Tag Archives: network society

Castells: Time and Space Walk Into A Bar…

Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever"

Star Trek: “City on the Edge of Forever”

Several times while reading Castells, I thought of science fiction and the philosophical musings about time, space, dimensions, and what not. So imagine my surprise when I read Castell use the phrase, “city on the edge.” His references to time and space as abstractions made the next jump inevitable: one of Star Trek’s most feted episodes, outlined here. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, time isn’t tied to space and permanency at all. Perfect fit for Castells.

The Wall Street Journal, "A Revolution In the Making." (Image by Ryan Etter)

The Wall Street Journal, “A Revolution In the Making.” (Image by Ryan Etter)

Chapters 2 & 3: Castells’ early chapters lay the historical groundwork for these next sections, establishing as he does his argument that we are a part of a global (not planetary) information revolution on or above the same level of significance as the Industrial Revolution. (See this Wall Street Journal article for some interesting connections.)

Instead of the manufacturing industry, however, the new revolution is based on communication technology. His book describes this new network in terms of nodes and links, diffusions and systems – with transformations and innovations occurring where ideas are exchanged, usually at nodes that “interact with economy and society” (62-69). This new economy, however, is not one of power in terms of energy production but “informational” in terms of mass communication and the “new culture” it creates (77, xxx). Interestingly, he argues that the infrastructure itself is not at the heart of this phenomenon – it is the communication itself (xxxvii). This is the economy of chained networks and nodes he describes as being the components of this network society – what seems remarkably like an ecology.

Connections to Ecosystems and Neurobiology: In his early chapters, he outlines key agency nodes that are the basis of this society: information, pervasiveness, networking logic, flexibility, and convergence (69-71). The product of this new economy is not goods and services, however; it is “information” (78). Therefore, could it be he is describing not just an economy of knowledge, but an ecosystem of knowledge with information as its key medium for growth? Thinking back to the neurobiology readings, the chemical-based electrical impulses that constitute information and the neuronal system they travel could be considered a medium. Like Castells’ description of the economic system of his new society, these information corporations form strategic alliances very much like Spinuzzi’s chained activity networks comprised of nodes (each one an alliance). This system evolves and diffuses along what Castells calls a “global web” (122) – growing in ways that sound remarkably like neural pathways, networks within networks (131). I found his description of diffusion rather interesting, extending knowledge from major concentrations of states / businesses typically characterized as dominant economic / power centers (nodes again), but “skewed toward and defined by advanced cultures” (126). His  explanation of this seems to replay a long history of the ways in which economies and their “affordances” favor the strong and the rich — discrimination that is based on value systems, but in this economy, it’s information and communication that are the valued coins of a global system built on local nodes (134). It is the technology itself, Castells asserts, that changes how the market establishes that value (156), citing the growth and confluence of tech-influenced infrastructures composed of financial markets, software companies, companies like Yahoo that facilitate communication, and companies like Amazon that create a new market base of strictly online commerce (148-153).

So, key concepts for Chapter 2 might be summed up in these two quotations:

  • “The new economy brings information technology and the technology of information together in the creation of value out of our belief in the value we create” (160-162).
  • The “[e]ssential component of the new economy: networking. The organizational transformation of the economy, as well as … society … are … a necessary condition for institutional restructuring and technical innovation” (160).

rand_world_1_horizIn Chapter 3, Castells discussed a history of trends in the emergence of this new culture. He goes to great lengths to be sure we as readers understand that by culture, he does not mean “a set of values and beliefs linked to a particular society” (163). Rather, he grounds his definition of the term in the idea of “ideational bases for institutionalized authority relations” or “organizational logics” (164) – a concept that again seems highly similar to our exploration of intersecting ecologies (Guatteri, I believe). In this chapter, he takes us through the evolution of “the large corporation,” moving through Fordism (166) to the new management he calls “Toyotism” (169).  From Taylorism / Fordism to this new era of management and corporate systemization, he points to the evolution of what he calls a “horizontal corporation” (176) that is in essence “an articulated network of multifunctional decision-making centers” (178). Networks like the Cisco Systems are the new archetype that has emerged to replace the former (Fordism) with a “business model of the Internet-based economy…a global networked business model” (180). Like Bateson, Castells notes that the importance of the mind or “mentality” – not the tools or the computer-based infrastructure –is the driving force of this evolution (185). However, Castells also notes that without the computer, none of this would have been possible (185). Yin and yang.

He coins the phrase “spirit of informationalism” as a characteristic of this new networked society and, while rather interesting, it seemed as though it was Castells’ effort to avoid the traditional conceptual frame of the term “culture” in this discussion. He seems to want this term of “culture” to exist in multiple dimensions – which at times makes it a bit confusing, as though he wants it both ways – but settles on a definition of this defining “spirit” as “the culture of ‘creative destruction’ (215). Perhaps this is an inevitable dilemma of any discussion of this sort of networked ecosystem based on knowledge / information / communications – we are exploring a system that employs both the philosophical as well as the physical. Some ephemerality is to be expected, I suppose. (Just so long as we don’t need to follow Bateson’s use of LSD to be fully versed in the proposal.)

Chapters 5-7: With the basic definitional concepts behind him, Castells moves into a discussion of the “culture of virtuality” in Chapter 5, beginning with a brief discussion of language and communities. This chapter reminds me of the Amanda Case TED talk, “We Are All Cyborgs Now” (see video below) in which her explanation of communication technologies (ironically sponsored by Cisco) allowing us to fold space seems to offer an example of Castells’ “space of flows” and “timeless time.” He walks us through the influence of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s on the “diffusion of television” creating “a new galaxy of communication” (358) and an environment of communication (362). Reviewing the criticisms of television as a communications media, Castells points out that while the system may be one-way, the communication process still allows for “each culture and social group” to form “a specific relationship to the media system, such as might happen if surfing channels is understood as a way the audience “create[s] its own visual mosaic” (370). This chapter explores the formative pressures created by government, business, and social policies / politics have influenced the emergence of communication systems beyond (diffused from) the television set that have contributed to the “notion[s] of mass culture” permeating this discussion (359). He asserts that references to this “mass media” system is actually incorrectly framed as a “form of culture”; it is more accurate to refer to it as a “technological system” instead (364). There was simply SO much packed into this chapter that I find myself forced to gloss over the depths to resort to summarizing it from the shoreline: he begins with culture and language, and he concludes the chapter with the observation that our new systems of communication blur the boundaries between virtuality and reality so much (he refers the the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown episode as proof) that it creates a “new text of the real and the imaginary” (405). This creates the potential to “embrace and integrate all forms of expression” as well as “radically transform space and time” in its creation of “a new culture” (406). As students of new media, this observation should either excite or frighten us to no end.

Link to my Object of Study: This chapter’s observations led me to wonder whether MOOCs behave similarly to how Castells describes the television interactivity conundrum. I wondered if this isn’t an illusion, however, when proponents of MOOCs assert that the virtual space allows students to be co-creators of their learning and the learning space. But how much co-creation is possible if the spatial design must conform first to the educational system that funds its existence and awards credence by framing it in the system of milestones / assessment practices expected of an institution of higher education? Knowledge diffusion may be less prescribed, but the structural system would still dictate some degree of potential pathway order. In fact, Castells remarks that the “[s]patial inequality in Internet access” cited in many MOOC criticisms “is one of the most striking paradoxes of the Information age, given the supposedly placeless characteristic of the technology” (377). Yet it seems this may be countered by what Castells refers to as the system’s potential for “innovation, flexibility, and decentralization,” which then “translate into new patterns of communications” (385-86).

Chapters 6 and 7 move down a more theoretical, even metaphysical, pathway as he introduces two concepts: the space of flows and timeless time. These two chapters were especially challenging, as I’m clearly all about pragmatic application of theory. (This is where my reference to the Amanda Case TED talk came in handy, as a way to provide a touchstone reference.) The concept of space / flowing reminds me of the neuron pathways and “channels” described in last week’s readings, but it also seems to echo the theories of Activity and even Actor Network, where the movement and agency highlight both the limits and the permeability of boundaries (a form of space). One of the more interesting observations in this chapter was his assertion that “space is the expression of society” (440). It is as if he sees space much like we might see boundaries and pathways – but acknowledging that the “map is not the territory” (Bateson’s reference to Korzybski on page 455). This would seem to substantiate Castells’ comment that “[s]patial forms and processes are formed by the dynamics of the overall social structure.” A bit frightening is his observation that the “background of meaning” informing this space is no longer cultural “experience, history, and specific culture,” but is being replaced instead by “dominant interests” (450). To avoid this, Castells champions the concept of “nude architecture,” or his “space of flows” (450). But how can any type of architecture be totally devoid of influence or neutral? Even the hypothesis itself places a preferred value on this new culture and network system, lauding its benefits while also pointing out its dangers. This is a point in the book where I think the author extends his toe just a bit too far over the line.

In sum, his “space of flows” appears to be – like our neuron studies – a metaphor meant to replace pre-existing models or interpretive lenses with something more nuanced, more suited to the space/non-space that is our concept of the vast web structure of the Internet…a structure that can only be conceptualized if we include the non-forms like space, movement, ideas. And because our concept of space is grounded in not-space (i.e., the nodes of the material world), the same must be true of time. Humans are creatures dependent on the concrete – we tie ourselves to timelines and structures so we have a sense of place and identity. Castells argues that “linear, irreversible, measurable, predictable time is being shattered in the network society” (463), and we therefore need a new form – his “timeless time” – to take its place. He defines these two concepts as linked, and much like Case refers to the “folding of space” through a communication technology, one shapes the other…and in turn both shape / characterize this new “network society” (499).

Castells’ philosophy of society and technology is compelling, yet I wonder if it can really be a replacement or even an evolution if it can only be grounded through negation of existing frameworks of human activity and concrete concepts such as place / space. Thinking back to CHAT and the call to revisit the canons of our culture, I am reminded of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) if one of the primary hubs of new systems remains the human being at the center of it all…the one who has the agency to step back and forth through portals christened “The Guardian of Forever.”

Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987.

Case, Amanda. “We Are All Cyborgs Now.” 11 Jan. 2011. TED.com

Castells, Manuel. Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

“City on the Edge of Forever.” Star Trek. NBC. 6 April 1967. Television.

“Unit 10: Neurobiology.” Rediscovering Biology. Annenberg Foundation. 2013. Web.

An Ecology of Reading Notes: Castells & Neurobiology, or NeuroEco

I’ll start this week with the readings on neurobiology because of my interests in that field. I’m actually quite fond of making references to mind mapping and neurobiology when looking for metaphors to explain critical thinking or other complex activities (whether for my own use or for my students – pity them). I’m sure this has to do with my life-long interest in the sciences, so it’s only natural I gravitate toward such analogies as black holes, synaptic connections, neural networks, and – of course – the Borg.

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation from Memory Alpha.org

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation
from Memory Alpha.org

While reviewing these materials, I was struck by the overt parallels with our theories covered thus far in terms of networks and network activities: nodes = neurons, boundaries = cell membranes, and neuron-to-neuron transfer = over gaps. So now that it’s clear that both these filters are permanently seated as my reading lenses, these connections – and their links to some of our theorists and our theme – take on a new level of profundity when linking out to ways my classroom pedagogy (and my Object of Study) can be articulated with the help of this week’s readings / concepts.

In sum, this chapter provides an overview of how the brain’s neurons essentially constitute networks within networks, part of the higher brain function – what the textbook refers to as a systems-level operation. These neurons process and transmit electrical impulses and chemical information as part of knowledge generation, transfer, memory, and a host of physiological functions. The description is vividly reminiscent of the chained activity system described by Spinuzzi, except that these neural pathways seem anything BUT “informal linkages” (Spinuzzi “Networks” 74). The textbook section on Neurobiology parallels many of our recent discussions and, of course, Castells’ preliminary chapters outlining a history of knowledge development (a knowledge economy).  Our brains take in information, process that information, and then create some product our “outputs” (“Introduction”).  With advancing technology such as imaging systems, researchers are able to examine knowledge at the molecular level, observing exactly how “neurons talk” by comparing the process to a “24-hour call center” (reminding me of Activity Theory). (This change of perspective remains that of an observer – something our previous week’s discussion pressures thanks to our attention to the Observer vs. Integrated Participant roles we as humans play within an ecosystem.) The specific nodes in this “talking process” that strike me as most compelling and connection-rich are the concepts of “voltage-gated channels” (buses come to mind), “LTP,” and the system of movement / boundaries / and mediators that is the neuron.


A Synapse, Image from Rediscovering Biology, Chapter 10 “Across the Synapse”

I found several of the key vocabulary terms as defined by the glossary important to both this summary and my OoS theory:

  • Neuron = a cell referred to as a type of “battery” which collects and transfers information. Key to communication in cellular activity. In essence, we might see it as an activity node. Two ends, one for reception, one for delivery/transfer. Neurons “make the connections” (Neurobiology video).
  • Dendrite = found on the neuron’s surfaces, akin to a “tree” structure, these receive chemical/electrical messages
  • Axon = found at the opposing end of the neuron, transmits the processed incoming signal to other neurons
  • Membranes = cell barriers, surfaces
  • Synapses = what connects two neurons in order to exchange information
  • Receptors = receiving the molecular information, on a “post-synaptic neuron,” before transferring on the information.
  • Neurotransmitters = molecules that travel “across the synapse and, by binding to the receptor on the postsynaptic neuron,” key to signal transfer
  • Exocytosis = when neurotransmitters are released
  • Vesicles = described like a “soap bubble,” nodes of transmission for the neurotransmitter. The boundaries or membranes essentially carry the information, serving like a moving truck for the information.
  • LTP or Long Term Potentiation =  key to memory. If a neuron is hyper stimulated, say with increased sensory stimuli like neurons become “more sensitive to stimuli.” It has to do with the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic connections. Rather than a synchronous 1:1 pre- post- activity, increased input or stimulation increases the firing duration. This might happen because more neuro-transmitters are released. Or, the receptor is modified somehow (chemically), increasing the action potential.
  • Neurogenesis = a key to adaptation. Apparently the adult brain holds “in reserve” new / potential neurons, contrary to what was previously believed to be limited to early brain development which ceases at a certain maturation stage. New technologies revealed that the brain isn’t as much like a computer – with limited input / data potential – as once believed. Interestingly, this was discovered by looking at the gaps – examining activity that suggested another force was in play (Foucault’s traces).
  • Voltage-gated channels = either open or closed, “membrane potential of the cell,” by chemicals like neurotransmitters. These occur in the cell membrane of the neuron. Essentially, the charged electronic particles (ions) move according to the gradients of the charge (positive moves toward negatively charged areas and vice versa). These channels might be seen as communication avenues, or conditions with a culture that permits (as Castells might argue) potential energies to move information from the local to the global (xxxv) in a “space of flows” (xxxiii).

The dendrites are in green; the axon is in blue. Taken from http://www.uic.edu/classes/bios/bios100/lectures/nervous.htm.

The textbook chapter’s focus is on neurobiology, and specifically neuron activity and transfer. The video mentions “molecular to global perspectives,” creating a possible node of connectivity with our ecology readings of past weeks, as well as Castells’ discussion of economics. In fact, there is simply so much here that resonates as a potentially powerful metaphor for our exploration of networks, especially those that involve human agency (a link to ANT certainly). The environment of the ecologies discussed last week seem to parallel in many ways with the process of neurogenesis. Changes in the environment (or ecology) affect the nature of the brain circuitry. Behavior and the brain combine, effects moving in both directions. Behavior regulates the response by the brain to the environment, as well as the reverse. Such “two-way” transmission results in transformation, not unlike the systems described by Castells when he explores ways in which “major social changes” – or our environment – are “characterized by a transformation of space and time in human experience” (xxxi), perhaps what might create what he calls a “space of flows” within a networked society (xxxiii).

Castells' The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ primary focus appears to be an explanation of what he calls “a new form of society, the network society” which is a culture “based on multimodal communication” (xvii). Rather than providing us another theory, Castells asserts that this is a “structural analysis” (xix) – much like what we read in the Neurobiology Textbook. What is learned? Certainly a host of new terms, but also a means of examining familiar concepts in new ways…concepts such as knowledge, communication, connections, and structures.

Castells’ preface mentions the idea of “mega nodes” (xxxviii), an interesting concept of concentrated power, nodes that serve as switching points in the global network or system of economies. Castells seems to argue that these mega nodes – usually concentrated intersections located at “points of connection in this global architecture of networks” which “attract wealth, power, culture, innovation, and people” – are places of convergence or intersections that are not only geospatial but economic (xxxviii). The function of these mega nodes remind me of a TED video about “filter bubbles” as these mega nodes act as directional potential for those at the farthest reaches of this system, exerting control much like the LTP of the synaptic connections might function. Castells argues that “our societies are…structured around a bipolar opposition between the net and the self,” creating a “structural schizophrenia between function and meaning” (3). His opening chapter (chapter 1) explores the history of technology in terms of a revolution similar to the industrial revolution – what he calls the “information technical revolution” (29). Essentially, information technology is akin to the new energies of the Industrial Revolution” (30). The “pervasiveness” of information technology is woven into everything and “the mind is a direct productive force” in this system, not simply something that “makes decisions in the ‘system’” (31) The computers then become extensions of the mind, and this is where the neurobiology readings intersect, for the neuroscientists now see the computer analogy for our brain’s functioning no longer sufficient – it’s far more complex. Castells’ early chapters also reveal a complexity to which the neurobiology readings create an interesting parallel – or overlay – in the ways that such systems function. Since Castells pointed out early in his book that he was not trying to create a theory, only a structural analysis…even so, it still feels like a theory, given his references to economic/political powers tracing the creation of nodes and driving innovation into the pattern of the system (Chapter 1) and the existence of a “new culture” (xvii).

In fact, it is this local to global framework which pairs so well with the neurobiology textbook reading, especially since Castells is apparently locating his discussion of economies within communication  — specifically an economy based on information. He points to agency nodes, “material foundations of the network society,” that point back to our readings on ecology, and even as far back to Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory. In many ways, Castells’ early chapters illustrate the foundations of a network system that seems to move much like neurons and neurotransmitters do.

It’s all really heady stuff (no pun intended), and its grounding in information being communicated seems to connect in complex ways with the complex neurobiology model we read this week. It may take me a while to process all of this – but there is so much potential applications to studying MOOCs here, I’ll likely need to sift through it to pick and choose.

In the meantime, all this talk of brains and neurochemistry has led me to one of my favorite movie scenes. Perhaps an appropriate reminder of how we must sometimes tread carefully when working with networks and nodes.