The Internet Galaxy

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The Internet Galaxy (ISBN 0199255776) is a book published in 2001 by Manuel Castells. The title is a play on the term "The Gutenberg Galaxy", which was coined by Marshall MacLuhan to describe the influence of printing on the transformation of society. Castells argues that the Internet, like the printing press, is likely to create a new form of society.

Contents

Contents

Opening

Castells outlines his project in the opening to Internet Galaxy. Opening with "The Internet is the fabric of our lives" (p 1), he establishes the Internet as a revolutionary force on par with both the electric engine and the power grid. He identifies 3 processes that facilitated the rise of "networks" as the predominant contemporary social structure:

  • need for economic flexibility and globalization
  • social demand for individual freedom and open communication
  • and the advances in computing, telecom, and microelectronics (p 2)

Beyond emphasizing the importance of networks and the Internet, Castells establishes that his research is an attempt to understand the current state of the Internet, not to predict what may or may not come to be. He attempts an objective approach to his research, and holds a non-deterministic view of the Internet in general:

Neither utopia nor dystopia, the Internet is the expression of ourselves — through a specific code of communication, which we must understand if we want to change our reality. (p 6)

Chapter 1 - Lessons from the History of the Internet

Castells provides a historical overview about the development of the Internet, starting from its birth as ARPANET and its subsequent transformation by various social and political forces at the time. In 1958, during the time of the Cold War, the US government set up ARPA in the Department of Defense as a way of enhancing its technological superiority by connecting universities and sharing resources. Since computers were expensive equipment at the time, networks helped share time between computers. A standard protocol (TCP) had to be developed to allow computers to communicate with one another.

Castells argues that this early history was the result of the convergence between military science and a counterculture movement. He dispels the myth that the Internet was developed for military purposes; although the initial vision was of a decentralized network was presented to the military, initially the Pentagon rejected the idea, and later separated its own military network from the research network. Further, Castells indicates that the scale innovation of the development would not have been possible for the private sector. With ARPA and other public funding, the Internet developed squarely in an open, academic rather than military or business environment. Many of the early developers of the Internet were hackers who were interested in creating free and open software. Interestingly, Castells never clarifies that the word "hacker" has multiple connotations. Although it is commonly associated with a negative meaning that refers to those who pirate or sabotage networks, its original meaning referred to the open software movement that began in the early history of the Internet. These hackers were happy to create and share their innovations, leading to tools such as Linux, early browsers, messaging systems, and other Internet programs. This open movement was key to the development of the Internet because it allowed early users, who were mostly graduate students, to freely discuss topics. Castells argues that this uncensored medium aligned with some of the counterculture principles of that generation.

In this telling of Internet history, Castells describes the impact of a relatively small number of key figures. For example, Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN, helped build the world wide web by creating a browser/editor program. This program was later released to the public and expanded into Mosaic, the basis of what became Netscape. Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, created a UNIX-based operating system, called Linux, and freely released it to the public. Richard Stallman, working at MIT, established a "copyleft" clause that encouraged anyone who improved on an open software to share their version with the public. These, and other individuals, helped shape this early history of the Internet and transform it into a more autonomous, distributed, and open network.

Chapter 2 - The Culture of the Internet

The culture of the Internet is a culture made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society, and materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy. (p. 61)

In order to distinguish between producer/users and consumer users, Castells describes four interrelated cultures of the Internet: the techno-meritocratic (or "techno-elites"), the hackers, the virtual communities, and the entrepreneurs.

The techno-meritocratic culture laid the foundation of the Internet, and is rooted in the tradition of academia and science. The key goal of this culture is to pursue discovery, the value of which is judged by their peers in the community. Individuals of this community legitimize their membership by demonstrating the relevance of their contributions to science and technology.

Related to this culture are the hackers, who, Castells argues, are not the typical anti-social saboteurs portrayed by the mass media. These are champions of freedom and open software, and their early role in the development of the Internet was to ensure that the Internet continue to embody the spirit of freedom. These hackers are also motivated by creativity and innovation, which is allowed to flourish in the open environment and their independence from institutions.

The virtual communities represent the users who use the Internet for community-building and social interaction. Castells suggests that the counterculture movement of the 1960s helped foster this community, which gradually expanded in the 1980s and 1990s with the expansion of the Internet. Individuals in this culture use the Internet for a variety of reasons, such as seeking entertainment, relationships, hobbies, and engaging in political discussions.

Finally, the entrepreneur culture of the Internet helped transform business practices. These individuals try to attract venture capitalists to invest in their innovation or idea, and then try to disseminate it across the world. The entrepreneurs successfully raised massive amounts of capital to bring the Internet to the masses. In the process, they brought commercialization to the Internet, but without (entirely) changing its character. Through the entrepeneurial process they changed business practices by drawing on existing hacker and communitarian practices. Unlike their predecessors (the academics, hackers, and counter-culturists), the entrepreneurs are money-driven to the extreme, many leading solitary lives, motivated by a strict work ethic.

In describing these cultures, Castells never fully discusses whether people can be in more than one culture at any given time, or whether they can move from one culture to another. He points out, for example, that Bill Gates was more of an entrepreneur than a techno-elite, suggesting that people's membership in these cultures are easily identified. It seems, however, that these cultures are not really exclusive to the Internet. One can argue that any entrepreneur who is really driven can fall into the description Castells describes. The distinction between the techno-elites and the hackers are also unclear because both groups seem to work from institutional settings, or at least require some kind of institutional support, even if it is only in the form of access to technology. Castells defines the four cultures in a way that makes their distinctions more clear cut than they really are.

Chapter 3 - e-Business and the New Economy

Castells begins with a brief history of some companies that helped develop a new business model. He spotlights Cisco systems as an example a company that pioneered this model in the mid-1980s, developing trends such as outsourcing production, and building networks around consumers and suppliers. These models can be seen in other companies such as Dell and Nokia.

Castells highlights two key aspects that are central to the success of the new economy. The first one is having a flexible business organization that is easily adaptable to the changing environment. The second one is having "self-programmable labor", who are workers who can continue to expand and modify their knowledge throughout their careers. This means that education becomes a constant part of their professional lives.

Having a flexible organization means having quick communication, which is necessary as capital is exchanged real time around the world, making it a true global market. Often this means outsourcing labor and operations to other smaller companies. Castells, citing a study by Martin Carnoy (2000), mentions that an increasingly large number of the workforce are self-employed or temporary workers. The new economy has also attracted a large number of immigrants, some of whom go to the United States to establish their own businesses.

At times, Castells borders on misleading or unexplained statistics that overstate the importance of the digital age. For example, he points out that the annual production of information in different forms amounts to 1.5 billion gigabytes, of which, in 1999, 93% was in the digital form (p. 90). But what is "information"? And what about the relative ease to publish on the Internet than it is in print? Wouldn't that account for the abundance of "information" produced in digital form?

In addition, it is unclear why he terms it a "new" economy, especially since he never fully establishes what the "old" economy does. Societies are in constant shaped by a number of factors, including technological innovation and historical circumstances. To warrant a label such as "new economy" suggests that this has been a significant shift in paradigm like none we have seen earlier. Certainly, the Internet has significantly transformed the ways people communicate and do business, but how much of it has to do with the natural flux of societies? It is likely that these answers cannot be reduced to a simple cause and effect, and Castells seems to put a lot more weight on the Internet as a catalyst of change.

Chapter 4 - Virtual Communities or Network Society?

Castells begins this chapter looking at the idea that the Internet provides a new sense of community, in the sense that emerged among early online users. Early supporters of online communities, like The WELL, argued that the Net both replaced traditional senses of community that were lost and supported new kinds of community. Opponents voiced concerns that the Internet further destabilized community by isolating people from each other as well as from traditional support structures. Castells argues that this critique is misleading for three reasons: 1) it is based largely on early Internet users; 2) it is not supported by empirical research; and 3) it oversimplifies the distinction between communities and individuals. While not claiming that the community provide by the Net is better, Castells points to substantial research indicating that in most cases online use does not weaken existing community ties. An important point is that "people adapt the Internet to their lives. (p 128)". In this light, there is no purely online or virtual life, there is just life.

Castells does not see the new, online communities as replacements or replicas of traditional communities in the sociological sense, though. These online communities emphasize networks of support and information sharing and de-emphasize shared values, an integral component of traditional community. The Internet enables a social trend towards "networked individualism" where "individuals build their networks, online and off-line, on the basis of their interests, values, affinities, and projects (p 131)." The Internet is not the cause of networked individualism. Castells cites the "individualized relationship to society" as being rooted in industrialization of the 19th century, in the new relationship of the worker to capital and to his labor (p 128-129). The reach and flexibility of the Internet meets the needs of individualization. Castells is carefully agnostic about the effects of this movement, saying "the costs for society are still unclear (p 133)", but there will be costs.

Chapter 5 - The Politics of the Internet I: Computer Networks, Civil Society, and the State

In this chapter, Castells examines some of the effects Internet and social networks can have on democracy, citizen participation and grassroot movements. He highlights the example of Amsterdam's Digital City endeavor, launched in 1994 as a way of creating a network that allowed citizens to participate and share their views on various political matters. The project ultimately failed as a result of over-commercialization, although Castells believes that it serves to show the potential that such social networks can have on politics.

He also discusses briefly the idea of swarming, a term used by the military to refer to a relatively new military strategy that uses small, mobile units with strong firepower and uses real-time communication. It's a bit unclear how this fits in with his larger notion of networks and politics, and whether the Internet can be said to be the cause of this military strategy. This type of strategy seems to have some connection with certain corporations, especially high-tech ones that require its people to change rapidly in response to the dynamics of the situation. The strategy itself doesn't seem to be specifically related to the Internet also the affordances of communication technologies does help facilitate these rapid adaptations to the environment. Of course, the enemy can also follow the same strategy and, arguably, does.

Since the time of this writing, the Internet has certainly become more influential in shaping democratic dialogue. In the United States, politicians on the state and national level have all used the Internet as a platform for articulating their stance on various issues. It is also used by regular citizens to recruit support for their candidates and criticize others. In many ways, Castells belief on the impact of the Internet on politics has manifested itself in intriguing and promising ways that has encouraged more scrutiny of candidates and more open dialogue.

Chapter 6 - The Politics of the Internet II: Privacy and Liberty in Cyberspace

Castells describes some of the challenges to privacy and security that governments and corporations face as the Internet expands. By nature, the Internet is free and open for people and therefore requires that societies redefine their conception of copyrights and intellectual property. Since the Internet transcends geographical and political boundaries, governments also have to rethink how they administer control and sovereignty over the Internet. Castells points out that, since the Internet was born in the United States, it embodies the principles of free speech that make it difficult for governments and corporations to restrict access and content.

As governments around the world come together, however, they have managed to agree on loose ways of conducting surveillance. All electronic communications and documents can be traced by to a specific computer, and all online identities can be traced by to real people, thus resembling a world that seems to truly resemble the panopticon (p. 180). However, people have found ways of countering this by erasing their digital fingerprints or making it harder for people to trace their communication to specific computers or individuals. It seems that this struggle will continue into the future.

Interestingly, Castells doesn't address the voyeuristic tendencies of people who seem to enjoy sharing their private thoughts and actions publicly. Perhaps, at the time of the writing, blogs, Youtube, Twitter, and social networking software such as Facebook and Myspace were still yet to hit the Internet. These websites seem to invite people to share their lives with the world. It can be said that this voluntary surveillance is vastly different from involuntary and unknown surveillance, and the violation of privacy is an important issue that needs to be resolved. Castells idea that the "composite existence" that people will lead online and offline will lead to a "schizophrenic self" that has internalized censorship of online personalities into their offline selves. This seems to be a bit overstated as it would be impossible to truly argue whether people's fragmented selves is related specifically to the Internet, or to a most postmodern, technosocial age (as Kenneth Gergen argues), or whether people have always had different identities (as Goffman might suggest).

Chapter 7 - Multimedia and the Internet: The Hypertext beyond Convergence

Castells briefly discusses the future of the convergence of the Internet and other media, especially television. Until the time of his writing, this convergence has not met with great success, largely due to bandwidth problems. He argues that the Internet is still not able to deliver quality video that is comparable to television, and therefore will make it difficult for convergence to occur. He briefly touches on the various forms of entertainment that people use the Internet for, such as online games, newspapers, and other reading activities.

It is interesting to see how much things have changed since his writing. One of the things that Castells seems to erroneously assume is that the quality of video delivered via the Internet has to be comparable to the quality delivered on television in order for people to prefer it. It seems that people quite willingly watch videos on the Internet today, perhaps because the Internet allows people to obtain video much faster and more readily, thus letting people view what they want when they want it.

Towards the end of the chapter, Castells veers into a discussion about hypertext, which he defines as "an actual interactive system, digitally communicated and electronically operated in which all bits and pieces of cultural expression, present, past, and future, in all their manifestations, could coexist and recombined" (p. 202). He argues that this hypertext does not yet exist although perhaps it does as a personalized, individual hypertext. He calls this the "culture of real virtuality" because it is both electronic (virtual) but part of our reality (real) in that it informs our systems of representation. He wonders whether this might make each of us gradually alienated as we form our own systems of meaning, and suggests that art might be what unites us in having a shared humanity. It's unclear what to make of this line of thinking as it seems that Castells might have overstated the extent that an individual hypertext, whatever that really means, can isolate our meaning-making in everyday communication. If anything, the Internet brings us closer together because it allows us to communicate more frequently with a larger variety of people.

Chapter 8 - The Geography of the Internet: Networked Places

While futurologists have made forecasts about the effects of technology on society, Castells voices his concern that many of these predictions have not been proven true. In this chapter, Castells outlines some of the recent transformations of geographical spaces as a result of the expansion of the Internet. He does so by pointing to the studies of a few scholars who have done interesting work in this area.

Matthew Zook's dissertation randomly sampled Internet addresses and their registered geographical locations to build a database that describes the distribution of Internet content providers. Not surprisingly, most of the content comes from the United States, specifically New York and San Francisco. Castells suggests that this is due to the concentration of cultural innovation in these areas that can provide relevant services in finance, legal, and consulting. One of the futurologist predictions that has not manifested is the idea that the Internet would lead to increased telecommunicating and reduced workplaces. In fact, telecommunicating is relatively rare. However, other spatial trends have emerged, such as the emergence of call centers in low cost areas and the popularity of mobile teleworking that allows employees to stay in touch with the office while they are in the field.

Another scholar whose work Castells relies on is that of William Mitchell, who described the recent trends in urban development and technology around the world. One of these trends is that there are certain areas within urban spaces that have been equipped with advanced telecommunications networks, allowing a specific segment of the population to access at high speeds. This leads to segregation within cities between those who can afford these connections and those who cannot. The Internet thus transforms people's relationship with their spatial surroundings in interesting ways that depends on the technological infrastructure as well as on the ability of the Internet to reduce distance between people.

Chapter 9 - The Digital Divide in a Global Perspective

Castells discusses some of the global implications of the Internet in this final chapter, focusing specifically on the issue of the digital divide. He notes that, in the United States, there are divides along racial and class lines. Whites and Asian households are most likely to have Internet access, while African Americans and Hispanics fall behind. The gender gap, which used to be a problem, seems to have disappeared by the end of the 20th century.

In addition to the issue of access, there is also the issue of knowledge. While most schools in the United States may have access to a computer and the Internet, many teachers do not use them in the classroom. With the network society becoming such a crucial element in the workplace, Castells cautions that this may lead to further inequalities in society, as the most well-equipped and well-trained teachers are most likely to serve the more privileged.

Globally, the United States and Japan creates the most content for the Internet. This may largely be because English is still the primarily language of the Internet (which also creates a divide for those who do not know English). Developing countries face the challenge of building the adequate infrastructure to support the Internet. Castells suggests that the focus on only bringing health care and education to developing countries while leaving Internet access last is a mistake.

Conclusion - The Challenges of the Network Society

Castells summarizes his book by pointing out that these are still some challenges faced by the international society. Access to the Internet is still limited, and as the importance of being part of the network society rises, so does the effects of being marginalized. He is also concerned about the environmental effects of globalization, and while the Internet can serve as a place to improve and educate our relationship with the environment, it has as yet not be used effectively. He ends by saying that the network society is here to stay and everyone becomes part of it, whether they want to or not.

Response and Criticism

Further Reading

  • Graham, S. and Marvin, S. (2001) Splintering urbanism: Networked infrastructures, technological mobilities, and the urban condition. London: Routledge
  • Mitchell, W. (1995) City of bits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Mitchell, W. (1999) E-topia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Zook, M. (2001) Old hierarchies or new networks of centrality?: The global geography of the Internet content market." American Behavioral Scientist. 44(10).
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