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domingo, 8 de fevereiro de 2009

Le pouvoir de l’identite´: L’ère de l’information.
By Manuel Castells (Paris: Fayard, 1999), 538 pp. E30.35 cloth.

Book Review by Mauro Guilherme Pinheiro Koury

Le pouvoir de l’identité is devoted to the comprehension of the political world, viewed at the end of the millennium, with the advent of corporate networks on the one hand, and the assertion of identities, on the other. For Manuel Castells, three independent processes begin at the end of the 1960s which together with principles of the 1970s converge in creating a new world. These processes are: (1) the revolution of information technologies; (2) the economic crisis of capitalism and the subsequent reorganization of state agencies; (3) the emergence of numerous social and cultural movements—including, among others, feminism, environmentalism, human rights, and sexual freedoms.
The first process, the revolution of information technologies, remodels society by defining information as the material base of a new society. Its significance is equal if not greater than the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Information technologies become the indispensable tools in the generation of wealth, in the exercise of power, and in the creation of new cultural codes. These technologies acquire particular importance as emerging networks, which replace old forms of social organization, becoming the predominant form of organization of human activities, transforming all aspects of social and economic life.
The second process, the crisis of capitalism and the state, gradually transformed economic life from the mid-1970s. The state apparatus was shown to be incapable of sustaining the transition to the Age of Information, while, in the capitalist economies, firms and governments adopted measures and politicies that led to a new form of capitalism. This form is characterized by the globalization of economic activities and by greater organizational flexibility, to facilitate the relations of management and workers. In this new form of capitalism, informational capitalism has prevailed. The basic consequence of this process is that, for the first time in history, the world is organized on a set of common economic rules. Capitalism has been found to be more flexible than any one of its predecessors: in adopting the new information technologies it has become fixed in the culture and is driven by the new technology.
However, Castells affirms: ‘‘A technology does not determine societies.’’ Multiple factors intervene in the configuration of any given society at each stage of its history.
Thus, the third process, the cultural process, centered on the powerful movements that rose in 1968 in their confrontation with society, reacting in various forms to the arbitrary use of authority. In essence, they were cultural rather than political movements: what they wanted was to change life and not to assume political power. It is this that explains why they were not defeated. In their fight, they questioned the bases of society and rejected established values. However, these social movements were in principle cultural and independent of economic and technological transformations. Their libertarian spirit influenced, to a considerable degree, the change toward a more individual and decentralized use of technology. Their advocacy of an open culture stimulated experimentation, with its manipulation of symbols, and their cosmopolitanism established the intellectual bases for a culturally interdependent world.
The interaction of these three parallel processes, in the last decades of the twentieth century, redefined the relations of production, the individual, and the social, and culminated in the creation of a new society. This society is characterized by a new dominant social structure dependent on the network; by a new economy, the global informational economy; and by a new culture, the culture of real potentiality. However, in the network society it is not knowledge and information that is the defining feature, for, knowledge and information have always been central elements in all forms of society. What is new is the information technologies with which we deal, centered on communication, based on microelectronics and genetic engineering. It is these that are transforming the social fabric of life, giving rise to new forms of organization and social interaction.
According to Castells, then, we have entered a new scientific paradigm, as described by Thomas Kuhn, that is, a space that induces a standard of discontinuity in the material bases of the economy, of society, and of culture. The main characteristics of our information–technological paradigm are: (1) information is the basic raw material; (2) information processing is present in all fields of our eco-social system, which thus transforms it; (3) the logic of networks, adapted to the increasing complexity of interactions and to unexpected developments; (4) flexibility, understood as the capacity of constant reconfiguration without destroying existing organization; (5) the convergence of specific technologies in a highly integrated system. For the first time in history, Castells says, the human mind is a direct productive force and not only a decisive element in a system of production.
In this kind of paradigm, a new culture emerges, in which human expression and creativity are standardized in a global electronic hypertext that substantially modifies the social forms of space and time. This hypertext electronic world, synthesized for the Internet, becomes the landmark of common reference for symbolic processing of all sources and all messages. Potentiality is our reality, affirms Castells, because we live in a world in which reality (the material and symbolic existence of people) is totally immersed in an environment of virtual images. In this environment, the dominant values and interests are constructed without reference to the past or to the future, but in the atemporal landscape of computer networks and electronic media.
These interactive information networks are the components of our social structure and the agents of social transformation. They define the social morphology of our societies. With the development of information technologies, flexibility can be reached without sacrificing performance; and because of their superior performance capabilities, the networks gradually eliminate, in each specific area of activity, the hierarchical and centered forms of organization.
Even networks that are based on alternative values share the same morphology. Thus, social conflicts also depend on networks. The networks try to retrace other networks, inscribing new codes and new values so as to organize the performance of opposing networks. The main objective in the age of information is to redefine cultural codes, which reside, ultimately, in the human mind. The mind has thus become the main center of power.
Social change in the network society is highly complex, because networks have the capacity to absorb new developments or to neutralize them. Change can either come through the negation of the logic of networks or through the affirmation of values that cannot be processed by the network alone. That is, by developing alternative networks with alternative projects that goes beyond its specific auto-definition. In this context, because political parties seem to have lost their potential as independent agents of social change, it is the potential citizens of the Age of Information who become social movements, and it is they who will produce alternative cultural codes.
However, social movements must develop across infinite social distances, across the metanetworks of international financial systems, the global flows of wealth, power and images, as well as across enormous numbers of people and activities. Globalization is a great web connecting everything to the instrumental needs of the market and, at the same time, disconnecting everything that is not instrumental to the market. In this scene, people tend to regroup around primary identities (religious, ethnic, territorial, national), to search for personal security and for possibilities of (re)organizing their lives.
Thus appears the bipolar opposition between the Network and Being and, in manifesting their primary identities, people start opposing the network society. The enormous drive to affirm and articulate specific identities gives rise to social movements, especially of those who feel excluded by the existing system. Castells affirms that the rising tide of religious fundamentalism from the mid-1990s was therefore not accidental. It seems logical to exclude the agents of exclusion. ‘‘When the Networks disconnect from Being, individual or collective Being constructs its meaning outside the global instrumental frame of reference: the disconnection process becomes reciprocal, with the excluded rejecting the unilateral logic of structural domination and social exclusion’’.

[Publicado na revista: The European Legacy, Vol. 10, No. 7, pp. 759–761, 2005]

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