Digital Divides

Scott McLemee reviews two books about our networked society that raise rather dystopian concerns.

March 22, 2019

Nobody experiences the internet now in anything like the terms once taken for granted: as a terrain without boundaries, the ultimate level playing field, disruptive of hierarchy, the frontier toward which all information migrates because it wants to be free and so on.

I feel silly even typing it -- but yes, people did once believe that kind of thing, even into the first years of this century. It was an exercise in utopian imagination, combined with more than a little of the ideology we might call globalization-think. The actually existing online world that we've grown familiar (if not comfortable) with over the past decade is a very different kind of space. It has gated communities and great firewalls of authoritarian censorship, as well as launching pads for weaponized disinformation campaigns and mass surveillance through social media scraping. And it is a space with surfaces and depths, including all-but-inaccessible zones at the very bottom which might as well be hell.

The urbanist and social theorist Manuel Castells, writing in the mid-1990s, characterized the internet as a "space without place." As discussed in my previous column, Castells was among the first social scientists to investigate Silicon Valley and to try to extrapolate the tendencies emerging there. His notion of digital "space without place" could certainly be construed as an expression of the cyberutopian vision. Likewise with his reference to "the logic of networks" as a new global pattern.

But Castells's work was far more critical than celebratory, and his concept of a planetary "network society" had pronounced dystopian implications. Established institutions and industries would be transformed by connecting up in complex new ways; the networks thus created would become, in turn, so many nodes in still wider systems of communication and exchange. Cosmopolitan innovation could pull itself up, to unimaginable heights, by its own bootstraps. In contrast, some institutions and industries might find themselves transformed right out of existence, with serious consequences for the societies in which they had been embedded. People and regions unable to plug in to network society would be excluded from what Castells called its "flows" of knowledge, finance and so forth. Existing inequalities between countries, and within them, could worsen -- and new ones could form.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Castells suggested that a new global conflict was taking shape, defined by the Net and the Self. The Net included developments such as fiber optics, just-in-time production and transnational supply chains as well as the internet; beyond that proviso, the connection between term and concept is pretty straightforward. The fit was not nearly as neat with the other pole of the dichotomy. The Self is not, in Castells's usage, the entity that takes selfies but applies rather to "the specific cultural systems built around a common experience: where [people] live, their languages, their own unique cultures and histories, ethnic groups, nations or religions." On the whole, "community" or "identity" seem more suitable terms, but Castells continues to distinguish the Net and the Self in his most recent book, Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy (discussed here last time), from which I'm quoting.

One of the seemingly entrenched and durable institutions being ground down by tensions between the Net and the Self is the nation-state -- particularly of the liberal-democratic variety. There, in principle, citizens make a "free, periodic and verified choice over who holds the decision-making duties" in a government that follows a constitution that citizens have "the opportunity to revise and update." The nation-state acts "as a node within the global networks where the fate of its peoples are decided," including the global financial system and organizations such as the European Union. In "calmer times," Castells says, "when the market can manage the economy and people live peacefully, institutional order is perpetuated through routine," with established political parties that differ on policies but "agree on maintaining their monopoly of power within a pre-established framework of possibilities."

Suffice it to say that we are not talking about the present. "More than two-thirds of people on the planet," writes Castells, "think that politicians do not represent them, that the parties (all of them) prioritize their own interests, that the resulting parliaments are not representative and that governments are corrupt, unjust, bureaucratic and oppressive." (Citations and graphs backing this up are available at the publisher's website.) Brexit, Trump and Macron were symptomatic expressions of this frustration a couple of years ago -- followed now, in their respective countries, by frustration with Brexit, Trump and Macron.

Castells mentions a volume published in France shortly before the 2017 elections that described how "many sectors of society [were] deserting a democracy that does not represent them, raising the prospect of a tentative search for new forms of representation" -- which is certainly one way to characterize the yellow vests protest of the last few months. In any case, the book in question, by the geographer Christophe Guilluy, is now available in English as Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery and the Future of France (Yale University). Parts of it seem very specific to what you might call the Gallic Self. But on many pages you could replace Guilluy's reference to a politician or place name with an American equivalent. The author does not refer to Castells but has reached many of the same conclusions:

From the concentration of the winners from globalization in areas of the country having something like a monopoly over wealth and job creation, there arises a uniform style of thinking and speaking … All the vague talk about interconnectedness, mobility, trade, social diversity, openness to others and so on is a way of obscuring the effects of unequal economic development and a form of regional organization that shuts out most of the less well-off from the large cities … On the one side are the new moderns, those who are intelligent enough to perceive the direction of history and generous enough to teach their fellow citizens to see the world as they do; on the other are the new ancients -- the backward looking, the unqualified, the weak minded … Behind all the talk about openness there is a different and rather less comforting reality: the self-ghettoization of the dominant classes, a strengthened system of social reproduction, and the advent of an oligarchic political system whose outstanding feature is the habitual alternation between traditional parties of the left and right.

Both Castells and Guilluy hope for an upsurge of democratic aspiration and inventiveness from below. Neither ventures to describe how that might happen. It would involve bringing the Net under the control of the Self, to put it one way, though it's hard to imagine what that would even look like.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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