The Internet Galaxy (Reflections on Internet, Business, and Society)

By Dr Paul Taylor, 10 March 2002

I met Manuel Castells for a Radio 4 discussion of this book. I found him to be a courteous, charming and commendably down-to-earth representative of the ‘digitally correct’, but his argument failed to convince me.

The content is trademark Castells, a comprehensive, nearly encyclopaedic description of the major social implications of the net covering its early history, culture, e-business, virtual communities, politics, multimedia, geography, and inequality. Such breadth supports the book’s claim to be a wide-ranging analysis of the internet, but its additional claim to be an objective analysis of an essentially value-free technology suffers from his persistent avoidance of the reasons for, or alternatives to, the internet’s present colonisation by commerce. He welcomes the internet as a technological manifestation of the self-organising invisible hand of the market and repeatedly implies that traditional institutions are old hat, but side-steps the significance of the ironic fact (which he himself describes in the first chapter) that the net’s genesis did not come from a ‘big bang’ of networked spontaneity, but rather the dual institutional planning efforts of the military and academia.

A more critical analysis is struggling to break free from Castell’s own argument. For example, he recognises that, ‘The internet is, above all else, a cultural creation’, yet describes how the internet undermines the community values upon which any culture is based by encouraging ‘a redefinition of community, de-emphasizing its cultural component.’ You cannot have meaningful community without culture, which Castells notes in passing with his observations that: ‘The new pattern of sociability in our societies is increasingly characterized by networked individualism,’ and ‘with the help of the Internet, we are free, but potentially autistic.’ This technologically-deterministic impact sits uneasily with his introduction’s optimistic claim that ‘the Internet is a particularly malleable technology.’ The internet seems to have redefined the notion of society so successfully that it increasingly only survives in such enervated and euphemistically contradictory forms as ‘networked individualism’.

Castells claims that ‘my purpose here is strictly analytical since I believe that knowledge should precede action.’ Unfortunately, the book’s analytical impact is compromised by too many uncritically dramatic yet ultimately unrevealing assertions, typified by the opening sentence ‘The Internet is the fabric of our lives.’ With my surname, perhaps I can be forgiven for fearing that, without more critical engagement, our sartorial legacy from the internet will be the social equivalent of the nylon shell-suit.

Dr Paul Taylor <p.a.taylor AT> is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Technology at the University of Salford