Copyright John Gerstner. All Rights Reserved.

Manuel Castells: Cyber-Scientist (The Civilization of Cyberspace #5)

"The 21st century may well be characterized by informed bewilderment.”
“The illusion we can live on a wonderful, shrinking planet, and ignore the 40 percent of the population hardly surviving with less than two dollars a day, is simply self-denial. Epidemics, wars, terrorism and moral outrage will reach us in our protected world.”

This interview by John Gerstner ABC, first published in the March 1999 issue of Communication World, dissects Castells’ 1,500-page encyclopedic trilogy, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, published in 1998. Castells has been described by The Economist as “the first significant philosopher of cyberspace.” Castells’ latest book is The Internet Galaxy.
“The 21st century will not be a dark age. Neither will it deliver to most people the bounties promised by the most extraordinary technological revolution in history. Rather, it may well be characterized by informed bewilderment.”
“It is indeed, brave or not, a new world.”
“The glut-of-information idea is simply a primitive, misleading, cheap shot of neo-Luddites. There can never be enough information.”
Could there be any connection between the amazing rise of global information technology and…
  • …the alarming increase in the sexual exploitation of children?
  • The spread of U.S. militia hate groups and religious fundamentalism?
  • The radical destruction of the patriarchal family?
  • The menacing rise of illegal drug and weapons trafficking by global crime syndicates?
  • The gross income inequality between the world’s richest and poorest nations?
  • The alarming and rising number of adults under correctional supervision?
  • The overwhelming sense of confusion in the Information Age?
Unfortunately, yes to all, says Manuel Castells, professor of sociology and planning at the University of California, Berkeley. “The rise of informationalism at the end of this millennium is intertwined with rising inequality and social exclusion throughout the world. The global network society is shaking institutions, transforming cultures, creating wealth and inducing poverty, spurring greed, innovation and hope, while simultaneously imposing hardship and instilling despair. It is indeed, brave or not, a new world.”
Castells did not arrive on this dark side of cyberspace easily or lightly. He is almost apologetic for the negative news, as if it were his fault. With the perseverance of a monk and the shrewdness of a very sharp prosecuting attorney, he has spent the past 14 years piecing together the economic, social and political impacts of the new information technology. He is a scientist – he tells it as he finds it.
The fruit of his labor is a 1,500-page encyclopedic trilogy, “The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture” (Blackwell, 1996-98). For his ability to read the underlying currents in contemporary society, Castells is being compared to two earlier sociologists, Karl Marx and Max Weber. Among colleagues, Castells is being called the “first great philosopher of cyberspace,” yet most people have yet to hear his name.
The Information Age is undoubtedly the most extensive and original investigation yet of the new global communication revolution. The work is all the more remarkable because Castells faced what he thought was an unforgiving deadline. He learned he had cancer just as he was about to begin writing. Fortunately, the cancer is now in remission.
The Information Age starts with the premise that “a technological revolution, centered around information, is fundamentally altering the way we are born, we live, we learn, we work, we produce, we consume, we dream, we fight, or we die.”
As more of people’s lives are made up of their daily experiences in the virtual world, our concepts of time and space are radically altered. Castells, born in Spain and author of 17 other books, introduces the terms “timeless time” and “the space of flows” to consider these abstract concepts.
“Timeless time” means that technologies, including bio-technologies, make it possible to manipulate the natural sequence of events (postponing the conception of a baby by in vitro fertilization, for instance) to suit our desires or time zones. The “space of flows” means that the flow of information brings physical spaces into closer contact through network organization.
These changes give rise, says Castells, to “real virtuality.” The day-to-day lives of humans (wired ones, at least) more and more depend on the content and meaning of the text, images and sounds streaming into their laptops. This phenomenon raises the real question: If it didn’t happen on the Net, did it happen?
Castells’s Volume I, “The Rise of the Network Society,” documents how far flung networks, powered by digital technology, have become the basic structure and building blocks of society. Networks allow the almost instantaneous flow of information, capital and cultural communication, globally and in real time. “The world is becoming organized not just by a common set of capitalist rules, but by informational capitalism,” he says. Unfortunately, those left unwired are doomed to an “informational capitalism black hole.”
“By combing the globe ceaselessly for things of value, the network society excludes everything, and everyone, not of value. And those excluded are not just those in ‘fourth-world’ countries; they are in the South Bronx, or Naples.”
Because networks are infinitely adaptable organisms with no center and no geographic boundary, they are more powerful than any company, institution or government. “This means the main political arena is now the media, and the media are not politically answerable,” says Castells.
Where all of this is leading, Castells has little to say. Only in the final chapter of Volume III, “End of Millennium,” does he indulge in a bit of futurology. “The dream of Enlightenment, that reason and science would solve the problems of humankind, is within reach. Yet there is an extraordinary gap between our technological overdevelopment and our social undervelopment.
“Valuable locales and people – and switched-off territories and people – will be found everywhere. The global criminal economy will be a fundamental feature of the 21st century.
“Fundamentalisms of different kinds and from different sources, with their potential access to weapons of mass extermination, east a giant shadow on the optimistic prospects of the Information Age.”
And finally: “The 21st century will not be a dark age. Neither will it deliver to most people the bounties promised by the most extraordinary technological revolution in history. Rather, it may well be characterized by informed bewilderment.”
GERSTNER: What prompted you to spend 14 years working on your trilogy, “The Information Age”?
CASTELLS: The main motivation to undertake the research that led to this trilogy was to understand our world, not just the technology. I felt, in the early 1980s, that the intellectual (and political) categories we were using had become an obstacle for our understanding, and without new concepts/interpretations, we were blind in our world. Information technology was the obvious and most spectacular transformation, but it was not the only object of my research. It was the entry point to the new economy/society/politics that we were entering.
I was highly dissatisfied with the superficiality, lack of rigor, and techno-hype of the prophets of the new world – Toffler, Gilder and the like. I am an academic researcher and an empirical sociologist. I think and write only about evidence, and the theoretically rigorous interpretation of this evidence.
GERSTNER: It was reported in The Wall Street Journal that a few of your university colleagues implored you to boil down your trilogy into one condensed book. You replied, “In all modesty, this is condensed.” How do you react to criticism that your writing is too academic?
CASTELLS: My work is totally academic, and I consider that a quality. The world has enough intelligent business consultants, well-informed journalists, and best-selling writers apt at storytelling. But I saw a need for rigorous academic research that would be willing to take the risk of investigating uncharted paths, such as the new social structures and processes associated with the information technology revolution.
There were some major analytical efforts; Alain Touraine in Europe, Daniel Bell in the United States. But their books, published in 1969 and 1973, predated the core of the information technology revolution. The development of the networked economy, the end of the Cold War, the rise of environmentalism and feminism, the crisis of the nation state – all were major issues that I had to take up anew.
I also wanted my analysis not to be ethnocentric. Too many views of the information society had been based exclusively on the U.S. or Western European experiences. I wanted to see what was happening in different cultures, in the world at large, since one of the characteristics of this world is precisely that core activities are globally interconnected.
Then in 1993, after 10 years of research, I decided it was time to elaborate and write. I sent a draft of each chapter to a group of experts in each topic, so I was both writing and correcting. It was strenuous, but by following a traditional scholarly practice, I felt more secure about the basic facts and interpretations on which the book was based. Voila!
GERSTNER: Did you think no one else had grasped the essential import of “The Information Age”? It was Marshall McLuhan, one of my heroes (is he one of yours?), who said: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
CASTELLS: I am certainly not so pretentious as to think that no one else is grasping the Information Age. I think a number of researchers/analysts are developing very good insights, and generating useful data (Sherry Turkle, Claude Fischer, Barry Wellman, David Lyon, Geoff Mulgan, William Dutton, Brian Arthur, Hal Varian, etc.). I think what is specific to my work is the macroperspective, and the connection between many domains of society – that is, technology, economy, culture, and politics – all interacting with each other. The essence of my work is about connections and about multicultural perspective. And yes, McLuhan is also a great intellectual hero for me – in spite of his not being able to think correctly about what he could not see in his time.
GERSTNER: There seems to be a dearth of information about you on the Net. Is this a conscious attempt on your part? Are you an active Internet user?
CASTELLS: Yes, I use the Internet daily, but not much in real time interaction. I simply do not have the time, not only because I work very much, but also because it is still precious for me to go for a walk in the woods around my house with my wife. As for information on me, there is considerable information on me on the Net. If you search under my name, and you eliminate all the historic castells [castles in Catalan], you still find hundreds of references to my work. But, yes, not to me, and not to my life, except when a clever journalist has found out and published an article on me. I keep it very private. I am not an exhibitionist, and I want people to relate to my ideas, and to my work, not to me as a person – thus no web page, and I do not plan to have one. In fact, I try to conceal my e-mail, not to be overwhelmed by thousands of messages per week, as was the case with my first, and public, e-mail, which I simply cannot process.
GERSTNER: What is your opinion of the growth, commercialism and value of the Internet that has exploded into many of our faces in the last several years?
CASTELLS: Commercialism in the Internet? I am not against it. The Internet is life, and our life is full of commercialism. I would be opposed to exclusive domination of commercial interests in the Internet, but I do not see this happening. The critical thing is to keep phone access cheap and software affordable and user-friendly. The rest…people will find their niches, and their paths. The Net is unlimited, no scarcity of space of flows for the foreseeable future. Let a hundred flowers blossom on the Net.
GERSTNER: You are clear in your books that – despite the “prophetic hype and ideological manipulation” surrounding the information technology revolution – we should not underestimate its truly fundamental significance. What makes the information revolution so different and so much more disruptive than the industrial revolution?
CASTELLS: The information technology revolution is about how we generate and process information. And information is the key substance of all human activity, and is directly related to culture, to institutions, to experience. So for the first time there is a direct connection between what we think, what we believe, and how and what we produce. Minds become the direct productive forces, and minds are rooted in culture and in social relationships. So there is interactive connection, for the first time, in real time, between nature and culture, through information processing enacted at light speed.
The IT revolution is spreading faster than any other revolution for two reasons: a) Because it is about information, everybody in the world needs its tools, and every activity that does not use these new tools becomes obsolete and is washed out by competition. b) But it is also about communication technologies, so it has created its own infrastructure to diffuse globally.
GERSTNER: You say we are witnessing a point of historical discontinuity. This is related to the “virtuous circle” that emerges when a networked, deeply interdependent economy becomes increasingly able to apply its progress in technology, knowledge, and management to technology, knowledge, and management itself. Isn’t this, to borrow from the world of hip-hop, “all good”? Are we beginning to draw up the blueprint for Utopia, Planet Earth?
CASTELLS: There is historical discontinuity in the current technological revolution, and there is a virtuous circle in which new technological discoveries generate new generations of discoveries. For instance, the biological revolution is accelerated by computer power, and electronic networks become increasingly independent from computers’ hard disks. But what happens with this technological revolution is an open process, depending on human action, values, and institutions. My volume III is a full report of the miseries and suffering inflicted on much of the planet by the process of economic restructuring and by technological apartheid. And I show that the uses to which we are putting new technologies do accentuate inequalities in our society, and in the world at large. In this sense, I do not observe a happy Utopia, but a painful experience for a considerable proportion of the human population, as I tried to convey in Repin’s painting on the jacket of my third volume.
GERSTNER: What is it about the topology of the network that makes it crucial to the rise of the informational economy?
CASTELLS: Networks are a very old form of relationship, as old as humankind. What made them different is the power of new information/communication technologies, and this is expanding. Networks are flexible, adaptive structures, but they traditionally had a major problem: how to coordinate resources efficiently, how to keep the unit focused on a project, bringing together decentralized units with imperfect knowledge of each other. New technologies allow networks to decentralize execution, but to coordinate decision-making. So networks came first, but they became all-embracing, self-expanding, efficient structures of action by the power of information/communication technologies.
GERSTNER: You and others argue that the integration of text, images and sounds in the same system in an interactive global network, with open and affordable access, fundamentally changes the character of communication – and, therefore, our culture. How?
CASTELLS: If I can find anything I want and need on the Internet, and have links between all forms of TV, radio, videotapes, video games, films, music, theater, literature, news, science, history, and art, and I can play back and forth with all these sources, and recombine them, I can dwell in the hypertext.
We will certainly still go for a walk in the woods, but much of our system of representation and communication is being rooted in this flexible, personalized hypertext. This is not for everybody on the planet, however, so we will have different levels of exposure to this hypertext, and thus different cultural expressions. Yet the dominant cultural expression, for the highly educated groups in society, generating values and beliefs, is likely to be enclosed in this hypertex. But we need to research more, and talk less, until we really know what is going on.
GERSTNER: You say a new culture is forming at the end of the milennium…a culture of “real virtuality.” By this do you mean the more we live and work in cyberspace, the more we rely on fleeting bits of electrons to form opinions and make decisions that determine our material world? Is our future, then, to become a world of make-believe? Can you explain the concept of “real virtuality” more fully?
CASTELLS: The culture of real virtuality is a culture in which many of our cultural representations/ideas/beliefs depend on images/sounds processed in/by the electronic hypertext. It is virtual (electronically produced/transmitted images). It is real because it forms a substantial part of our reality. Our minds are populated by these images, and our opinions interact constantly with the messages received from the electronic hypertext.
GERSTNER: How relevant is it to a dissection of the impact of media on culture that the new computer-mediated media enter the human senses as an endless parade of fleeting, ephemeral electronic pulses? Does it make everything else humans touch also seem more transitory and expendable?
CASTELLS: Electronic impulses link machines and human brains. Our brains – therefore we – are made of chemical reactions and electronic impulses. So the relentless interaction with electronic communication devices certainly has a neuro-physiological influence. But we do not know what, because we know so little about the brain. I would say that the most important frontier for research, and human transformation, in the Information Age is the study of the brain, and of its interaction with increasing brainpower in the electronic networks. This is not science fiction, but what scientists are doing. We are in for some major surprises.
GERSTNER: When you say, “the message is lagging the medium,” are you speaking only about what many call the vacuum of good content on television, or are you extending this criticism to communication conveyed through all other channels, including the Internet?
CASTELLS: The message is lagging the medium everywhere, but particularly on the Internet. With so many communication possibilities, we do not know what to say. We become repetitive, unimaginative and monotonous. New Hollywood studios are cranking up as much new content as they can, with limited success. The Internet is littered with senseless information, and our browsers are still so primitive that we waste huge amounts of time finding what we want. But browser technology is improving decisively, and a new generation of artists, writers, filmmakers and journalists is coming up to the new medium.
GERSTNER: Cheap energy fueled the industrial revolution. You say cheap inputs of information derived from advances in microelectronic and telecommunications technology are driving this one. But can’t there be too much of a good thing? Are we threatened as never before by the glut of information, often from unreliable sources?
CASTELLS: The glut-of-information idea is simply a primitive, misleading, cheap shot of neo-Luddites. There can never be enough information. We ignore so many important things. And on a planet largely illiterate, and ignorant (including widespread ignorance in a large segment of the American people – for instance, who knows what DNA does?), to speak of information glut is simply an insult to intelligence. The issue is the relevance of information for each one of us, how to find it, how to process it, how to understand it. For this we need more information technology, not less. We need much better browsers, we need more sophisticated design of web sites, we need user-friendly, mobile devices. We need a quantum leap in information/communication technologies, information storage/retrieval systems, and education systems. The technology part of this is coming fast. The educational part, which is essential, is lagging way behind.
GERSTNER: A central point of your trilogy is that the wonderful technological infrastructure that allows us to communicate, innovate, produce and consume with ever-increasing global efficiency at the same time wreaks havoc on large segments of the world’s population who are unwired. Are you saying, here, that the fruits of technology will never trickle down to the info disadvantaged…Paradise Lost?
CASTELLS: The fruits of the technology revolution will never trickle down by themselves. The inherent logic of the system is exclusionary, and the gap is increasing. This is not an opinion; it’s an empirical observation. But this is not the fault of technology, it is the way we use it. Technologies are so powerful that they amplify social effects of our institutions. Democratic, egalitarian societies may do wonders with new information technology [e.g., Finland]. Unequal, undemocratic, exclusionary societies, on the contrary, will see the power of technology dramatically increase social exclusion. We need, more than ever, socially oriented government policies, and social responsibility for business and institutions, working together to reverse the trends toward an unsustainably unequal world beyond the wonderland of Silicon Valley. This is particularly true of Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS, famine, atrocious and absurd civil wars, corrupt politicians, rapacious companies.
GERSTNER: You say that Africa is dropping further and further behind in the global economy with each leap forward by the techno-elite, and that the “disinformation of Africa at the dawn of the Information Age may be the most lasting wound inflicted on this continent.” Is this more the result of politics than technology? What needs to be done to help reduce the information technology gap between the haves and have-nots around the world?
CASTELLS: New technologies allow linking up the few valuable segments of Africa to the rest of the world and disconnecting most people, letting them perish in their own horror. It will come back to haunt us. The issue is not to send more computers to Africa, but to devise a realistic, down-to-earth international aid program that will reverse the trend, starting from the grassroots, and using technology for it. A number of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), both African and international, are already working along these lines. I wish some high-tech companies would use a small percentage of their profits in helping out Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, and similar organizations, as well as technology diffusion grassroots groups, working with the youth. The illusion that we can live on a wonderful, shrinking planet, and ignore the 40 percent of the population hardly surviving with less than two dollars a day, is simply self-denial. Epidemics, wars, terrorism and moral outrage will reach us in our protected world.
GERSTNER: Your third book in the trilogy, “End of Millennium,” chillingly details the dark side of the Information Age. What about the network society is hazardous to children?
CASTELLS: I think what is happening to children is one of the most striking contradictions of the Information Age because we build our future not with our machines but with our children. Poor children around the world are being exploited at work, abused, abandoned, neglected, sold for sex, massacred as child soldiers, by the tens of millions. See data in my volume III, or in UNICEF publications. But in our societies, even for middle-class children, there is increasing neglect of child care by overworked parents, by single parents trying to survive the daily rush, and by the lack of government-sponsored child care. Technology of course is not the guilty party here. Although, again, powerful technology applied to a sick society produces nasty effects, such as easy  access to a plentiful child pornography on the Internet.
As to why children are wasted, I dare to cite my own paragraph in Volume III, page 161: “Children are wasted because, in the Information Age, social trends are extraordinarily amplified by society’s new technological/organizational capacity, while institutions of social control are bypassed by global networks of information and capital. And since we are all inhabited at the same time, by humanity’s angels and devils, whenever and wherever our dark side takes over, it triggers the release of unprecedented, destructive power.”
GERSTNER: Why have almost all spokespersons for the advent of cyberspace (three out of the four I’ve interviewed so far) tended to be very positive and optimistic about the fruits of information technology?
CASTELLS: All of my negative observations are not arguments against new information technologies. We are in fact in a most extraordinary moment of history, full of potential creativity, both for individuals and for society at large. But, probably unlike your other interviewees, I am an empirical sociologist, and I observe what is happening. And what is happening is a mixed picture of increased productivity, economic growth, personal emancipation, and cultural creativity, together with devastating effects for many people and countries around the world. This is not because of technology, but because of the social impacts of a new network society, in which other processes (economic, political, cultural) interact with technology to induce a new society, and its social effects. Furthermore, what happens in Silicon Valley is not the same as what happens in Chicago. Palo Alto is on a different planet from East Palo Alto, and Indonesia was both propelled and destroyed by information-technology-based, economic globalization. So I observe all these processes, and they all, together, form the new Information Age.
GERSTNER: You also say a global criminal economy will be a fundamental feature of the 21st century, and its economic, political and cultural influence threatens to control a substantial share of our economy, institutions and everyday life. Are drug lords, political terrorists and the Mafia now hiring computer programmers?
CASTELLS: The global criminal economy is indeed a fundamental feature of our world, and it is expanding. It is a business that yields nearly one trillion dollars a year. That is more than the GDP of Britain. It relies mainly on money-laundering systems that benefit from the electronic infrastructure of money transfer. And most of these criminal businesses are run by sophisticated computer systems. All this is a well-known fact, documented by numerous reliable press reports. Here again, it is not technology that induces the criminal economy, but the kind of economy and society and politics we have created at the end of this millennium. Once in existence, the global criminal economy expands by using all the power of new technologies.
GERSTNER: You shy away from futurology in your writings, but you do drop a few predictions for the 21st century: the global informational superhighway will be completed; there will be a full flowering of the genetic revolution; human labor will produce more and better with considerably less effort; global terrorism will become more technological and dangerous. Are you optimistic or pessimistic, and what do you hope your trilogy will contribute?
CASTELLS: I refuse futurology because I strongly believe it is not a serious intellectual activity. It’s made of hype and pop sociology, always looking for a sound bite. Most of what people think is the future is, in fact, the present. They just do not know. For instance, most of what Negroponte talks about are trends rooted in the present, observable developments. He is knowledgeable about it, so I am interested by many of his writings. But when Gilder extrapolates to society at large, and historical development, a few technological trends – rationalized with his ultra-conservative ideology – I find myself very distant. It’s a simplified vision of a very complex and contradictory process, the emergence of a new society, associated with new technologies.
I hope my trilogy contributes to understanding our new world, period. After that, it is up to people, and to their institutions, to make informed decisions to shape and improve their lives, both socially and individually. I am a researcher, not a prophet, not a politician, not a business consultant, all honorable professions, but not mine; thus my hope is to contribute relevant, rigorous knowledge about the interaction between information technology, economy, society and culture. I may be wrong in many ways, but there are objective criteria (as accepted in academia) to judge the relevance of the work. It is not a matter of opinion, but of fact and logical interpretation.
GERSTNER: In the final paragraph of your third book in your trilogy, you argue that there is nothing that cannot be changed by conscious, purposeful social action. This is followed by a long list of “ifs,” including “if people are informed and active and communicate throughout the world, if business assumes its social responsibility, if humankind feels the solidarity of the species throughout the globe, and if the media become the messengers, rather than the message.” Could you please elaborate on what you mean by that last “if”?
CASTELLS: It means that too often, media impacts are about a report being in the media. People have a quick notion about a sound bite concerning something, some potential scandal affecting a politician, for instance, and they retain the politician and the scandal, without receiving the context, the analysis, the meaning of the whole matter. Informative, responsible media should concentrate on providing context, on deepening the analysis, on helping people to understand, moving away from simple infotainment. Since media, and particularly TV, are the essential source of information/ideas for people, and this will increase with Internet-based media reporting, it is essential that journalists and media businesses add substance to their work. New media are an essential tool to induce a new culture and a new society.
GERSTNER: This may be an unfair question – sort of like asking an artist what her painting means – to which she is totally justified in answering: “If I could express it in words, I would have written a few sentences instead of applying paint to canvas.” Still, what two or three ideas would you like the public to glean from your 14 years of grappling with the Network Society?
CASTELLS: New information technologies revolutionize our capacity for thinking, extending our brain to the whole world of production, communication, enjoyment, and decision making. Thus who we are and what we want become an explosive force. But who we are and what we want are largely conditioned by the values and institutions of society, most of which are rather primitive, unequal, and undemocratic. Unless we use our new thinking power to change or reform society, at home and in the world, we are in for a round of destructive creation, in contrast to the possibilities of creative destruction offered by technological and cultural innovation.
John Gerstner – CEO, Communitelligence
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    IABC Communication World Magazine
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  • Date
    May 11, 1996