The Network Society Revisited

Par Manuel Castells

I’m very grateful to ISTC for organizing this event to critically assess the theory and practice of the network society. I will always consider that theory is a tool, an instrument, to produce knowledge and it is through knowledge that we can improve the state of the world. That was the case and will continue to be the case. In that sense, that’s what I will be trying to do today, to evaluate in view of current and recent events, how the network society theory help or doesn’t help us in guiding our knowledge and our action. In 2010, a new edition was published of the many editions that this trilogy has had. I wrote a preface to this 2010 edition in which I tried to again, evaluate the usefulness of the theory by surveying the events that had taken place between 2000 and the date of final publication of the trilogy, 2010. To some extent and in much preferred terms, I will try to attempt to do the same today.

In what way does the network society theory render intelligibility to what we have experienced in the last decade? This is the concept that tries to understand the social structure of our age, which many call the “information age”. It’s a concept that would be parallel to what we used to do with the “industrial society” concept. It was not about the industry, it was about the social structure. As with the ‘network society’, the “industrial society” refers to a global social structure. The network society is in essence global because networks do not acknowledge boundaries. And because of that, it actually refers to all societies. In spite of extreme cultural and institutional diversity, there’s a nucleus, which is the network society. It operates in many different variations and some extremely opposite consequences and logics depending on the cultural, historical, institutional diversity. To prevent any confusion, the Network Society does not supersede capitalism. On the contrary, it actually powers and accelerates the logic of capitalism in many situations. Is a fundamental common nucleus that cuts across different societies and institutions. Not everybody is included in the network society because, remember, networks include and exclude at the same time. The exclusion is also a derivative of the logic of the network inclusion. I will start by referring descriptively to the changes in the theory while at the same time showing the continuity of some of its key aspects. First, today we can observe that Internet-based social networks, the organization of networks as platforms of sociability and every activity, have spread all over the world. We equally observe the full digitization of all the core activities of our societies. There has been a wide expansion and acceleration of the logic of digital networks everywhere. This is part of what was included in the theory, although I never made predictions, but it clearly goes in continuity with what we have been researching 20, 25 years ago.

I wish to remind you some key figures on the matter. We’re approaching about five billion Internet users in the world and, even more significantly, there are at least seven billion mobile phone numbers. Over 50 percent, now close to 55 percent, are the so-called smartphones, that is, a computer on a phone. It means that the planet, albeit, with great disparities and great inequalities, is largely connected digitally in almost the entire population. We now have entered into a new stage of acceleration of this network and digitization of society by the spread of the connectivity technology that we know as 5G. And 6G is right there, which is not simply “more”, but which is qualitatively different in every way and in volume, speed, and latency. At the same time, this whole network system is being powered more and more by artificial intelligence, which is the other major transformation which has finally come of age after decades of science fiction and hype.

In this massive networking that has happened in the last 20 years, which is in historical terms, still very recent. Remember that before 2002, there were no what we now call social media networks as ways of communication. The first social media network that was created in San Francisco in 2002, for instance, Facebook was created in 2004, and so on and so forth. This has been happening over barely two decades where the gigantic networking of all our activities and the building of a hypertext used for connecting, information or analysis, be it for the purpose of commerce, politics, culture, geopolitics, et cetera. Under such conditions, social movements have been transformed and powered. There have also been counter social movements following these transformations. That’s the theme of another book that I wrote five years ago, Networks of Outrage and Hope, that showed the importance of networks for the social movement. Politics is also transforming. Media politics has completely modified the modus operandi of the political actors and of the political system, which is something that I analyzed in detail in my book, Communication Power.

There has been a simultaneous process of transformation of space, forms and processes which is linked to this logic of global networking : global concentration in certain territories of population and activities, avoiding an exclusion of large spans of territory and population, and reconstructing marginality and exploitation within these major metropolitan. These constitute the new spatial form of the information age. The rise of urbanization, together with the deepening of marginality, is also another consequence of this global network logic, which I have tried to analyze in my recent book two years ago on The New Latin America. In the meantime, the disintegration of traditional forms of organization and the crisis of institutional ability to respond to the demands of a new exploited population and a new politically marginalized population has led to the breakdown in many countries of the social fabric and the rise of violence as a way of life. The latter has been growing in most of the world and is rising even in societies as constructed and rooted in the history and traditions of the European societies. By the way, I wish to remind you that we Europeans are now less than six percent of the world population, even if we continue to believe that we’re the center of the universe.

As a direct relationship to this breakdown of the social fabric, we have seen the expansion of a gigantic global network of criminal economy. Networks of criminal economy also follow the logic of networks. We could not withstand the global spread and influence of the criminal economy on financial markets, political institutions, and social life. I also want to emphasize that together with this massive expansion of networks, there has also been an intensification of resistance to the logic of these networks. On the one hand, we have resistance in terms of social movements that have used the network as logic and as a form of organization. These social movements of resistance claim the “local”, the meaningful activities of local cultures vis a vis the abstract logic of the networks in the space of flows. In parallel, we can observe alongside these social movements, an increasing role in the resistance to the logic of networks of identity. As I demonstrate in The Power of Identity, the logic of the networks of identity are opposed to the overwhelming logic of the instrumental network identity. This is particularly true about religious identity, but also gender, sexual, ethnic, national territorial, as well as the individual construction of specific identities. All this was already part of the analysis and predictions that comprised the theory of the network society.

There have been changes and theory should change because a good theory has to adapt constantly to the emergence of new phenomena. A theory that doesn’t change is too rigid to understand new processes. It could be an ideology, but it’s not an idea. I don’t have what Jean-Paul Sartre called the intellectual vested interest, meaning I will not defend my concepts unless they are useful. If not, we should change. I constantly change. I hope this is exactly what you have been doing these days during the conference.

The one key change in my theory is that as social digital networks take over everything, new contradictions emerge, precisely because of the existence of these social networks. In that sense, I would call this movement “the end of innocence” of what we were thinking and the original culture underlying my work, which is the culture of Silicon Valley, where this trilogy, by and large, was nurtured. Even if I tried to make it global and this caused the world to make sure that I understood the multi dimensionality and multiculturalism of this networked society. In terms of what has happened in the social media, there are two major issues on which I want to stress. On the one hand, we have the transformation of the logic of social media into new form of capitalism: data capitalism. We all have been transformed into commodities because of the fact that we’re all on the social media and we all practice social media. Our information, our lives, are in this digital panopticon. Sometimes, it is not a secondary aspect, it’s the heart, the essence of the new business world. We used to say in Silicon Valley, if we don’t pay for something it is because we’ve paid with our data.

On the other hand, although not entirely unrelated, is that because we all are and all our lives are in this digital social networks, for the first time, global state surveillance is not only possible but already practiced. We’re constantly surveilled. Sometimes with good reasons. We have to prevent terrorists or we have to make sure that there’s no spread of epidemics. The actual matter is that, for the first time in history, states have the technological capacity to identify everything that everybody does: where, when, with whom? All this is made possible through a data capitalist logic, the global surveillance logic, where the idea of privacy is simply a joke, as Scott McNealy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, said a long time ago. We have laws and institutions and we could be protected by some of these laws, but this would be a constant struggle of the new civil rights to privacy. At the same time, remember that there’s constant ways in which this privacy can be breached, even without consent. Yes, we can reject it and not be in the network. By the way, it’s not so easy to find me in the networks even though I was one of the first people to use them and understand the logic.

Moreover, we’re in a world of free communication. Free communication is both surveilled and commercialized. It’s free because it’s convenient to be able to commodify ourselves and it’s very convenient to know that everything can be observed. There’s free communication that most people, organizations, institutions, and entities can actually use to intervene in this global space of communication and say, oppose, argue, etc. in a global unrestricted agora of multiple and constant expressions. We can navigate from one side to the other of this immense Internet galaxy. Therefore, that has created a world of information in which everything consists in great ability to acquire information and culture, the wonders of the human creativity. But we also have insults, racism, sexism, homophobic statements, narcissism, colonialism. All the evils of humankind are massively exposed and massively defended on social media networks. There’s no way to counter this decisively because censorship is not an option for many people, including myself. In addition, it’s not very practical because it’s extremely difficult to block the Internet. It can be done for three or four days, as Egypt tried to do in 2011, during the Tahrir Square uprising and the entire economy started to collapse, from financial markets to tourism, to the way in which organizations are related in daily business practices, In that sense, fake news have emerged. Undistinguishable in many cases from traditional news. Even the traditional media is being affected by these epidemics of credibility and in many cases they have adopted many of this noise in the information world. I would say that we’re assisting this not only because of media communication. The causes are deeper. Media communication is a powerful instrument to spread the trend. We’re witnessing a new assault on reason. The disbelief in science, the disbelief in argument, the disbelief in reason is to a large extent the fundamental crisis of civility and also our increasing inability to truly communicate, to truly be together rather than trying to exterminate each other.

Furthermore, in my book Communication Power, I showed empirically how media politics and social media politics are all based on the destruction of the credibility of the political adversaries. These have led to a fundamental crisis of legitimacy in liberal democracies. I documented it in another recent book, 2017 Rupture, The Crisis of Liberal Democracy. It is directly connected to the new form of media politics and is certainly connected to the spread of fake news, besides the inability of democratic institutions to respond effectively to the new demands of the new social movements. This leads me to consider the transformation and re-organization of a major institution in all societies, the state. I never believed in the supersession of the state proclaimed by globalization theorists and neo liberals. In fact, in my book, I emphasized not the disappearance of the state, but the formation of a new construction of the state. That is a state that I conceptualize as a “network state”, of which the European Union has been the most direct example. I will not elaborate further on this.

There are other softer forms of member state which also developed around the world. However, to some extent in the new theoretical developments, we have to emphasize the increasing role of the state, not the decreasing role of the state, sometimes as the sole actor using network, but not being taken by the networks in some cases. The state as an instance of domination continues to be at the forefront of society. Not only it is not powerless, as some people have predicted in my case. To some extent, it is even more powerful than ever because it has reinvented itself in the network society and in the digital environment. As I said, surveillance is the key instrument. Surveillance now is more powerful for the domination of the state in the moment in which we’re all in the digital panopticon. In addition, we have the emergence of what I refer to as “the global surveillance network bureaucracy”, because all these major agencies from the NSA to the British, French German, and certainly in some cases cooperation with the Russian or the Chinese surveillance agencies are interconnected, and not only for political reasons. The constitution of a global network surveillance bureaucracy is also part of the new state in the network society.

Furthermore, the state has always been linked fundamentally to the possibility of military confrontation. Now, this military confrontation could be devastating and even more difficult to counter in terms of preventing violence. Concretely speaking, the spread of artificial intelligence and networks are creating, on one hand, a massive frontline of cyber war, which is disrupting by states or their proxies fundamental institutions of our societies. The spread of artificial intelligence has led to a massive transformation of robotics and therefore the existence of robots as war machines that are already operational. This is not Hollywood fantasies. In fact, Hollywood fantasies to some extent, are not exactly fantasies in some cases, because they get their ideas and information from very nearby military complexes. For instance, war strategies are based on massive use of drones. Drones are the continuation of the autonomous vehicles technology that was developed by DARPA, the Defense Department Advanced Research Agency in 2004, which had led, in turn, to the autonomous vehicle that Google first and then Uber are using. These could certainly be a part of our daily life once they sort out with the insurance companies, who pays what, who is responsible for destruction, accidents, deaths et cetera. That’s what is holding this development. The rest is settled.

On the other hand, not only do drones have intelligence capabilities, but have autonomy, based on the same logic. Not only can they surveil, but they can also destroy. They have more firepower than the most advanced planes. In addition, they are so much cheaper. The Predator operational cost is about $4,000 per unit compared with the F-22, the most advanced, which is about $70,000 an hour. There’s a tendency in which our super heroes of the Air Force are being replaced by kids, teenagers, recruited in the video games arcades and working from the Nevada desert, manipulating drones all over the world. New tactics such as swarming, composed by tens of thousands of coordinated and autonomous drones, are able to rectify occurs in the flight and to cooperate with others are being developed.

Now, what does all this mean in social terms, not just technology? It means that now we’re in the process of dehumanizing wars although wars were never very “human”. It means that wars are now without emotions, invisible, and could be at this point fought without victims on the side that can control the technology and wars that remove further the logic of destruction from the logic of our social fabric and our minds. The more democratic institutions are in a crisis of legitimacy, the more the network of bureaucracies and different levels that are now in charge of the actual operation of our societies becomes autonomous and using autonomous machines. Moreover, state apparatuses tend to decrease autonomy, which are the electoral politics and vis-a-vis the political parties. Elected politicians are out of favor with the majority of public opinion, and the state in its diversity increasingly control the continuity of public affairs. The judicial system, which is not an elected system, is becoming increasingly the sight of power with increasing autonomy for the judicial authorities. These are the elected institutions of society. Furthermore, non-democratic states, in these conditions of the structural crisis and crisis of legitimacy, are becoming more efficient to run affairs and conduct the course of the world. I’m thinking of China. Knowing China quite well, I don’t think China simply has the ambition to dominate the world, certainly not militarily. It would be too costly and too destructive, and for what? Their strategy is to be hegemonic in economic and technological terms. What I’m saying is that in comparing the increasing crisis of both legitimacy and efficiency of our democracies with the efficiency, China, with its disregard for any democratic form of governance, is becoming a reference that could represent an alternative towards having liberal democracy for our goal.

Let me finish with a quick reflection on how the logic of networks has been working and is still working. The current multi-dimensional crisis that we’re living through, that is, the pandemic and the associated economic crisis that’s just starting in all its amplitude as well as the crisis of legitimacy of government facing the backlash of their citizens. At the root of these pandemics, as of many pandemics that have already happened in the last 15 years and will continue to happen, is what I call “the relationship between network globalization and inhuman development”, the forms of development which are based on the destruction of nature, the mega concentration in metropolitan areas with no services for large parts of the population. Both the neoliberal ideology and the inability to give priority to the social needs has created a crisis of the public in general, a crisis of the public services, and particularly a crisis in public health. Also while we’re concentrating on the effects of these pandemics, we also have the growth of devastating effects of climate change that now people start considering and feeling that that’s really a fundamental change that may create conditions of inability for us to inhabit the planet, although it is not the planet as the planet will be perfect. It is us destroying our habitat. How can we know that climate change scientists have established connections between pandemics, spread of viruses, and the destruction of the natural environment linked to climate change? It is the digital logic.

What is a pandemic? Pandemics is a network process. A virus spreads through networks of interpersonal contact. It is spread by air and physical contact and becomes more virulent by recurrent contact. The notion of being global means that we create global networks of interaction of people through global transportation. Transportation is traveling from one place to another. Therefore, any virus anywhere, immediately can spread to everywhere. Based on air or close contact, there’s no other way to stop it. To some extent, a global digital base, which is transportation macro network, induces at faster speeds multiple simultaneous micro networks of contact between humans. The only known remedy is to block the networks of personal interaction. That means, on the one hand, confinement. How societies can be systematically or recurrently under confinement is something that we still don’t know. On the other hand, it means a return to block border crossing. We’re provisionally halting the crisis in advanced countries.

Thanks to science again, the same thing that we decry in social networks is what is there to save us? For the moment, producing vaccines at an unprecedented speed has been able to stop the relentless expansion of the virus. Really? Not in most parts of the world, not in many areas of the human population. Can we think that we can go on and overcome the pandemic by vaccinating North America, Europe, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand? While at the same time, China, in six months, through authoritarian measures of access of content on people and then closing the border, has been able to able not only to stop the pandemics but also before anyone else and to restart economic growth and restart relatively normal life, but in isolation. It started in Wuhan, China because of the penetration of urbanization in the forest, et cetera. It would not go into this unless you ask me.

Are we going to learn from them? With the majority of the population across the Mediterranean or the Mexican border, can we stop the process of vaccination there? Or simply use vaccines as sparingly as we can, waiting to see how the different countries react? In other words, in one world, we have a globally interdependent world, and we’re trying to retrench behind fortress lines for those countries that are able enough to control the pandemic by themselves. We know catastrophic events can only be avoided if we change social organization, because the regulatory crucial role of the state is still fundamental, but as a network state that organizes the interactions between public authorities throughout the world. Currently, life is being sustained by massive migration of activities to digital networks. Therefore, the recent acceleration of the digital transition to a fully network operational structure that has enabled us to survive the heat of the pandemic both physically and operationally. The logic of exclusion-inclusion amplifies. Who is able to tell a work and who is not? Who is able to maintain certain rights that work in the teleworking world and who is not? On the other hand, the resistance of identities sharpen. Negationism is on the rise. In the United States, they have vaccinated a large majority of the population, but 25 percent of the population refusing vaccination, much of it linked to sectarian, millenarist thinking, and ignorance propagated by a combination of social networks and political trumpism. In that sense, in contradiction to the global digital logic that already operates in the planet in the midst of the crisis of legitimacy, the states try to impose their own territorial logic. The chaos that is being generated needs new understanding before we act. Also, why are we acting? More than ever there’s a need for grounded theory. Grounded theory such as a revamped network theory to understand and help a decomposing network society.

Thank you for your attention.