In his seminal book on the computer, hypertext, and the history of writing, Jay David Bolter (1991) concluded that "the computer is an ideal writing space for our networked society" (p. 238) If we agree with Bolter, then we must recognize that our work in computers and composition depends to a large degree on our understanding and analysis of the nature of the network(ed) society. Fortunately, developing such understanding and analysis is greatly facilitated by Manuel Castells's comprehensive three-volume series, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.
Castells, formerly a researcher at the Centre d'Études des Movements Sociaux in Paris from 1965-1979 and now a professor of sociology and planning at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent the last 35 years studying the political economy, sociology, and culture of the postmodern world. This research has culminated in Castells's three-volume magnum opus which is gaining recognition as one of the most penetrating and complete analyses of global informational capitalism. Indeed, Castells's work is so rich in empirical detail and theoretical insight that it has been compared with Marx's Capital, a work which similarly analyzed the operations and social tensions of an earlier era of capitalism.
The immense amount of economic and sociological data found in this 1437-page work will probably fall beyond the interest of most readers specializing in composition. Nevertheless, the mass of statistics culminate in gems of theoretical insight which will certainly be of interest to all readers.
Castells posits that in today's world societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the Self. Volumes one and two of his work draw this opposition out in detail. Volume one, The Rise of The Network Society, provides an economic and sociological analysis of informationalism, which Castells describes as a new phase of capitalism. The first half of the book, in which Castells discusses globalization, the network enterprise, and the transformation of work and employment, offers irrefutable empirical evidence of the importance of networked communication in today's world. Even more interesting to Kairos readers, though, will be the second half of the book, in which Castells theorizes on the changing nature of time and space in the current era and puts forth his concept of the culture of real virtuality. Castells' point?that it is within the framework of timeless, placeless, virtual symbolic systems that we construct categories shaping our behavior?puts him opposite researchers such as Sherry Turkle (1995), who emphasize the fantasy nature of the virtual world rather than its real impact.
More specifically, Castells analyzes the development of the Internet in the context of broader media developments of the 20th century. He concludes that multimedia furthers other trends of the electronic era toward widespread social and cultural differentiation (in which users have increasingly more channels of communication, whether on television, radio, or the Internet) and increasing social stratification among users (in which cultural and educational differences are decisive in determining level of interaction and influence). Thus while a generation ago, we all passively watched the same three television stations, in a generation from now a relatively small number of educated and well-to-do elite (the interacting) will likely control the content of the multimedia world, while a larger number of the world's people (the interacted) will be shut off completely from the information highway or will access it passively through dumbed-down terminals.
In volume two, The Power of Identity, Castells dissects the other half of the Net-Self contradiction, demonstrating how and why identity issues are so critical to personal development in the information age. Castells illustrates how, at the dawn of the information age in the late 1960s, the class-based movements of the industrial era gave way to new social movements in the U.S., France, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Whatever the stated goals of these movements, their actual thrust was not so much to seize power but rather to assert a new cultural identity, based on pacifism, personal (and collective) liberation, feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights. These movements, and the informational age in which they grew, later brought forth reactivist movements of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. Thus today while unions and political parties are losing strength, a variety of identity-based movements?ranging from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the militias in the United States to the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan?fight against what they perceive to be the excesses of globalization. Castells demonstrates that a key strategic weapon of each of these groups is the ability to access and manipulate the media, in particular through skillful use of the Internet. One especially interesting section of this volume is Castells' brief analysis of language and identity. Castells claims?and I would agree (see, for example, Warschauer, in press)?that with other identifiers such as class and the nation-state weakening, language becomes an especially critical attribute of self-recognition in the current era.
In the final volume, End of Millennium, Castells applies his earlier analysis to interpreting global politics. Castells description of the fall of the Soviet Union?based on the failure to make transformation from industrialism to informationalism?is rich in detail and analysis, as is his discussion of the so-called "Pacific Era" (an era that now ends the global domination by "the West" and creates a new multicultural foundation of global economic interdependence). Looking at the uglier face of the new economy, Castells provides a devastating critique of growing economic and social polarization which has resulted in pockets of systematic social exclusion he terms black holes of informational capitalism. These black holes largely overlap with areas whose people lack the equipment, tools, or training to access or use information technology. This is part of a broader polarization between generic labor (those who have non-reprogrammable skills and thus can be replaced by other workers or machines) and self-programmable labor (those who through education have acquired the capability to constantly redefine the necessary skills for a given task, and to access the sources for learning these skills).
I consider Castells' books as a sort of "Postmodernism for Modernists." His thorough grounding in empirical data, ranging on everything from the lesbian movement in Taipei to electronic populism in Bolivia, provides convincing evidence for the postmodern changes he describes in areas such as politics, architecture, media, and education. Readers of these volumes will not find any prescriptions for how to teach a composition class on Monday morning. Nevertheless, a careful reading of this masterpiece can reshape the entire way one thinks about the context of computers in schools and in society. As Bossert (1996) suggests, "the key question that needs to be answered is not 'What is the role of information technologies in schools?' but rather 'What is the role of schools in the age of information technology?'" Educators looking for answers to that question would do well to read and reread the three volumes of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.
Bossert, Phil J. (1996). Understanding the technologies of learning environments. Bulletin, 80(582), 11-20.
Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet.. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Warschauer, Mark (in press). Electronic literacies: Language, culture, and power in online education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.