"The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society"
by Manuel Castells
2001 Oxford University Press
Review by Madanmohan Rao
This is one of the more scholarly books published on the wider socio-economic impacts of the Internet. The overview of the networked world is comprehensive, insightful, and very stimulating.
The material is well-researched and backed up with copious references, spanning 11 chapters on online business, culture, politics, multimedia, and the digital divide. The title of the book, "The Internet Galaxy," draws on what Marshall MacLuhan referred to as the "Gutenberg Galaxy" created by the diffusion of the printing press.
Manuel Castells, born in Spain, is currently professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of twenty books including the trilogy "The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture." He has also consulted for the European Commission and the United Nations.
Growing attention about the Internet and its broader effects has spawned a new field of academic research particularly among younger scholars, and an "Internet research generation" is in the making, Castells begins.
"Networks are very old forms of human practice, but they have taken on a new life in our time by becoming information networks, powered by the Internet. Core economic, social, political and cultural activities throughout the planet are being structured by and around the Internet. The speed of transformation has made it difficult for scholarly research to follow the pace of change with an adequate supply of empirical studies on the whys and wherefores of the Internet-based economy and society," says Castells.
Instead, we have had "pop journalism" which oscillates between hype and bad news, and financial markets driven by crowd psychology and information turbulences.
"The elasticity of the Internet makes it particularly susceptible to intensifying the contradictory trends present in our world. Neither utopia nor dystopia, the Internet is the expression of ourselves - through a specific code of communication, which we must understand if we want to change our reality," he advises.
Two chapters trace the early development of the Internet from ARPANET and the convergence of its underlying cultures and countercultures. "The Internet was born at the unlikely intersection of big science, military research, and libertarian culture. The Internet did not originate in the business world. It was too daring a technology, too expensive a project, and too risky an initiative to be assumed by profit-oriented organizations," says Castells.
"Technological systems are socially produced. The Internet is, above all else, a cultural creation. The Internet culture today is characterized by a four-layer structure: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture," according to Castells. These sets of cultures have spurred the open source movement, the gift economy, cyberpolitics, virtual communities, and new venture capitalists.
"The culture of the Internet is made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society, and materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy," Castells succinctly sums up.
On the e-business front, the Internet has created an entrepreneurial vanguard of new firms, though these are much smaller than hyped. "What is emerging is not a dot.com economy, but a networked economy with an electronic nervous system," says Castells. The Internet world does not cancel business cycles or supersede economic laws, but adds new rules to the game.
The Internet has undoubtedly spurred disintermediation, decentralization, outsourcing, networked innovation, direct marketing, e-marketplaces, e-procurement, stock trading, and customer relationship management. The Net's specific contributions are in business model parameters like scalability, interactivity, flexibility, branding and customization.
The stock market in the late 1990s may have rewarded without discrimination all kinds of technology stocks, but now seems to be punishing them with the same lack of discrimination as well. Though the NASDAQ index has plummeted, the long period of high growth in the 1990s has already transformed the US economy and the core of the global economy, says Castells.
The Internet is also impacting the workplace in terms of location, skillsets, productivity, and migration patterns. Learning how to extract useful content from the Web, learning how to learn online, and learning where to find the best jobs are becoming increasingly important.
Chinese and Indian immigrant workers in Silicon Valley are creating a "bridge" between their countries as well. "Rather than a case of brain drain, we see the emergence of a system of brain circulation," says Castells.
On the community front, expectations of social interaction on the Net range from social isolation and "cyberbalkanisation" to unbounded sociability. Numerous studies seem to indicate that reasonable use of email enhances social life, helps maintain larger social networks, improves weak ties, and strengthens distant relationships. In fact, the Net is creating a new form of "networked individualism" by helping Netizens develop "portfolios of sociability" and "communities of choice."
On the political front, the Internet has spawned networked social movements (eg. use of the Net by the Zapatistas and Falun Gong), alternative media hubs (eg. www.indymedia.org), online activism (eg. for human rights, gender, environment, labour), community access networks (eg. Cleveland FreeNet), and e-government initiatives.
"By relatively leveling the ground of symbolic manipulation, and by broadening the sources of communication, the Internet does contribute to democratization," Castells claims.
At the same time, the Internet raises challenges of privacy and liberty and cyberspace, and governments are taking a wide range of actions to curb or encourage these. "Singapore has fully embraced technological modernization as a development tool. At the same time, it is widely considered to be one of the most sophisticated authoritarian systems in history," Castells observes.
Contentious issues on the regulation front include encryption legislation, intellectual property rights, surveillance, and cybercrime. If the Internet becomes architected as the new technology of control, we may end up living in an "electronic panopticon" or glass house, and the battle for definition of these new "codes" is well under way.
On the media front, much attention and investment has focused on the potential promises of scale and synergy due to multimedia convergence, between TV, PC and phone. "What people did was to accept TV and video as entertainment, keep radio as a companion, and use the Internet for their content-oriented interests," says Castells.
The Net has certainly transformed industries like news and music. "The newsrooms in all media are being retooled around the Internet. They work in a continuous stream of information-processing, on Internet time," according to Castells. "If you want to know what happened in your city from the other side of the world, only the Internet is able to provide you with the information, either on text (local newspapers) or audio (local radio stations)," he adds.
"Newspapers are online and people often read them online. One-third of Americans read news online at least once a week. However, they are not ready to pay for it. Newspapers are not being undermined by the Internet because in a world of endless information, credibility is an essential ingredient for information seekers. So, established newspapers have to be online in order to be always there for their readers," Castells explains.
"Radio listening is flourishing over the Internet. Here again, the Internet offers freedom in a world of increased control by large media groups," Castells claims. Another growth area is that of scholarly journals.
At a media experience level, the Net is ushering in new cultural forms via integration, interactivity, hypermedia, immersion and narrativity. "This virtuality is our reality. This is what is distinctive of culture in the Information Age: it is primarily through virtuality that we process our creation of meaning," says Castells.
One fascinating chapter focuses on the geographical dimensions of the Internet, as defined by worldwide distribution of users, communication backbones, hosts, content, domains, urban concentration, and telework. "Internet content provision is increasingly, and overwhelmingly, a metropolitan phenomenon," observes Castells.
There are multiple dimensions of the digital divide, based on lines of ethnicity, age, employment, education, income, urban location, gender, disability and living standards. These divides exist within and between countries. For instance, London has more domain names than all of Africa.
"I believe that the Internet is a fundamental instrument for development in the Third World," Castells says. "Development without the Internet would be the equivalent of industrialization without electricity in the industrial era. Without an Internet-based economy and management system, there is little chance for any country to generate the resources necessary to cover its development needs, on a sustainable ground - meaning economically sustainable, socially sustainable, and environmentally sustainable," Castells claims.
"The Internet is not just a technology. It is the technological tool and organisational form that distributes information power, knowledge generation and networking capacity in all realms of activity. Being disconnected, or superficially connected, to the Internet is tantamount to marginalisation in the global, networked system," Castells explains.
"The Internet-based logic of production, competition and management is a prerequsite for prosperity, freedom and autonomy," Castells states.
The challenge for us in this Internet Age is to cope with an endless cycle of changes, deal with uncertainty, cultivate a capacity for lifelong learning, and build responsible institutions for governance in a networked world.
"As long as you want to live in society, at this time and in this place, you will have to deal with the network society. Because we live in the Internet Galaxy," Castells concludes.
In sum, this book is a must read for all those seriously interested in the future of the networked world. Some more material on novel Internet trends in regions like Asia and on emerging fronts like the wireless Internet would have helped; an online companion to the book would have been a welcome addition as well.
Madanmohan Rao is the author of "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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