Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading :: The Network Society

The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy
Ed. Manuel Castells and Gustavo Cardoso

Policy books are difficult for me to get through since they tend to be narrowly focused and defined and overwhelmingly analytical. Yet this work is necessary and vital work (work that I'm glad interests others). Overall, that's the sort of work that The Network Society does. The collection has a particular focus on Portugal, but discusses trends across the globe as well.

What sorts of trends? That's where Manuel Castells' excellent introduction comes in. As Castells explains it, the organizational form of networks has been with us a long time, but networks have not scaled up beyond a certain size and complexity because they have had difficulty in mastering and coordinating resources. Now, however, "digital networking technologies enable networks to overcome their historical limits. They can, at the same time, be flexible and adaptive thanks to their capacity to decentralize performance along a network of autonomous components, while still being able to coordinate all this decentralized activity on a shared purpose of decision making" (p.4). Castells rejects the litany of underexamined complaints about new technologies, as well as the counterpoint litany of underexamined praises (pp.6-7), to focus on what we actually know about how these technologies are affecting society. He notes an increasing trend toward economic activity performed by networks of networks built around specific business projects (p.9); the erosion of stable and predictable careers (p.9); the ability to work autonomously, also known as self-programmable labor "not necessarily to increase monetary gains but to enjoy greater freedom, flex-time, or more opportunity to create" (p.10); and the hypersociality (not hyposociality) of networked society (p.11).

Castells sees the rise of a new form of state: a network state. Such a state does not replace nation-states, he says, since no one wants a world government, but a global government is a functional need so we are now seeing networks of nation-states (such as the EU) as well as ad hoc groupings of nation-states. "Thus, the actual system of governance in our world is not centered around the nation-state, although nation-states are not disappearing by any means. Governance is operated in a network of political institutions that shares sovereignty in various degrees an[d] reconfigurates itself in a variable geopolitical geometry" (p.15).

Castells' introduction alone is worth the price of admission.

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