that of other social theorists, could be dropped without much cognitive loss.

The sheer magnitude of ambition and achievement of Castells's trilogy has led Giddens in his THES review to compare The Information Age to Max Weber's unfinished masterwork Economy and Society. Marx's three-volumed Capital also has also been invoked (by Castells's former Berkeley collaborator, Peter Hall) as a reference point. Moreover, Castells himself invites comparisons to both (Weber in Vol. 1, p. 195 ff; Marx in Vol. 3, p. 358). It would be presumptuous to assess such comparisons now, not least since Marx and Weber were themselves dead before their own works acquired classic status.

Nevertheless, some remarks are in order about changes in the material conditions that enable someone like Castells to emerge as a potential successor to Marx and Weber in the 'grand theory' sweepstakes at the end of the millennium. Here we must return to that institution whose absence from Castells's 'encyclopedic' account of our times is most conspicuous: the university. Castells's example demonstrates that the social sciences have caught up with the natural sciences in requiring considerable economic capital in order to accumulate what Pierre Bourdieu calls 'symbolic capital'.

The Costs of Theorizing

As economists might say, the 'entry costs' for grand theorizing have become so high that most people are shut out from the outset. To put it in Castells's own terms, universities are increasingly divided into the 'info-rich' and the 'info-poor', and Castells clearly belongs to the former, which is tantamount to the theorizing class. Aside from his access to underlabouring graduate students and colleagues, Castells has acquired an ability to travel to most of the places he talks about, which cannot be reciprocated by most of the residents of those places. No doubt many of them would like to know how informationalism has affected his practices, but their inability to find out constitutes an epistemic asymmetry that enables Castells to enjoy the materialist equivalent of a transcendental standpoint on the world's affairs.

All the more interesting, then, that Castells turns Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach on its head by saying that philosophers of the future should interpret the world differently rather than trying to change it (Vol. 3, p. 359). Interpretation turns out to be much more expensive than action in the information age. Thus, the reader should presume only a false modesty when Castells says, 'Theory and research, in general as well as in this book, should be considered as a means for understanding our world, and should be judged exclusively on their accuracy, rigor, and relevance' (Vol. 3, p. 359). Given the costliness of judging Castells by the first two criteria, I suppose that we shall have to concentrate on the third, and here Marx's Eleventh Thesis may still come in handy.


Prof. Fuller would like to thank Bill Dutton, Brian Loader and Sujatha Raman for very useful comments on an earlier draft of this review.

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