Internet Galaxy 1: Network society
Castells argues in The Internet Galaxy that the last quarter of the 20th century saw the emergence of what he calls “a new social form” based on the new technologies of the internet. For the first time in history these technologies allow “communication from many to many in chosen time” (Castells, M, 2001 a), and this free-flowing network capability has given rise to new ways of thinking, working and interacting, new business structures, and a new type of economy based not on the production of physical goods but on the processing of symbolic ones. This new, post-industrial, social form is the network society.
Many other social theorists have described this cluster of technological, economic and social transformations in similar terms, if sometimes under slightly different labels. The terms information society (Fritz Machlup), programmed society (Alain Touraine), knowledge society (Nico Stehr), third wave society (Alvin Toffler) and network capitalism (Christian Fuchs) all refer to a post-industrial phase in which production, wealth and power are increasingly expressed in the form of information rather than material goods, and increasingly mediated through digital networks.
Criticisms of the network society concept point mainly to the danger, in focusing on the radical novelty of post industrial society, of overlooking important continuities between it and previous socio-economic formations. The main economic engine in network societies is still the drive to accumulate private capital, the market imperatives of competition and commodification still dominate, and the social and economic inequalities (both societal and global) characteristic of market economies tend to widen rather than close. Labels such as informational capitalism or digital capitalism – used for example by sociologists Frank Webster and Dan Schiller – attempt to re-emphasise this fact.
While I would agree that what Castells calls the “new economy” brought into being by the internet is still driven by the same underlying dynamics of capitalist economics, I think this is a point that Castells himself would readily concede. In The Internet Galaxy chapter 3, e-Business and the New Economy, he makes it quite clear that the expansion of the new economy – “powered by information technology, dependent on self-programmable labour, and organised around computer networks” (Castells, M, 2001 b) – was driven by the primal capitalist urge to maximise returns through driving up productivity and competitiveness:
The financing of the new economy is the cornerstone of its existence… High valuation of potential innovation on the stock market, and its anticipation by venture capital, were the mechanisms that mobilised capital from all sources.. and channeled it into innovation. (Castells, M, 2001 c)
Castells, M, 2001 a, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society p275 p/back edition, OUP, Oxford
Castells, M, 2001 b, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society p99 p/back edition, OUP, Oxford
Castells, M, 2001 c, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society p104 p/back edition, OUP, Oxford