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«Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society1 ABSTRACT This article aims at proposing some elements for a grounded theor y of the ...»

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Relationships of Consumption Relationships of consumption (that is, the culturally meaningful, differential appropriation of the product) are determined by the interplay between relationships of production and culture. Who does what, in a given value production system, determines who gets what. What is valued as appropriation is framed by culture. The networking of production relationships, and the consequent individualization of labour, leads on the one hand to increasing differentiation and thus inequality in consumption. It also leads to social polarization and social exclusion following the opposition between self-programmable labour and generic labour, and between labour and devalued labour. The ability of networks to connect valuable labour and territories, and to discard dispensable labour and territories, so enhancing their performance through recon guration, leads to cumulative growth Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society and cumulative decline. The winner-takes-all system is, in the consumption sphere, the expression of value creation by/in the networks.

On the other hand, the fragmentation of culture, and the individualization of positions in relationships of production, lead jointly to a growing diversi cation of consumption patterns. Mass consumption was predicated upon standardized production, stable relationships of production, and a mass culture organized around predictable senders and identi able sets of values. In a world of networks, self-programmable individuals constantly rede ne their life styles and thus their consumption patterns; while generic labour just strives for survival.

As culture is similarly fragmented and constantly recombined in the networks of a kaleidoscopic hypertext, consumption patterns follow the variable geometr y of symbolic appropriation. Thus, in the interplay between relationships of production and cultural framing, relationships of production de ne levels of consumption, and culture induces consumption patterns and life styles.

Relationships of Power The most direct impact of information networks on social structure concerns power relationships. Historically, power was embedded in organizations and institutions, organized around a hierarchy of centres. Networks dissolve centres, they disorganize hierarchy, and make materially impossible the exercise of hierarchical power without processing instructions in the network, according to the network’s morphological rules. Thus, contemporar y information networks of capital, production, trade, science, communication, human rights, and crime, bypass the nation-state, which, by and large, has stopped being a sovereign entity, as I argued above. A similar process, in different ways, takes place in other hierarchical organizations that used to embody power (‘power apparatuses’ in the old Marxist terminology), such as churches, schools, hospitals, bureaucracies of all kinds. Just to illustrate this diversity, churches see their privilege as senders of belief called into question by the ubiquitous sending and receiving of messages in the interactive hypertext. While religions are ourishing, churches have to enter the new media world in order to promote their gospel. So doing, they survive, and even prosper, but they open themselves up to constant challenges to their authority. In a sense, they are secularized by their co-existence with profanity in the hypertext, except when/if they anchor themselves in fundamentalism by refusing to bend to the network, thus building self-contained, cultural communes.

The state reacts to its bypassing by information networks, by transforming itself into a network state. So doing, its former centres fade away as centres becoming nodes of power-sharing, and forming institutional networks. Thus, in the war against Yugoslavia, in spite of US military hegemony, decision-making was shared in various degrees by NATO governments, including regular video-conferences between the leaders of 20 Manuel Castells the main countries where key decisions were taken. This example goes beyond the former instances of traditional military alliances, by introducing joint war-making in real time. NATO was reinforced by NATO’s state members, when these states, including the USA, entered the new world of shared sovereignty. But individual states became weakened in their autonomous decision making. The network became the unit.

Thus, while there are still power relationships in society, the bypassing of centres by ows of information circulating in networks creates a new, fundamental hierarchy: the power of ows takes precedence over the ows of power.

Relationships of Experience If power relationships are the ones most directly affected by the prevailing networking logic, the role of networks in the transformation of relationships of experience is more subtle. I will not force the logic of the analysis.

I do not believe that we must see networks ever ywhere for the sake of coherence. Yet, I think it could be intriguing to elaborate tentatively on the links between networking and the transformation of relationships of experience.

This transformation, empirically speaking, revolves around the crisis of patriarchalism, and its far-reaching consequences for family, sexuality and personality. The fundamental source of this crisis is women’s cultural revolution, and men’s resistance to reverse their millennial privileges. Additional sources are the feminization of labour markets (undermining male domination in the family and in society at large), the revolution in reproductive technology, the self-centring of culture, the individualization of life patterns and the weakening of the state’s authority to enforce patriarchalism.

What networks have to do with all this?

There is one direct connection between the networking of work and the individualization of labour, and the mass incorporation of women to paid labour, under conditions of structural discrimination. Thus, new social relationships of production, translate into a good t between the ‘ exible woman’ (forced to exibility to cope with her multiple roles) and the network enterprise. Networks of information, and global communication are also critical in diffusing alternative life styles, role models and, more importantly, critical information, for instance about self-control of biological reproduction. Then, there is an additional, meaningful connection.

The disintegration of the patriarchal family does not let people, and children, isolated. They recon gure life-sharing forms through networking.

This is particularly true of women and their children, relying on a form of sociability and solidarity tested by millennia of living ‘underground’. But also men, and men and women after going their own ways, come to rely on networks (some times around children of multiple marriages) to both survive and reinvent forms of togetherness. This trend shifts the basis of interpersonal relationships from nuclei to networks: networks of individuals and their children – which, by the way, are also individuals. What is left of families Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society are transformed in partnerships which are nodes of networks. Sexuality is de-coupled from the family, and transformed into consumption/images, stimulated and simulated from the electronic hypertext. The body, as proposed by Giddens some time ago, becomes an expression of identity (1991).

It is individualized and consumed in sexual networks. At the level of personality, the process of socialization becomes customized, individualized, and made out of composite models. The autonomous ability to reprogramme one’s own personality, in interaction with an environment of networks, becomes the crucial feature for psychological balance, replacing the strengthening of a set personality, embedded in established values. In this ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992), the management of anxiety is the most useful personal skill. Two con icting modes of interpersonal interaction emerge: on the one hand, self-reliant communes, anchored in their non-negotiable sets of beliefs; and on the other hand, networks of ever shifting individuals.

These are social networks, not information networks. So, in a way, they are a fundamental part of our societies, but not necessarily a feature of the network society – unless we extend the meaning of the concept beyond what I propose: information networks-based social structure. However, as communication technology, biological technology, transgender networking, and networks of individuals, develop in parallel, as key elements of social practice, they are interacting, and in uencing each other. Thus, the Internet is becoming a very instrumental tool of management of new forms of life, including the building of on-line communities of support and collective learning.

I see, however, a much stronger connection between networks and relationships of experience through the cultural transformations induced by communication networks, as experience becomes practice by its rooting in cultural codes.

Networks and Cultural Transformation Culture was historically produced by symbolic interaction in a given space/time. With time being annihilated and space becoming a space of ows, where all symbols coexist without reference to experience, culture becomes the culture of real virtuality. It takes the form of an interactive network in the electronic hypertext, mixing ever ything, and voiding the meaning of any speci c message out of this context, except that is for fundamental, non-communicable values external to the hypertext. So, culture is uni ed in the hypertext but interpreted individually (in line with the ‘interactive audience’ school of thought in media theor y). Culture is constructed by the actor, self-produced and self-consumed. Thus, because there are few common codes, there is systemic misunderstanding. It is this structurally induced cacophony that is celebrated as postmodernity. However, there is one common language, the language of the hypertext. Cultural expressions left out of the hypertext are purely individual experiences. The hypertext is the vehicle of communication, thus the provider of shared cultural codes.

22 Manuel Castells But these codes are formal, voided of speci c meaning. Their only shared meaning is to be a node, or a blip, in the network of communication ows.

Their communicative power comes from their capacity to be interpreted and re-arranged in a multi-vocality of meanings, depending on the receiver, and on the interactor. Any assigned meaning becomes instantly obsolete, reprocessed by a myriad of different views and alternative codes. The fragmentation of culture and the recurrent circularity of the hypertext, leads to the individualization of cultural meaning in the communication networks. The networking of production, the differentiation of consumption, the decentring of power, and the individualization of experience, are re ected, ampli ed, and codi ed by the fragmentation of meaning in the broken mirror of the electronic hypertext – where the only shared meaning is the meaning of sharing the network.


Social structures are sets of organizational regularities historically produced by social actors, and constantly challenged, and ultimately transformed by deliberate social action. The network society is no exception to this sociological law. Yet, the characteristics of speci c social structures impose constraints on the characteristics of their transformation process. Thus, the recurrence and exibility of information networks, their embedded ability to bypass, ignore or eliminate, instructions alien to their programmed goals, make social change in the network society a ver y tricky task. This is because, apparently, nothing must be changed – any new input can theoretically be added to the network, like free expression in the global media system. Yet, the price for the addition is to accept implicitly the programmed goal of the network, its ancillary language and operating procedures. Thus, my hypothesis is that there is little chance of social change within a given network, or network of networks. Understanding by social change, the transformation of the programme of the network, to assign to the network a new goal, following a different set of values and beliefs. This is in contrast to reprogramming the network by adding instructions compatible with the overarching goal.

Because of the capacity of the network to nd new avenues of performance by switching off any non-compatible node, I think social change, under these circumstances, happens primarily through two mechanisms, both external to dominant networks. The rst is the denial of the networking logic through the af rmation of values that cannot be processed in any network, only obeyed and followed. This is what I call cultural communes, that are not necessarily linked to fundamentalism, but which are always centred around their self-contained meaning. The second is alternative networks, that is networks built around alternative projects, which compete, from network to network, to build bridges of communication to other networks in society, in opposition to the codes of the currently Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society dominant networks. Religious, national, territorial, and ethnic communes are examples of the rst type of challenge. Ecologism, feminism, human rights movements are examples of alternative networks. All use the Internet and electronic media hypertext, as dominant networks do. This is not what makes them networks or communes. The critical divide lies in the communicability or non-communicability of their codes beyond their speci c self-de nition. The fundamental dilemma in the network society is that political institutions are not the site of power any longer. The real power is the power of instrumental ows, and cultural codes, embedded in networks. Therefore, the assault to these immaterial power sites, from outside their logic, requires either the anchoring in eternal values, or the projection of alternative, communicative codes that expand through networking of alternative networks. That social change proceeds through one way or another will make the difference between fragmented communalism and new history making.

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