How does Castells define the ‘Network Society’? What are the advantages and limitations of the concepts for understanding current societies?

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The extent to which technology and the internet have revolutionized our social structures is immeasurably evident. In the last few decades, technology has lost its old fashioned connotation as complex, impersonal machines and have instead become devices which deliver real and palpable features to the masses. The internet, in turn, provides endless sources of fun and knowledge. Technology together with the internet are constructing innovative arrangements for the newer generations by adapting to newly formed habits that had been never considered before – an example of this was had when a nationwide newspaper announced it would be producing online content exclusively (Independent, 2016), because they had understood that the great majority of their readers were online. Despite these trends becoming clearly noticeable only in the last two decades, the phenomena of the online network and its implications on societies has been studied and theorized for much longer. One of the most prominent names in this field of sociology is Manuel Castells, who pioneered what is known as ‘Network society’ theory. This essay will discuss the definitions given by Castells regarding the network society, as well as present criticisms and alternative arguments from two other notable scholars: Nicholas Garnham and Frank Webster. Finally, a practical example will be provided to help make sense of Castells’ ideas in everyday life and contemporary media practice.

“A network society”, wrote Castells (2004:3), “is a society whose social structure is made of networks powered by microelectronics-based information and communication technologies.” The idea of a network itself is understood as a program made of nodes which communicate and cooperate with one another. (Castells, 2004:3) This intertwined system allow an efficient organizational system thanks to three main characteristics: Flexibility,  the concept by which networks are able to reconfigure themselves as the changing environment demands and yet keep working towards the same goal; Scalability, the characteristic whereby networks do not present a fixed size or number of elements, their shape and extent are variable depending on the connectivity of members; and finally, survivability, which means that due to their decentralized structure, networks are more resistant to attacks and fragilities on the individual nodes (Castells, 2004:5-6). The Network Society is, therefore, the denomination given to the social morphology of the Information Age. (Castells, 2000)

The emergence of the internet and its widespread adherence caused important structural changes in the world we live in, even in its most intrinsic systematic features. Castells (2004: 36) highlights two specific features of the network society: “Space of Flows” and “Timeless Time”. These two new concepts do not replace the prior structures of space and time; instead, they all co-exist and are also a cultural expression of the network society. (Castell, 2004:38) This means that time and space as physical concepts still exist; yet, the limitations humans once had, are becoming less evident. The technologies that characterize the network society annihilated geographical and economic boundaries. Throughout his work Castells (2004: 22) gives example of the financial markets system: financial trading happens at a constant pace worldwide, at any given time. Different locations and time zones are not so much of a hindrance since the trading system is global and networked. As a definition, “the space of flows refers to the technological an organizational possibility of practicing simultaneity (or chosen time in time-sharing) without contiguity.” (Castells, 2004:36) The second physical and biological boundary adapted to the needs of the network society is time. A priori, time is understood as a sequence of events. The ‘sequence’ factor has been, however, nullified. “This is done, on the one hand, by compressing time (as in split-second global financial transactions or the effort to fight “instant wars”), and, on the other, by blurring the sequence of social practices, including past, present, and future, in a random order.” (Castells, 2004:37). In other words, the notion of tenses becomes irrelevant, since that practices happen ephemerally and simultaneously.

The network society theory introduced to us by Castells is undoubtedly relevant for social sciences and media studies. However, it is important to note that Castell’s argument is neither a universal truth nor does it represent the whole picture regarding the different economic and political realities existing together in the world. The binary “inclusive/ exclusive” nature of a networked arrangement is an important limitation of his theory and it was recognized by Castells himself (2004:4). This logic states that any given part of the network can only communicate and share information with another member of this structure, meaning that, if there is any subject disconnected from this arrangement, the latter is automatically excluded from its universe. A social binary perspective, therefore, implies that there are two very different and contrasting realities within the same planet: those lived by people who are part of the network – and are, therefore, informed and influent; and those who live disconnected to the network – hence, who are powerless and weak. The binary structure results in digital divide, a concept studied by Mark Warschauer (2004:6) and defined by him as a barrier “marked not only by physical access to computers and connectivity, but also by access to the additional resources that allow people to use technology as well.” This means that people and societies who were not yet fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of technology, are secluded from the reality of those who are adept to it.

Further criticisms to Castell’s network society can be found in essays from other scholars who also sought to understand the influence of information technology on contemporary life. One main critique is that Castells’ theory contains too much technological determinism – in basic sociological terms, the belief that technology shapes social and cultural structures. Technological determinism was defined by Frank Webster (2006:10-11) as the belief that “technology is regarded as the prime social dynamic”, meaning that technologies must firstly be invented and then after, they will impact in society, which impels the humans and society are responding to the new. This perspective would therefore place the internet – and the network society by consequence – alongside other society-disrupting inventions: the steam engine, the automobile, nuclear technology, etc. (Dickson, 1974 – cited in Webster, 2006:11) Webster (2006:11), in contrary, believes that technology is an intrinsic part of society, and not an external factor which affects it by being introduced in its environment. Human intelligence and expertise, along with priorities in research and development, created the technologies that so define society nowadays. In light of this argument, Webster (2006:23) replies to Castells saying that “the chief difficulty, however, is with the argument that informational developments signal the emergence of a new type of social system, an information society.” This statement means that Webster believes that a network or information society is not actually a new phenomenon, but a continuity of the “corporate capitalist society”, the social structure mankind had been living in until technology took a major role and shifted modes of production (Webster, 2006).

Another respected scholar in this area is Nicholas Garnham. Garnham (2010), like Webster, presents a different perspective than Castells’ on contemporary society and its relationship with technology. Garnham’s studies very much follow the ideas presented by Daniel Bell’s in his “The coming of Post-industrial society”, book from the early 1970s through which he attempted to explain the first social changes caused by technology. Bell (1973 – cited in Webster, 2006:32-59) argued that society was, at that time, being introduced to a new system which its main feature was “a heightened presence and significance of information”, but the most important aspect is that this growth in information will be used to enhance productivity. (Bell, 1973 – cited in Garnham, 2010:141). Garham (2010) affirms that the idea that we live in a society whose core activity is information and technology is overrated, yet, he recognizes that the two influence plenty economic practices within society. “It is the exploitation of the globe’s material resources, in particular fossil fuels, that remains at the core of the economic growth however much knowledge is applied to that process.” (Garnham, 2010:144) Garnham reinforces his point by presenting relevant statistics on productivity: He states that 64% of total employment still remains in the traditional production and distribution of goods (Garnham, 2010:142); and the growth of e-commerce as an example of information technology being applied to refine classical business practices. (Garnham, 2010:143)

Despite the discrepancies in the academic field regarding the importance of the role of technology and information mentioned above, it seems undeniable that both have been causing an immense direct impact on the way society is organized – as we can see in our own dependence on information technology in everyday life. An example that fits perfectly within Castells’ theory and his critics could recently be noted in the international version of renowned The New York Times. Reporter Farhad Manjoo wrote on Friday December 21st, 2016 about the widespread use of ‘WhatsApp’ among refugees and migrants. ‘WhatsApp’ is an instant messaging smartphone app that can be used for free provided one has access to the internet. Manjoo (2016) described the difficult journey migrants face in order to reach safer lands such as Europe and North America.  Despite different nationalities and economic backgrounds, they all share the common language of ‘WhatsApp.’ Those taking this path leave their families and belongings behind and the only thing they take with them are their phones, which allow them to locate and communicate with each other. Migration is an old experience that has been re-shaped in the network society. Manjoo (2017:2) highlighted this shift in reality as: “surprising and subtle ways in which technology, especially smartphones and social media, has altered the immigrant experience.” The exact features that turned ‘WhatsApp’ into a survival tool are the core factors that caused the emergence of the network society: widespread adoption of technologies like smartphones and wider population inclusion due to reduced costs provided access to the internet.

The production of this essay showed how complex it is to find ways to define – and understand – the fast pacing changes caused by information and technology in society. Castells (2004) argued these changes created a network society, constituted by nodes which are linked to themselves and originated a new social morphology. Other scholars, like Webster (2006) and Garnham (2010) also attempted to theorise and explain the society of today, however, unlike Castells they did not put such a big emphasis on technology itself, but on its potential to improve already established social and economic practices. Nonetheless, Castells’ work paved the way for many others to study the effects of technology on social organization, too, and this alone is extremely valuable. Even though scholars have different approaches to the same reality, all of them do recognise the influence of technology and information. As Webster (2006:263) beautifully put “this consensus among thinkers that information is of pivotal importance in contemporary affairs:  it is acknowledged that not only is there a very great deal more information about than ever before, but also that it plays a central and strategic role in pretty well everything we do, from business transactions, to leisure pursuits, to government activities.” Considering how innovative tech companies are and the surprises that they constantly bring us, the network society we live in will be reshaping itself continually – thus, more theories and ideas are yet come. We might be far from reaching a conclusive argument in this matter – if we ever will. Nevertheless, the discussion is immeasurably important and fruitful, necessary for us to understand the fragilities that penetrate our reality. Fragilities that, once fixed, can enable us to make a better use of technology and work towards a less divided world.

Pamela Schweder Machado

BA Journalism (Hons.)

Theories of Media and Communications

103 thoughts on “How does Castells define the ‘Network Society’? What are the advantages and limitations of the concepts for understanding current societies?

  1. Hi there

    I am currently reading your piece on the network society. I just realised that you don’t provide references to the in-text citations. Could you update the page and include a reference list?

    I am working on an assignment on the network society and that information would be most helpful.

    Many thanks in advance.

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