Stargazing sociologist

Manuel Castells' book The Internet Galaxy has some uplifting moments - but its desire to separate, categorise and interrelate everything means it often misses the mark.

Sandy Starr

Share
Topics Politics

The shelves of bookshops might be groaning under the weight of books about the internet, but there is no single authoritative tome – until now, apparently. World-famous sociologist Manuel Castells (1) has just unleashed The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society.

Castells’ presentation at the launch of the book at the London School of Economics in October 2001, was uplifting. ‘We are living in very dark moments’, he said, referring both to the terrorist attacks of 11 September and to the crash of the technology sector – ‘but light goes on’. Castells said that when he started his book he had been ‘swimming downstream’ against optimism about the internet, but was now ‘swimming upstream’ against pessimism.

‘The internet is based on a culture of freedom’, says Castells. ‘It does not solve our problems, but faces us with our own contradictions.’

Unfortunately, Castells’ book is not as clear as Castells in person. His love of the internet is evident in the fact that his book is practically written in hypertext links, with every other sentence referring the reader to a different part of the book or to a different book entirely – all of which makes it difficult to pin his argument down.

There are some inspiring moments in the book. Castells correctly argues that internet communication ‘is usually embedded in social practice, not isolated in some kind of imaginary world’ (2) – a sentiment echoed at the panel discussion at the book launch, where John Naughton, author of A Brief History of the Future, said: ‘We forget that technology always exists in a social context.’

The social context surrounding the explosion of internet use over the past decade is characterised by technological determinism – where the internet is expected to do our work for us, instead of being seen as a tool that we can use to achieve our ambitions. So the internet tends to take both the credit and the blame for things that are really the responsibility of the people using it. And the more attention is paid to the internet as a force for change in its own right, the less attention is paid to what we can and should be using it for.

Yet Castells fails to explain these things in The Internet Galaxy. Having credited ‘the determined group of computer scientists with a shared mission’ (3) who got the internet up-and-running, he then claims that when the internet is more widespread ‘we engage in a process of learning by producing, in a virtuous feedback between the diffusion of technology and its enhancement’ (4). This makes a virtue of spontaneous developments in the internet, failing to distinguish spontaneity from the sustained vision and focus that went into the development of internet infrastructure in the early days.

In many parts of the book, Castells kicks off with useful, specific insights, but then moves on to inaccurate generalisations. The chapter on virtual communities rightly distinguishes between ‘weak ties’ (instrumental relationships between people, as in networks of association) and ‘strong ties’ (relationships of trust and common endeavour, as in communities), and is a useful addition to the critical work of Hubert L Dreyfus (5) on online community.

But then Castells adds a new category – ‘networked individualism’ – which adds nothing to the other categories. In fact, it detracts from them, by neutering the tensions between them. Why are people so keen to talk up the existence of online communities? Is the internet used by some people as a retreat from society and from social responsibility? These questions deserve to be addressed upfront, not bundled up and explained as ‘networked individualism’.

Also frustrating is the chapter on internet regulation. When it comes to internet regulation, says Castells, ‘the first victim…is sovereignty itself. To exercise global regulation, states have to merge and share power…For states to be partners in this network of control they must agree on common standards, and these standards are patterned on the lowest common denominator.’ (6)

But Castells bottles out in the chapter’s final three paragraphs, confessing that ‘in much of this analysis…there is an implicit assumption that governments are not the allies of liberty’ (7) (Heaven forbid), before apologetically suggesting ‘a strategy of mutually guaranteed disarmament’ (8) between government and freedom-lovers – because for Castells, the relationship of the state to freedom can be renegotiated in the abstract.

This use of fixed, analytical categories abstracted from society is The Internet Galaxy’s biggest weakness – helping to explain its mixture of astute insights and blind spots. Castells states at the outset that he refuses to engage in ‘predictions of the future’, because ‘I think we barely understand our present, and I deeply distrust the methodology underlying these predictions’.

‘My purpose here is strictly analytical since I believe that knowledge should precede action’, says Castells (9).

These distinctions are forced and ultimately false. Future speculation is an inevitable consequence of accurately analysing present trends. And knowledge and action inform one another. Castells’ determination to separate, categorise and interrelate everything, without succumbing to speculation or prescriptions for action, makes his prose awkward at times.

So does this mean Castells is a relativist? He would probably balk at being described as such. But despite his determination not to ignore social factors, Castells still ends up with ideas about society that are removed from it because he treats society as just another of his abstract categories.

So in one sentence of The Internet Galaxy Castells says ‘our lives are not determined by general, transcendent truths, but by the concrete ways in which we live, work, prosper, suffer and dream’. But in the next sentence, ‘we need to place our action in the specific context of domination and liberation where we live: the network society, built around the communication networks of the internet’ (10). One minute reality needs to be described, the next reality needs to fit an existing description.

Relying on analytical categories means that Castells is insufficiently critical of the material he analyses. So he dignifies the 1999 anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle as a movement ‘based on the exchange of information, on previous months of heated political debate over the internet’ (11), instead of seeing it for the shabby, politically shallow collective that it really was.

After explaining the importance of the internet to ‘human rights, women’s, environmental, labour, religious and peace movements’, Castells, in his determination to be categorical, hilariously adds that ‘relatively cheap air transportation also plays a role in the globalisation of social movements’ (12). You could just as well see ‘relatively affluent activists’ as playing the same role in these movements – or you could point out that previous political movements had ideas that could not be reduced to practical dependence upon a phone tree and a bus fare.

Castells’ overly categorical analysis has unfortunate political consequences. It’s hard to tell from The Internet Galaxy what the author’s politics are, beyond the slippery plea that ‘we rebuild, both from the bottom up and the top down, our institutions of governance and democracy’ (13). But it is precisely this slipperiness that means Castells’ thinking can be adopted by people anywhere on the political spectrum.

This was evident at the book launch, where one of the panellists was Geoff Mulgan of the UK government cabinet office (14) and the think-tank Demos (15). Mulgan applauded The Internet Galaxy’s open-ended characterisation of the current state of the internet, only to warn ominously that ‘a few disasters with paedophiles could change the tone of debate’ and ‘you can want a policy-free zone…but only if you’re prepared to accept the consequences’. The Internet Galaxy may contain astute points about internet regulation, but the book’s ambivalence can also accommodate Mulgan’s brand of scaremongering and pro-regulation sentiments.

Castells confesses that he ‘does not deal with all the relevant themes, simply because I did not have the time or energy to write another encyclopaedic book covering most dimensions of social life’ (16). If he stopped trying to catalogue an infinite number of abstract ideas about the internet, and instead made fewer, clearer and more focused points, he might not have this problem.

Buy Manuel Castells’ The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society from
Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-seminars: What’s real about the virtual community?, by Frank Furedi and Mike Weber

The good, the bad and the therapy, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Don’t Blow IT

(1) See the
biography of Manuel Castells at the University of California website

(2) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p200

(3) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p19

(4) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p28

(5) For a review of some of Hubert L Dreyfus’ on this area, see Nihilism online? by Sandy Starr

(6) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p179

(7) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p184

(8) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p185

(9) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p4

(10) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, pp275-276

(11) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p141

(12) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p143

(13) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p282

(14) See the Cabinet Office website

(15) See the Demos website

(16) Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, p6

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Share
Topics Politics

Comments

Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter
Share