Manuel Castells Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Identity and Change in the Network Society: Conversation with Manuel Castells, Professor of Sociology and City and Regional Planning, UC. Berkeley; 5/9/0l by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Identity in the Network Society

In addition to organizations -- hierarchical organizations; in some cases, dinosaurs, if you will -- having to adapt to this new reality of a network world, it's also the case that social movements and social groups have to respond. You write, "In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity -- collective or individual, ascribed or constructed -- becomes the fundamental source of social meaning." Let's talk a little about that, the irony of how globalized flows on the one hand lead to a redefinition, a reassertion of identity in localities. And let's relate it, for example, to the environmental movement.

That's a very good observation, because yes, it is paradoxical. And, in fact, it's a paradox that I found empirically in my research; I didn't start like this. I started from the technology side, the network side, and then I found that part of the story about the transformation of power did not correspond to that logic, but to the logic of resisting the domination of values implemented through these very effective networks and trying to provide alternative meaning.

Here's the point: On the one hand, these networks are extremely powerful. book cover: Power of IdentityBut on the other hand, they include only what is interesting from the point of view of the values or sources of interest that program this network. Let's say, the global capitalist network, left to itself, will include in the network companies, countries, regions, people, that enhance the value of this network in money-making terms. This is an extreme situation, but it's not completely away from what's happening in the world.

Then, people who don't have this value, don't have the education, don't have the infrastructure, don't have the institutions, what do they do? They cannot live without these networks which provide them with everything and capture any wealth from anywhere through processing everywhere. At the same time, if they cannot actually contribute to these networks, they are switched off. So we observed two sorts of reactions. Some people in some countries, in some regions, are saying, "Well, if you don't value me as a producer of bananas, I'll produce cocaine, and then I become part of the cocaine network, and then what I do is smuggling; or I sell women and children," and that goes into the so-called perverse connection.

The global criminal economy is a new phenomenon. It's interconnected throughout the world. And at this point, it's equivalent, more or less, according to the IMF, to about $1.5 trillion in the world, which is about the GDP of the United Kingdom. So, that's one reaction.

The other reaction is to say, "Wait a second. If you exclude me, in terms of your values, from your network, I exclude you." What I call the exclusion of the excluders by the excluded. And then they say, "You may be very rich and very technologically advanced, but I have gut. And my gut is better than your money, and that's different." Or "I have my historically rooted ethnic identity. I am a Chiapas Indian. As a Chiapas Indian, I don't care about your North American Treaty of Free Trade, because you will have to acknowledge me, or I will die for it. And that provides meaning to my life." Or, "I am a woman. And from the basic values of affirming my specifics as a woman, my equal rights as a woman, my reconstruction of a culture as a woman, I don't care if this is not valued in your network." So I think this is the extraordinary development that we are seeing in our world.

Now this is, on the one hand, very interesting, but on the other hand, it's potentially damaging to the coexistence in society, because all societies are built around a combination of instrumentality -- what we do for working, for organizing -- and meaning. Instrumentality and meaning. If we break the world, as we are doing, into instrumental networks with no meaning for most people, and pure meaning but no instrumentality -- survival communes -- it becomes a very dangerous world, a world of aliens, aliens to each other.

Looking at what happens on the ground, seeing that the reaction to these networks can be a reassertion or a redefinition of identity, helps you understand the complexity of what's actually going on in the world. So getting a computer today doesn't necessarily change the world. It's really about how people use the computer and apply it. An oil company could distribute computers in Nigeria and suddenly discover that they're being used to organize protest movements, both locally and internationally.

Absolutely. You see, and it goes both ways. On the other hand, as much as I think the Internet's an extraordinary instrument for creation, free communication, etc., you can use the Internet to exclude, because you can exclude in terms of the access to the network, the digital divide. But you can also exclude in terms of the culture and education and ability to process all this information that has happened on the net, and then use it for what you want to do, because you don't have the education, the training, the culture to do it, while the elites of the world do.

So that's one thing, but on the other hand, this phenomenon is also expressive of the surprises that history prepares; that's why you cannot predict the future, because history is fortunately full of surprises. One of the greatest surprises is that suddenly, all these movements that were supposed to be traditional, that were supposed to be unable to understand modern processes, they are organizing themselves on the Internet, and they are using information technology and information systems to actually introduce counter-trends to a one-dimensional logic of pure money and instrumentality.

The environmental movement is, first of all, a science-based movement. What most environmentalists do is, with the support of scientific experts, assess through the multiple interactions of systematic thinking what we are doing with our planet, with our environment, with our breathing, with our drinking, with our everything, by measuring or trying to measure and trying to extrapolate the consequences of certain types of modes of production.

Let's be clear. If we include, with no change in the modes of production and consumption that we have today, the 50 percent, 60 percent of humankind that is excluded from this level and mode of production, we destroy the planet. So we can only survive on the basis of extreme inequality. But on the other hand, the uses of the Internet are allowing the environmental movement to be, at the same time, local and global. Local, in the sense that people are rooted in their problems, in their communities, in their groups, in their identities, but then they act globally.

So it's not as activists used to say, "think globally, act locally." No, no: think locally -- link to your interest environment -- and act globally -- because if you don't act globally in a system in which the powers are global, you make no difference in the power system. And that, in spite of all my doubts about some of the elements in the anti-globalization movement.

But if I take the vision of a social scientist and not that of a politician or someone who would be interested in determining what is the good and the bad in the movement, as a social scientist, it is a very important movement, objectively speaking, because it's a movement that brings together, through the Internet, in a very flexible way, key symbolic demonstrations that hit the system at one point, at one time, through the media, and then disperse.

It's informational guerrilla tactics, if you wish, with different components being part or not part of the movement, and, of course, no possibility of control. How you control the movement on the Internet? Yes, you can arrest people or beat up people in a particular demonstration, but the media effect of that -- in fact, that is helping the anti-globalization movement to introduce a debate that did not exist. Until three or four years ago, it was clear in the official ideology of companies, governments, institutions that "globalization is good and you just have to explain it to people. Technology, by definition, is good, and if you are quiet and patient for a couple of decades, everybody will begin." Well, the anti-globalization movement, right or wrong, has created a space for social and political debate that did not exist. And this is thanks to the ability of environmentalists and other groups to connect with the Internet, relate to the public opinion through the media, and connect their locality to the global processes through specific events and demonstrations.

You write in the trilogy, "Social movements in the Information Age are essentially mobilized around cultural values. The struggle to change the codes of meaning in the institutions and practice of the society is the essential struggle in the process of social change in the new historical context, movements to seize the power of the minds, not state power."

In a so-called information society, minds are not only the most important economic asset -- companies with minds make money; companies with money and no minds lose the money -- it's the same thing in everything. The networks are not programmed by technology; technological tools are programmed by minds. So the human consciousness [is the source], because everything now depends on our ability to generate knowledge and process information in every domain and activity. Knowledge and information are cognitive qualities from the human mind. Yes, human minds usually are connected to bodies, which means that you have to take into consideration the overall system of human existence, social services support, etc. But fundamentally, the human mind has always been, but more than ever now, the source of wealth, power, and control over everything.

Now, therefore, in a world in which signals, processed by our minds, are constantly shaping and reshaping what we do, the ability to influence, to change the categories through which we think our world (here, what I call the code of our culture) -- this becomes the essential battle. If you win the battle of minds, you win the battle of politics, the battle of the economy, because people will decide what they want to buy or what they don't want to buy, for instance.

Let's take an example. In the last thirty years there has been the most extraordinary cultural revolution in history: women have changed the way they think about themselves. Once women in industrialized countries, but also in most developing countries -- there is a process toward this thinking -- decided that the patriarchal family (the institutional domination of men over women and children in the family) is not correct, that men and women are equal and women have to develop their own interests and culture, have their own relationship to work, to everything -- once women have changed that, everything changes. book cover: End of MillenniumThe family changes; therefore, socialization of children changes; therefore, personality changes, sexuality changes, everything changes. And that's the process we are in. Environmentalists: if you introduce the notion that production is not just growth but sustainable development, everything from the way we work to the way we produce to the way we consume is affected by this cultural transformation. And in democratic societies, this, in fact, translates also into politics. It translates into choices.

Now, it's a complicated matter there, because the battle of the minds is not simply the social movements changing the cultural codes of society, but the powers that be rephrasing the old categories with new words and new images but without changing meaning, like most of the so-called ecological thinking of many governments, which, in fact, are not so interested in environmental sustainability.

So it's a battle, but ideas and talents are, ultimately, the source of productivity and competitiveness. The same thing is true in terms of the overall social organization, how people change their minds determines how they change their behavior. And the change of behavior would, ultimately, translate into changes in the overall social organization.

Your analysis is subtle in the sense that a superficial look at the world suggests that the conglomerates and the mega-corporations are completely riding in the saddle and in charge of the direction of the society. But in fact, by looking at this more complex milieu, one sees, as you write, that, "ecologists, feminists, religious fundamentalists, nationalists, and localists are the potential subjects of the Information Age." That they can, in essence, come up with categories of thinking and responses that affect the way technology changes the world around us.

Definitely. But you see, first of all, there is this general misunderstanding that corporations run the world. Corporations run what they can run. But to start with, they don't even run the economy, because they are dependent on an uncontrollable system, which is the global financial markets. Corporations have their money in the financial markets. They depend on how investors perceive them and value them in the global financial market.

In March, 2000, Cisco Systems, which is a very good company in many ways in terms of the practice of the company -- I don't say that in terms of their values, but the practices of the company, it's a very effective company -- was valued at $550 billion and was the largest, the highest-value company in the world. In March, 2001, one year later, it was valued about $120 billion and had collapsed in the stock market. Still a great company -- 85 percent of the Internet equipment market.

So the turbulences of information that control the financial markets, the ability or not of companies to ride the subjectivity of financial markets, determines the fate of the company. So in that sense, companies do not run the world, because they cannot even control the global economy. There are a multiplicity of factors and influences. There's not an executive committee of the capitalist class planning and running the world. But on the other hand, companies and governments don't run the world because more and more there are alternative actors, social movements of all kinds, identity, communal movements, as well as proactive movements such as environmentalists, women, etc., that ultimately shape the agenda of both corporations and government institutions. Governments in the world, at this point, have a tremendous crisis of legitimacy. Kofi Annan in the fall of 2000 commissioned a global survey of citizens' opinions in the world which showed that two-thirds of citizens in the world did not consider themselves represented by their governments. And this was also true for the advanced democracies, the United States and others, with the only exception being the Scandinavian democracies.

So, citizens are not trusting their governments by and large these days; are not trusting, in fact, anyone except themselves and their identity networks, and in some cases, social movements with alternative values. And in that sense, the complexity of our world is that the institutions of governments are crumbling, while on the one hand, networks of technology, capital, production are organizing our lives throughout the world and many, many, different alternative sources of values and interests are emerging as a response to this one-sided domination, because people do not have institutions through which they can process their claims and their demands.

Next page: Conclusions

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