The Logic of Networks


The Logic of Networks

Social Landscapes vis-a-vis the Space of Flows

Castells, Manuel, The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996)

Castells, Manuel, The Power of Identity, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. II. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997)

In the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Berkeley sociologist Manuel Castells (* 1942) concludes a decade of research presenting an empirically grounded, cross-cultural account of the major social, economic and political transformations which reconfigure the landscapes of human life and experience across the globe. While detailing the diversity of their manifestations, Castells attempts to fit them into a comprehensive analytical framework in which many of the conflicting observations can be integrated as two sides of the same medal. Undoubtedly, this trilogy is one of the, if not the, most significant analysis of the current transformations which center around the uneven spread of information technology around the globe. In scope as well as in quality, Castells’ opus magum is outstanding.

“Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self” (1996: 3). These two emerging centers of gravity and their dynamic interplay form the axis of analysis. The first volume of his monumental presentation (some 1000 pages, so far) is devoted to the first engine of change – the Net – and the second volume to the other – the Self. The trilogy (the final volume is forthcoming) aims at providing a comprehensive overview of the forces and actors which drive the world towards globalization as well as of those fueling the struggles to maintain or reconstitute historically specific group identities vis-a-vis those intricate forces. In the resulting dynamic Castells senses “the embryos of a new society, labored in the fields of history” (1997: 362).

Castells’ method to achieve this ambitious project is “communicating theory by analyzing practice” (1997: 3). In his writing this means that very distinct theoretical models inform the analysis but are hardly specified. Rather, they structure the account implicitly. To understand Castells’ approach, however, it is worth looking at these models a bit more closely.

The model underlying the first volume is a dialectical interaction of social relations and technology, or, in Castells’ terminology, modes of production and modes of development. While this model is pervasive throughout the whole book, its theory has been elaborated in greater detail in an earlier book, The Informational City (1989).

“The modes of production are the social relationships of the production process, for example, class relations. Since the industrial revolution, the prevalent mode of production in Western societies has been capitalism, embodied in historically and locally specific institutions for the creation of surplus and the regulation of its distribution.” The modes of development, on the other hand, “are the technological arrangements through which labor acts upon matter to generate a product… Social relationships of production, defining modes of production, and technical relationships of production, defining the modes of development, do not overlap, although they interact… There are between the two structural processes complex and significant interactions which constitute a fundamental element in the dynamics of our societies.” (1989: 10-12)

The evolution of the capitalist modes of production is driven by private capital’s competitive pressure to maximize profits. Modes of development, however, evolve according to their own logic; they do not respond mechanically to the demands of modes of production or other instances of society. Modes of development emerge from the interaction between scientific and technological discovery and the organizational integration of such discoveries in the process of production and management. The evolutionary model of two separate modes bears, as has been observed (Webster 1995: 196), strong resemblance to the Althusserian distinction between the relations of production (classes) and the forces of production (technique). However, Castells, despite his Marxist roots and familiarity with Althusser, makes no explicit references to these concepts.

The evolutionary logic of the current, “informational mode of development” 1 is defined by five characteristics which together form the “Information Technology Paradigm” (1996: 60-65).

1. Information is the raw material as well as the outcome. The new technologies act on information rather than on matter.

2. Because information is an integral part of all human activity, these technologies are pervasive.

3. Information technologies foster a networking logic, because it allows one to deal with complexity and unpredictability, which in itself is increased by these technologies.

4. The networking logic is based on flexibility.

5. Specific technologies converge into highly integrated systems.

The evolutionary process of this mode of development goes, Castells argues (1996: 32), through three distinct stages: automation of tasks (rationalization of existing processes), experimentation of uses (innovation of new processes), reconfiguration of applications (implementation of new processes, thus creating new tasks). The reflexivity of the technologies, the fact that every outcome can be turned instantly into raw material for the next cycle because both are information, has allowed for the speed-up of the process of innovation.

This process – the “historical sequence of the Information Technology Revolution” (1996: 40-65) – is the starting point of his empirical account. Its first major section is a macro-structural account of the informational economy, the process of globalization and international division of labour. What differentiates Castells’ from many other accounts of these processes is the depth with which he describes how they are played out between and within various social and regional contexts. Rather than evolving into one direction, then, the global economy is characterized “by its interdependence, its asymmetry, its regionalization, the increased diversification within each region, its selective inclusiveness, its exclusionary segmentation, and, as a result of all those features, an extraordinarily variable geometry that tends to dissolve historical, economic geography.” (1996: 106).

These new patterns of the global economy have been developed under the drive of restructuring the capitalist enterprise since the 1970s and with increasing pace in the 1980s. This restructuring is based on new organizational arrangements which incorporate the networking logic. The resulting network enterprise is a phenomenon comprising not only shifting internal hierarchies but also changing patterns of competition and cooperation across institutions. The network enterprise is “that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of autonomous systems of goals” (1996: 171). The working conditions in such enterprises are significantly different from those of traditional industrial corporation and, as a mass phenomenon, result in changing work and employment patterns. Here again, Castells argues against common oversimplifications, this time in the form of theories of “Post-Industrialism” which have been “biased by an American ethnocentrism that did not fully represent even the American experience” (1996: 221). It is the specific quality of Castells’ analysis that acknowledging differences – even among highly developed countries – between a “Service Economy Model” (USA, England, Canada) and “Industrial Production Model” (Japan, Germany) does not obscure the view of the common trends towards individualization of work and flexibilization of employment.

The common theme underlying the diversity of regional and sectoral patterns of economic change is the incorporation of the new informational mode of development into the modes of production in their historically determined heterogeneity of institutional arrangements. Its most distinct result is the emergence of what Castells calls the space of flows: the integrated global networks. They comprise several connected elements: the private networks, the company Intranets; the semi-public, closed and proprietary networks such as the financial networks; and the public, open networks, the Internet. It is this space of flows vis-a-vis which the social organization constitute themselves. Vis-a-vis, one of Castells’ favourite terms, is deliberately chosen for the way it expresses the link between these two modes across the distance they have to one another. It is in this distance that the two modes gain their independence and it is in the linking that they gain their interdependence.

The space of flows can be described as having at least three layers:

1. Technical: the circuit of electronic impulses (the micro-electronics, telecommunication, hardware in general) that form the technological infrastructure of the network.

2. Geographical: the topology of the space formed by its nodes and hubs. Hubs are defined by the networks but link it to specific places with specific social and cultural conditions. Nodes are the “location[s] of strategically important functions that build a series of locality-based activities and organizations around the key functions of the network.” (1996: 413)

3. Social: the spatial organization of the managerial elite using the network.

The space of flows is characterized by timeless time and placeless space. “Timeless time… the dominant temporality in our society, occurs when the characteristics of a given context, namely, the informational paradigm and the network society, induce systemic perturbation in the sequential order of phenomena performed in that context” (1996: 464). “The space of flows… dissolves time by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality” (1996: 467). Castells eschews thinking this idea to its logical conclusion. Developing his argument further one might say that the characteristic of a timeless time is a binary time, a time that expresses no sequence but knows only two states: either presence or absence, either now or never. Within the space of flows everything that is the case is now, and everything that is not must be introduced from the outside, that is, it springs suddenly into existence. The space of flows has no inherent sequence, therefore it can disorder events which in the physical context are ordered by an inherent, chronological sequence.

In a similar way, geographical distance dissolves in the space of flows. Here again, Castells does not elaborate a theoretical model of this placeless space and one is tempted to think of it as binary space where the distance must be measured as two states: zero distance (inside the network) or infinite distance (outside the network), here or nowhere. Castells, however, is more interested in the dynamic intersection between the space of flows and the physical space. As in most theoretical aspects, he is more detailed in The Informational City (1989) where he states: “While organizations are located in places, and their components are place-dependent, the organizational logic is placeless, being fundamentally dependent on the space of flows that characterizes information networks. But such flows are structured, not undetermined. They possess directionality, conferred both by the hierarchical logic of the organization as reflected in instructions given, and by the material characteristics of the information systems infrastructure… The space of flows remains the fundamental spatial dimension of large scale information processing complexes… The more organizations depend, ultimately, upon flows and networks, the less they are influenced by the social context associated with the places of their location. From this follows a growing independence of the organizational logic from the societal logic” (1989: 169-170).

Increasingly, power is concentrated in the intricate space of flows, “the power of flows takes precedence over the flows of power” (1996: 469). The space of flows expresses the dominant social logic in the Network Society. The financial markets, for example, have turned into the central event of the new economy to such an extend that “all other [economic] activities (except those of the dwindling public sector) are primarily the basis to generate the necessary surplus to invest in the global flows, or the result of investment originated in these financial flows.” (1996: 472)

While the dominant social logic is shaped by the seemingly identityless space of flows, people live in the physical world, the space of places. This “condition of structural schizophrenia” introduces massive perturbation in cultures around the globe. People lose their sense of self and attempt to reclaim their identity in novel forms. The conflict between traditional, waning and new, rising identities is the topic of the second volume, The Power of Identity.

Castells’ interest in identities rest on the premise of a correlation between various types of dominant identity and the social institutions of the society, that “each type of identity-building process leads to a different outcome in constituting society” (1997: 8). He differentiates between three different types of identity (1997: 10-12):

1. Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination over social actors. Legitimizing identities generate civil societies in the sense of the original Gramscian concept of a set of “apparatuses”. These reproduce what Max Weber called “rationale Herrschaft” (rational power).

2. Resistance identity: produced by those actors who are in a position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination. Identity for resistance leads to the formation of communes or communities as a way of coping with otherwise unbearable conditions of oppression.

3. Project identity: proactive movements which aim at transforming society as a whole, rather than merely establishing the conditions for their own survival in opposition to the dominant actors. Feminism and environmentalism fall under this category.

Castells focusses primarily on social movements and politics as they are shaped by the interplay of the three different types of identity. Identity is defined as “the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or related set of cultural attributes, that is/are given priority over other sources of meaning” (1997: 6).

A tour d’horizon of the current state of different types of identity and the social instances they constitute structures the second volume. Three examples of resistance identity are examined in detail, chosen for their radical differences in context and goals: Mexico’s Zapatistas, the American Militia, and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, the group which released poison gas in Tokyo’s subway system on March 20, 1995. While each movement reflects the historical differences of their constituency and the threats they perceive in the transformation of their specific social landscape, “they all challenge current processes of globalization, on behalf of their constructed identities, in some instances claiming to represent the interest of their country [US Militia], or of humankind [Japan’s Aum], as well” (1997: 109).

As major pro-active movements are presented environmentalism, feminism, and gay and lesbian movements. The latter three are jointly framed along the lines of the end of patriarchalism. They represent the conflictual and interrelated character of identity building. The possible end of patriarchalism not only opens up new possibilities of self-determination, but at the same time provokes very vehement reactions to preserve what is perceived as threatened. Castells stresses that “there is no predetermined directionality in history… A fundamentalist restoration, bringing patriarchalism back under the protection of divine law, may well reverse the process of undermining the patriarchal family, unwillingly induced by informational capitalism, and willingly pursued by cultural social movements” (1997: 242).

The classic embodiment of legitimizing identity, the nation state, is losing its power, “although, and this is essential, not its influence” (1997: 243). The loss of power stems from a loss of sovereignty, effected by the globalization of core economic activities, of media, of communication and, very importantly – especially for the developing countries – the globalization of crime and law enforcement. The latter issue is to be detailed in the upcoming third volume, The End of the Millennium.

The most obvious example for the loss of sovereignty can be found in the currency exchange markets which have, in the late 1980s, outgrown the capacities of the central banks to control them. They now link up national currencies. This enforces financial coordination undermining the possibilities of national governments to formulate independent economic policy. The welfare state is under double stress. Not only are the national budgets tighter under the coercion of the global financial markets, but also the global firms can take advantage of cost differentials in social benefits and standards. As a result, “welfare states are being downsized to the lowest common denominator that keeps spiraling downwards” (1997: 254).

Nevertheless, the nation state remains crucially important because it still is the only legitimized entity from which multilateralism can be built to address increasingly pressing global problems. However, this proves to be a dilemma. On the one hand it increases the pressure on the nation state to effect decisions in the international arena and, on the other, it diminishes its credibility in the area of domestic policy through its being constrained by an ever more restrictive network of global agreements.

The result is a crisis of democracy. The nation state offloads responsibility for integrating its own constituency which has been achieved through locally built instruments of the welfare state and disappears into an increasingly abstract arena of international organizations. The traditional institutions of democracy are caught in a “fundamental contradiction”. “The more the states emphasizes communalism, the less effective they become as co-agents in the global system of shared power. The more they triumph on a planetary scene, the less they represent their national constituencies” (1997: 308). The more the nation state withdraws from its citizens, the more the need to find alternative identities grows. Trapped between the increased articulation of diverse, often oppositional identities and the need to act on a global scene, the traditional democratic institutions – the civil society – are being voided of meaning and legitimacy: they lose their identity. New identity, and new forms of democracy will arise from the projects of resistance identity, so hopes Castells at the end of the second volume.

Castells does not present a comprehensive theoretical model of the Network Society and some of this assumptions, for example framing the crisis of the nation state as primarily an “identity crisis”, might be of limited reach. Furthermore, a few things are strangely out of perspective: The claim that the business interests of mass media guarantee for their political neutrality seems outright naive and his analysis have benefited from some references to critical studies like those of Noam Chomsky and others.

Nevertheless, he offers the reader a remarkable journey through the transformation of the social landscapes around the globe. Even though Castells’ most significant contribution lies not in the development of distinct theory but in his in-depth analysis of the practice of the emergence of the Network Society. The Information Age trilogy belongs, at least in his aspiration, to the class of sociological grand theory, in the line of Daniel Bell, Alain Touraine and Anthony Giddens to whom Castells refers favorably throughout the whole trilogy. Less explicit, as already mentioned, are the influences Karl Marx in general and Louis Althusser in particular.

Castells distinctly distances himself from the postmodernist debate which he calls a “cottage industry” (1996: 29). He is concerned with accounting for major trends which shape reality across different contexts and independent of perception or mediation because mediation, the space of flows, itself creates a new reality, one of “real virtuality”. However, the normative certainty which informs truly modernist approaches has disappeared. Daniel Bell could still advance an idea of progress towards increased rationality by speculating about the emergence of an “intellectual technology” which promised the “substitution of algorithms for intuitive judgment” (Bell 1973: 29). Castells, however, has no such hopes. He stresses that historical development has no qualitative directionality and no pre-determined outcome. He, then, is uncertain how to evaluate the outcomes of the observed transformations whose coherent reality he does not doubt. “It is the beginning of a new existence, and indeed, the beginning of a new age, marked by the autonomy of culture [of real virtuality] vis-a-vis the material basis of our existence. But this is not necessarily an exhilarating moment. Because, alone at last in our human world, we shall have to look at ourselves in the mirror of historical reality. And we may not like the vision” (1996: 477-478).


Bell, Daniel (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

Castells, Manuel, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989).

Webster, Frank, Theories of the Information Society. (London; New York: Routledge, 1995).


1. Castells draws a distinction between the notions of Information Society and Informational Society. It parallels the distinction between industry and industrial: not every society where there is industry is an industrial society, but only those where the technological and social arrangements of industrial organization permeate all spheres. In the same sense, not every society in which information plays an important role is an informational society (otherwise all societies would be Informational Societies), but only those which a specific form of organization of information affects all aspects. This form is the “networking logic”. (1996: 21 n33)

Felix Stalder is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, working on the intersection of networks and money. He is also part of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.