A mirror of ourselves

The Internet Galaxy: reflections on the internet, business and society

Manuel Castells <em>Oxford

First the hype about its rise, then the counter-hype about its fall: was the internet something that came and went in 1999, or is it a revolution that will change the way we live, work, form relationships and express our politics? A glut of hasty "dotbomb" books has led us through the highs and lows of the late Nineties internet bubble. Forests have been slain to bring us predictions from jeremiads and cyber-enthusiasts, yet we still know very little about the origins, culture and implications of a technology that is still in its infancy.

The Internet Galaxy is the best attempt by a big thinker to grapple with the net's long-term implications for our society. While many have disowned their earlier enthusiasm, Manuel Castells remains convinced of its radical potential. The importance of the internet, he claims, is that it creates the technological basis for the organisational form of the information age: the network. Networks always played an important part in our private lives, as clubs and societies, but in the realms of production and power they were previously outgunned by the efficiency of centralised hierarchies: armies, corporations, civil services and political parties. The internet has changed all that by creating a mechanism for sharing information that allows flexible networks to co-ordinate their activities around shared goals.

If industrial-era politics was a struggle between classes over the distribution of wealth, the mass labour movement was born out of the factories that brought thousands of workers together in a single place. Never shy of grand statements, Castells argues that the internet will act as a home for a new politics, revolving around values and identity rather than class and distribution.

New cultural movements - from anti- globalisers and environmentalists to al-Qaeda and Falun Gong - are built around communication systems that allow them to reach out to those who would share their values. Their goal is not to win power in a conventional sense, but to change the consciousness of society as a whole. Their success is demonstrated by how traditional parties and trade unions are redefining their goals in cultural terms: the left is arguing for social justice for all, rather than the defence of class interests, while nationalist and religious movements take on a new role as defenders of cultural identity in a world dominated by homogenous infor-mation flows.

Castells's main insight is to start not with technology, but with society: the ways in which people, institutions and companies transform technology by appropriating it, by modifying it, by experimenting with it. In other words, it's not just the internet that transforms our lives; we transform the internet by using it as a mechanism for social change.

As the internet pervades our lives, the battle over who controls it will become the critical political issue of our age. By documenting the achievements of a few individuals, Castells shows how the weird alchemy that gave rise to the internet - a brew of big science, military research and idealistic counter-cultural activists - has enshrined a peculiar culture of freedom that is under attack. The cocktail of values that defines the internet's culture is "made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society, and materialised by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy".

The tension between the ethos of the campus and the boardroom, present since the embryonic stages of internet development, is likely to continue in the battle over who owns and controls cyberspace. Castells is more lucid in his diagnosis of the problems than in the shape of any solution. He claims that only democratic politics can entrench the internet as a technology of freedom and prevent it from oppressing the ill-informed or excluding the weak, but also that the internet itself, ironically, has contributed to the deepening crisis of legitimacy faced by all traditional politics. "Neither utopia nor dystopia, the internet is an expression of ourselves," he writes.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre and co-editor of The Pro-European Reader (Palgrave, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?