We are happy to announce that all the papers in the special issue The Network Society Today: (Revisiting) Manuel Castells’ Information Age Trilogy are now available on the website of the American Behavioral Scientist. Here we present the abstracts of each paper.
2021 marked the 25th Anniversary of Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society, the first volume of the Information Age trilogy. The Trilogy immediately became one of the most influential works to understand the societal change in the wake of the digital revolution. More than two decades later, many of the emerging processes theorised and analysed in the Trilogy have reached full maturity, if not evolved in unexpected ways. Also, several theoretical and epistemological trends have developed or consolidated in the social sciences that have either been influenced by or challenged the Trilogy position. In this scenario, is the Network Society Theory still relevant for understanding today’s digitalised society? How should we develop the Network Society approach now? This special issue aims to answer these questions. In particular, in this collection of papers, we identify three interrelated dimensions: new developments in the evolution or disruption of the Network Society, the articulation between network logics and other spatial forms, and the relation of the Network Society with recurrent topics in Castells’ work beyond the Information. The papers are a selection of the contributions to the online workshop The Network Society Today: (Revisiting) the Information Age Trilogy (November 2–30, 2020), in which Prof. Castells also participated. This volume brings together a wide range of established and emerging scholars from a diversity of Social Sciences disciplines with plural theoretically informed papers tackling rich empirical case studies across the world, spanning America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Contributions conclude with a reflection by Manuel Castells on them and his work.
Keywords:network society, Manuel Castells, information age trilogy
NETWORKS IN THE AGE OF PLATFORMS
The Network and the Society: Structure and Agency in Castells’ Theory
The aim of the article is to explore the theoretical tension between structure and agency as laid out by Manuel Castells, from The Rise of the Network Society (1996) to Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012). With agency and structure recognized as the two main axes around which general social theory rotates, Castells’ work appears to be affected by discontinuity rather than continuity. The first part of his theory mainly deals with the structure and with the “pre-eminence of social morphology over social action”, while the second is rather based on agency, and namely on the role played by grassroots movements. I will retrace his theoretical evolution while also stressing the point that network and society are not one and the same. Therefore, any all-embracing theoretical perspective is destined to miss the target, considering that technical, political, and social affairs follow different rules and patterns.
Scholars and journalistic accounts have devoted growing interest to the centralizing trends characterizing platforms and the “platform society.” They often oppose this model to the alleged openness, horizontality, and “equality” they attach to “networks.” Such depictions seem willing to give up on a thorough consideration of network structure, which appears nowadays less fundamental to reflect on the digital world (and society) than it was 25 years ago. Or even question whether the network society model, as proposed by Castells, is unsuitable for describing contemporary society. In our opinion, the dichotomy opposing the (alleged) openness and egalitarian nature of networks (and of the network society), to the current centralization trends characterizing the platform society, as well as the subsequent assumption that networks are an outdated heuristic tool, derive from a misunderstanding of networks’ structure and dynamics. Scholars have shown that the structure of most complex networks can be defined as “scale-free,” following a power-law distribution. Complex networks, indeed, show the tendency for some nodes to become more interconnected than others (thus becoming “hubs”). In this, the understanding of network structure proposed in Castells (1996), contrary to the rhetoric considering networks intrinsically as “egalitarian,” is still a conceptual and analytical tool of the utmost importance for understanding the so-called “platform society.” This paper focuses on networks, network models, and the network society, reviewing what was proposed in Castells (1996). We argue that the social and platform ecosystem we are witnessing today can be understood from the perspective of scale-free networks and is, indeed, consistent with the premises provided in 1996. When observing networks, we address both structure and agency, and both the macro (network morphology) and micro (networked individualism and sociability) levels
Castells’ analysis of the breakdown of Soviet statism is possibly more relevant now than when it was written. By identifying systemic blockages to necessary societal transformation—then from industrialism to informationalism—he offers a framework to analyze the contemporary crisis of liberal democracy. Then and now, the challenges are caused by the system’s inability to organize the complexity created by itself which creates more and more internal contradictions. Two current challenges threatening the stability of the liberal democracy are rising social inequality and the crossing of geophysical boundaries of the earth as an ecological system. The inability to address these challenges is related to systemic blockages within liberal democracies. Parallels to the late Soviet Union are drawn without predicting outcomes.
Starting from the interpersonal communication theories that have incorporated the use of information and communication technologies (Walther, 2007, 2011, 2017) and the perpetual interconnectedness to understand human behavior in interaction with others (Walther et al., 2015), the current paper approaches challenges brought by the network society in the way we bridge our online and offline self. Castells’ concepts are primarily used to explain macro-phenomena, for example, social movements (Castells, 2015), political and socio-economic transformation around the world (Castells, 2017), and to a lesser extent in discussing meso-phenomena, such as social isolation, exhaustion, the commodification of human interactions and interpersonal conflicts arise as part of individual’s adaptation to the Information Age. The current paper creates links between Castells’ main concepts of the network society theoretical framework and three meso-theories used in the interpersonal communication field to explain people’s online behavior in interaction by focusing on the characteristics of the communication medium: The social presence theory, Media richness theory, and the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE). Sharing Castells’ optimism on how network society creates efficiency and innovation in human interactions, we draw attention to less optimistic aspects related to the constant pressure of constructing relationships through virtual reality.
Keywords:network society and interpersonal communication, information age and social interactions, interpersonal communication mediated by technologies
THE NETWORK AND THE GRASSROOTS
In Search of ‘Truths’: South Korean Society and the Politics of Live Streaming
Despite Castells’ argument about the transformative potential of digital communication technologies for developing the networks of individuals and bringing about social and political changes, critical scholars have continued to raise vigilance against the potentially detrimental consequences of such technologies in social domains. One such issue relates to their impact on (collective) identity-making. Taking as a case study the live streaming of 2016–17 candlelight and Taegukgi rallies in South Korea, this article addresses how a digital communication technology can go further than simply permitting a large-scale mobilization and can reconfigure the meaning of participation in social movements, contributing to the emergence of what we term ‘polemical identity’. We argue that this polemical identity diverges from a more hopeful perspective found in Castells’ account, developing instead through the new semantics of participation that result in, and are triggered by, various practices of Otherizing. This includes searching for, and claiming, one’s own ‘truth’ as a means of bonding with the likeminded. In this process, we illuminate how the relationship between (collective) identity, digital communication technologies, social contexts and institutional power has become more complicated.
Keywords:otherizing, polemical identity, live streaming, social movements in South Korea, Manuel Castells
Mobile Communication and Urban/Rural Flows in a South African Marginalised Community
This article draws on Castells’ concept of space of flows to explore the role of mobile communication in mediating the flows of ideas, people and resources concerning Dwesa, a rural community in South Africa. While it is the site of an ICT-for-development project fifteen years in the making, Dwesa is representative of many contemporary South African rural realities in terms of lack of infrastructure, endemic poverty and urban migration. Mobile network coverage is almost universal, sustaining a bidirectional flow of people, resources and information between Dwesa and urban areas such as Cape Town. A critical review of the substantial body of research conducted in the area, as well as thematic analysis of social media texts and semi-structured interviews with community members, reveal that mobile phones play an important and nuanced role in arranging physical or virtual rendezvous, facilitating transfers of monetary and other resources, and enabling timeless communication and exchange of information across distance.
Keywords:mobile communication, space of flows, migration, rural community, South Africa
Democratic Disruption or Continuity? Analysis of the Decidim Platform in Catalan Municipalities
Free, open-source participatory platforms like Decidim or Consul were designed by the 15M’ citizen activists in Spain. Initially implemented in Barcelona and Madrid, these platforms are spread in many countries. Castells has not examined the institutionalization of the 15M’s offspring, and thus we aim to contribute by studying the rollout of the Decidim platform in Catalan municipalities. We examine its disruptive potential along three democratic dimensions: transparency, participation and deliberation. Our study combines in-depth interviews and an online questionnaire administered to public officials in charge of the platform and analyses the levels of participation on the platform. The research shows elements of managerial continuity: the most valued goals are transparency, organisation of information and the collection of citizen proposals, rather than deliberation and transfer of sovereignty towards citizens. However, the platform forces administrations to consider individual citizens’ inputs, increases citizens’ proposals and initiatives, and brings in new participant publics. Furthermore, democratic innovation is being pushed ahead by a network of activists and technological experts that continuously improve the platform and function as a counter-power (Castells, 2015, 2016).
Keywords:participatory platforms, local government, 15M movement, Decidim, civic technologies
The theory of the network society, in my own version, was originally elaborated in the book, under the title The Rise of the Network Society, published in 1996. It was revised and updated in the 2000 and 2010 editions. However, the significant social change that has taken place on a global scale in the last decade provides an opportunity to reassess its heuristic value. Therefore, in this text, I will attempt to consider the currency of the theory of the network society when confronted with these changes.
Keywords:network society, information age trilogy, social change