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<nettime> New Castells article (fwd)
nettime's_roving_reporter on Thu, 22 Apr 1999 08:27:29 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> New Castells article (fwd)


Brave New World
Jack Fischer
San Jose Mercury News

It was a moment for a university professor to savor. When Manuel
Castells rose to address a packed room in Davos, Switzerland,
earlier this year, his audience wasn't struggling graduate
students, but the global elite.

Professor Manuel Castells uses exhaustive field research and the
sophisticated tools of a social scientist.


The gathering was the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum,
and participants included billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates
and financier George Soros, government officials from Al Gore to
Yasser Arafat, and international leaders like U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the International Monetary Fund's
Stanley Fisher.

For the 57-year-old professor of sociology and planning at the
University of California- Berkeley -- one of a handful of
academics worldwide invited to address the exclusive groupŠit was
confirmation that his work is finding an audience far beyond
college campuses.

Castells is emerging as perhaps the first grand interpreter of the
Information Age. An array of digerati -- from William Mitchell,
dean of planning and architecture at MIT, to Stewart Brand, a
founder of the Global Business Network consulting firm -- is
recommending Castells as the person to read for a comprehensive
vision of the forces driving the new age.

"In a sense, it doesn't matter whether he's right or wrong on
every specific issue because he has raised the level of discourse
so much," says Mitchell, who also has written about the
Information Age. John Seely Brown, director of Xerox's Palo Alto
Research Center, says Castells addresses "the issues we must come
to terms with to move forward in a responsible way."

Last year, Castells completed what is likely to stand as his
magnum opus, a 1,400- page scholarly trilogy titled "The
Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture." The work attempts
to do for the emerging era what Karl Marx and German sociologist
Max Weber, author of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism," did to explain the rules of the Industrial Age.

The trilogy -- which brings to 17 the number of books Castells has
published -- deploys a region-by-region analysis of three decades
of economic and cultural data in an attempt to craft a coherent
picture of the forces driving civilization at the end of the 20th
century.

Among its key observations are that flexible, ever-shifting
electronic networks, like the international currency market and
the Internet, already have emerged as the dominant organizing
principle of the new age, trumping individual governments and
corporations. And, Castells says, the way these networks function
has profound implications for everything from national sovereignty
to how people form their identities.

Castells pinpoints three major forces he believes have reshaped
society, transforming institutions and creating instability for
individuals: the countless global electronic networks, the
worldwide countercultural movements of the 1960s, and a
restructuring of capitalism in the 1980s. One result has been that
individuals, cut adrift from traditional rules of local society
and from the security of stable economic support, are forced to
craft identities on their own, with one foot in the local physical
world and the other in the global virtual world.

Castells says the new age holds the potential for vast increases
in productivity and fulfillment, but also is creating a more
volatile and ruthless world. In it, those with nothing of value to
contribute to the networks are discarded. Whole regions, like much
of Africa, are consigned to "informational black holes," and
global criminal enterprises, like those emerging in Russia,
proliferate unchecked.

Relationships

In the end, the importance of Castells' work lies not in any one
of these observations, but in his ability to show relationships
among so many seemingly disparate phenomena. And unlike such pop
futurists as Alvin Toffler, the author of "Future Shock," whom he
dismisses as superficial, Castells uses exhaustive field research
and the sophisticated tools of a social scientist.

Castells says his own hopes for the work go well beyond scholarly
debate.

"People are lost," he said during an interview in his Berkeley
office. "They sense it, but they don't know what it is. For many,
many people there is no connection, no understanding, between what
happens in their lives and what's happening in the world. What
I've tried to do is provide enough data and interpretation for
people to understand. ... Understanding is the first step to
transforming."

Not surprisingly for the author of such a sweeping
interdisciplinary work, Castells has attracted critics. Some, like
Mitchell Kapor, founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation and
Lotus Development Corp., have tried to read Castells but given up.
"It may be profound," Kapor says, "but it's certainly opaque."

Even some academics find the information trilogy short on
synthesis and long on collecting data.

"What he's done is put a lot of ideas together in one place," says
Professor Martin Kenney, a member of the faculty of Applied
Behavioral Sciences at UC-Davis who has studied the information
age and read Castells' trilogy.  "Bringing a lot of things
together has always been his strength. Whether he weaves them
together into a whole is something each reader will have to decide
for himself."

Conversely, Kenney says, when Castells does draw conclusions, they
can be so aphoristic that their precise meaning can be elusive.

Kenney flips randomly to a page of Castell's first volume, "The
Rise of the Network Society," and reads, "I propose the hypothesis
that the network society is characterized by the breaking down of
rhythmicity, either biological or social, associated with the
notion of a lifecycle."

"What does that mean exactly?" Kenney asks. "Does he mean we're
not going to die? Are people not going to have children? I don't
think that's what he's saying, but that's the kind of thing that
comes out."

For his part, Castells says he has been disappointed there has not
been more criticism of the work. What criticism there has been, he
says, has referred to the relative difficulty of reading the work
and of his adamant refusal to offer prescriptions.

As he e-mailed me when I asked him about critics, "As stunning as
it sounds, I am not aware of any major criticism in published
reviews, and I am aware of dozens of reviews in many countries. In
fact, it is a little bit disappointing, since I am sure there are
many weaknesses in the work, and I would like to debate it more."

As to his refusal to offer solutions, he wrote, with
uncharacteristic tartness.  "I still have no prescription for our
leaders. After all ... we pay them to find solutions to our
problems. I do not understand why we [academics] should both find
the problems, and the solutions. Indeed, most political leaders
only need experts to rationalize what they want to do anyway."

The ultimate arbiter of Castells' trilogy, of course, will be how
it fares over time. Over the short term, the work is garnering
increasing attention. Last month, for example, Harvard
University's Institute for International Development invited
Castells to address a closed session of the Harvard faculty. This
week he is reaching beyond academia again, this time into
mainstream media to address the American Association Society of
Newspaper Editors annual meeting, in San Francisco.

Social theorist

In retrospect, it seems Castells' entire life was preparation for
his work on the Information Age.

The son of a tax collector and conservative functionary for the
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Castells arrived at the
University of Barcelona at age 16 to study law and economics, but
was quickly swept up in leftist politics and the growing cam pus
opposition to Franco. By 1962, with friends being arrested and
tortured, Castells fled to Paris without completing his studies.

In Paris, the 20-year-old political exile enrolled in the Sorbonne
and completed the equivalent of a master's degree in public law
and political economy. Then, at the University of Paris, he began
work on a doctorate in sociology and found himself studying under
some of the world's leading sociological theorists, including
Alain Touraine and business sociologist Michel Crozier. He met a
fellow scholar who would become a lifelong friend, the future
president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Years later,
Castells and Cardoso, along with Stanford economist Martin Carnoy
and UC-Berkeley political scientist Steve Cohen, would collaborate
on a book about the global economy in the information age. They
remain close friends.

Castells presciently wrote his doctoral dissertation on the
strategies the fledgling French high-technology industry was using
to decide where to locate facilities. His approach, which he would
use in all his work, was unconventional for French academics at
that time. In a culture that favored reading and ruminating on the
great thinkers, Castells was intensely empirical.  He recalls
teaching himself the computer languages BASIC and FORTRAN and
spending hours hand-punching computer cards to manipulate data
about the high- tech companies.

Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford, says
his friend's scholarship is uniquely positioned somewhere between
the American and European models of social science. Americans, he
says, favor deep empirical study on a narrow topic, while the
Europeans rely less on field research and are more inclined to
broad pronouncements.

"The Americans ... see him as a social theorist -- and that's a
great strength," Carnoy says. "He has an amazing capacity to go
some place, like Singapore, and 'get it' -- understand the
essential issues shaping it."

After earning his doctorate, Castells became, at 24, the youngest
professor at the University of Paris and found himself at ground
zero of the birth of the French countercultural movement. The
student uprising at Nanterre, which Castells says began in one of
his classrooms, was to French student politics what the Berkeley
Free Speech Movement was to U.S. students.

At the time, Castells considered himself a Marxist and radical
libertarian who shared many of the concerns of the students, who
were only slightly younger than he. Today, Castells calls himself
a social democrat, and describes Marxism as an analytical tool,
albeit one of limited usefulness in the emerging age.

The real importance of Castells' experience of the student
movement may be that it helped focus some of his research over the
years on the impact of such social movements worldwide.

Capitalism in crisis

Along with global electronic networks, Castells views the
collective changes wrought by social movements like the 1960s
counterculture, feminism, environmentalism and the decline of the
traditional family as the second of three major phenomena shaping
the new age.

In his view, all these social movements emphasized individual
freedom and created a cultural climate that challenged prevailing
assumptions and fostered innovation.

"The Silicon Valley culture -- iconoclastic, individualistic, even
somewhat selfish, distrustful of government and bureaucracy --
owes more to countercultural movements than people usually think,"
Castells e- mailed me.  "Innovation and entrepreneurialism, daring
to think in radically different way -- so important for innovation
in the information age -- are to some extent rooted in these
movements, even if most people in high tech are politically
conservative."

The third major force, in Castells' view, was the restructuring of
capitalism in the 1980s. He says it spelled the end of the
industrial age of capitalism and the beginning of what he calls
informational capitalism, or "informationalism."

The 1970s had been a time of low gains in economic productivity
combined with high inflation -- dubbed "stagflation" by
economists. In a 1976 book, Castells disagreed both with the
traditional economists, who dismissed the difficulties as a
routine business cycle, and with Marxists who said, for the
umpteenth time, that this was capitalism's demise.

"I argued that it was a real crisis, not just something temporary,
but that it could be fixed by changing the economic model," he
said. "That's exactly what happened, and a new form of capitalism
was created."

The new economic system, in Castells' view, is the combined result
of deregulation of industry, the disappearance of trade barriers,
and vast improvements in global trading networks made possible by
high technology.

Castells sees this new informationalism as largely defined by the
global networks, endlessly shifting and reconfiguring in pursuit
of new business opportunities. It was the inability of the Soviet
Union to adapt to these highly decentralized networks, Castells
writes in the third volume, that caused it to fall behind
technologically, and led to its demise.

Castells says the three major forces he identifies as driving the
new age together have profound implications for individuals.

When people can begin to exist in both local and virtual worlds,
they find themselves abandoned by the institutions from which they
derived their identities: traditional society, which was mortally
weakened by the countercultural movements, and their employers,
who view them as instantly expendable in the quest for higher
productivity and profits. The fact that people can't rely on their
employers or their local communities to define and support them
has left them on their own as never before -- a world of
individuals, he says.

And that, in turn, has created broad feelings of insecurity, he
says. In extreme cases, Castells believes, the resulting pressures
on individuals have led to such diverse phenomena as the rise of
U.S. militias and religious fundamentalism around the world.

After a stint as a visiting professor at the University of
Wisconsin in the 1970s, Castells returned to Paris, but he grew
restless and moved to UC-Berkeley to chair a department of urban
sociology.

Somewhere in these years, Castells and his first wife, a
television journalist, ended an unhappy marriage. A daughter from
the relationship, now 35, works for the European Union in Italy as
an environmental economist. Castells met his current wife, Emma
Kiselyova, in 1984 while conducting research in the Soviet Union.
Today Kiselyova-Castells is a part-time researcher at UC-
Berkeley's Center for Slavic Studies and the Institute of Urban
and Regional Development.  She and Castells occasionally
collaborate, most recently on a book about the role of information
technology in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since embarking on the Information Age trilogy in 1986, he has
used faculty appointments and stints advising governments around
the world -- from South America to Singapore -- as a way to travel
the world to gather field research for the books. In 1991, for
example, he chaired an international committee of academics that
advised Boris Yeltsin during Yeltsin's first term as president of
Russia.

With the trilogy now completed, Castells seems intent that people
begin to explore the issues it raises.

He doesn't believe that technology alone necessarily sets the
course of events, and is deeply concerned that world leaders, both
governmental and corporate, are abdicating their responsibility to
try to shape the emerging global age.  Intervention is needed not
only to tame volatile world financial marketsŠwhich do not not
operate under uniform international rules -- but also to channel
the bounty of the new age to benefit most of the world's people,
he says. Markets, Castells said, by way of elaboration, do a lot
of things good, but sharing the wealth they create among broad
numbers of people is not one of them. Nor, he says, does the
proliferation of electronic networks necessarily offer the promise
that access to them will be widely shared among the world's
people.  Both will require leadership of the emerging technocracy.

"The technology elite could play an extraordinary role, of being
the critical bridge between the new system of production and
innovation and the new civilization we are creating." The stakes
are high he believes.

"With the crisis of traditional institutions around the world,
we're each on our own," Castells said. "It's a dangerous state of
affairs. There's no example in history in which individuals
without institutions can survive."

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