Reading Connections – “And How Did We Get Here?” or, William the Orange conquers the mind, capitalism, and computers.

“And it really wasn’t until the early 90’s that technology had advanced far enough so that one could use, for example, confocal microscopy along with antibodies which could be specifically stained for elements of neurons which were convincing, and then you could multiply label the cells” (CPB, 2003).

We were kindly offered the opportunity to “save the Castells” for next week’s reading notes.  I find this impossible, if only because the combination of Annenberg and Castells proves, finally, that we have unequivocally inherited a Whig version of history.


Okay, I really wanted to just make my reading connection this week be nothing but the block quote, the apparently unrelated parody video, and the statement above, but I suppose I’m expected to do more than that. However, I might argue that should be enough to respond to Castells, who comes close to realizing the Whiggish revision of knowledge, culture, and progress at several points, but whose reading of culture prevents acknowledging it – see the “indulgence” of postmodern culture and theory (4), the fall of sovetskii narod as the opening of network potentiality (1-2, 24), and the networked, implicit rhetorical parallel between the genome and the microprocessor (64).  We might also consider the casual equivocation of convergence, globalization, confluence, and restructuring throughout the prologue and chapters 1-3 (1-215)).

“The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be for ever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves. If we were unable to enter in any way into the mind of a present day Roman Catholic priest, for example, and similarly into the mind of an atheistical orator in Hyde Park, it is difficult to see how we could know anything of the still stranger men of the sixteenth century, or pretend to understand the process of history-making which has moulded us into the world of today” (Butterfield, 1931).

So, what does it mean for Network Society to inherit a Whig version of history?

“As stunning as it sounds, I am not aware of any major criticism in published reviews, and I am aware of dozens of reviews in many countries. In fact, it is a little bit disappointing, since I am sure there are many weaknesses in the work, and I would like to debate it more” (Castells, qtd. in Fischer 1999).

I would argue that you cannot interpret the mind from within the mind, any more than you can commit historiography from within history, or critique capitalism within capitalist systems.  Of course, Castells would have us believe that not only can we do all three, but it is right and necessary to interpret these three acts as concomitant to an understanding of technology to interpolate the network within society and make networks recursive and reflexive.

It’s a fascinating challenge.  It’s also ideologically, methodologically, and contextually very problematic.

To exist in a Whig version of history is to believe that where we are is on track to where we are going, and where we are going is inherently superior because it is posthuman, communal, and democratic.  When we view society as moving through capitalism to something else beyond it, we view capitalism as a “bump in the road” to our inevitable completion of the act of humanizing society.  We do not view it as a turn, a diversion from our humanity, but a step on a path which must be walked towards a progress found in the capital gained through capital gains.

How do we move beyond technoscientism and triumphalism?  How do we avoid narratives of New Keynesian causation?  How do we ignore the indulgence of projecting the structure of economies upon the structure of society, the structure of technology upon the structure of economies, and the structure of all three upon the structure of our very biology?

What, in short, does it mean outside a Whig interpretation of history to claim that the mind is like a computer, or the neuron is a battery, or society is a social network?  It means nothing, because progress outside Whiggish impulse is not defined by shaping the world in the image of the self, nor by shaping the self in the image of the world.

What is Castells if not Thomas Macaulay’s praise song “history” of the Glorious Revolution, writ digitally across the space of the human mind?  What is a theory of network society if not losing oneself, and reclaiming oneself, as an egalitarian cog in a machine of equally-sized cogs?

How can one reject the globalizing Manifest Destiny of “network society” but to argue against Rousseau’s ascendancy of man within social contracts, or to simply state “my brain is not a microprocessor?”  What is “network society” if not the inevitable claim that Latour’s Leviathan is an organic product of progress, necessary, beautiful, and beautiful in its ugliness?

I suppose we could simply point out the lack of an Oxford comma on the cover, but that’s puerile and facile.  Not stopping me, though.  We could also point out that he hyphenates on-line and unironically refers to “The Internet Age.”  We could point out that any reading of the future situated within the past and crawling further and further back into it with each passing day is, by definition, an anachronism of knowledge.

We might note that there is a difference between post-industrial capitalism and informational capitalism.

We might note that capitalism is much more likely to be crisis than to be in crisis.

We might look at the BRIC nations of the 21st century and reconceptualize almost every single development claim that Castells made in the 1990s about the ex-Soviet Bloc and the role of globalization in exporting Western values.

We might question whether Castells’ view is colored by the imminence of the fall of the USSR in 1996, and reconsider just how important it is in defining terms in the BRIC-opposite market economies of the West today.

We might question what value network social analysis provides us today in a text written 20 years ago about the future of communication and information – in a year where AOL dial-up was the preferred ISP and platform for most users, the average Internet user was connected to the internet 30 minutes a month, and the mean baud rate of Internet connections was 28.8 kbit/s.

We might question what the network society 20 years from now will be – and how unprepared we are to speak to its quotidian realities.  We might ask how “The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture” could be “capturing” the “relations of the Information Age” when we likely haven’t even entered it yet.

We might note that the focus on globalized criminality is not a product of the topic’s significance or scope, but rather of the criminological foundations of many of his sources.

We might note that where Castells’ arguments stand free from the crushing yoke of postmodernity, they are colored mostly by the more formative and productive theories of Touraine (e.g., Self-Production of Society).  If we criticize Touraine for anything, it is for critiquing modernity from within modernity.  If we praise Touraine for anything, it is for rejecting postmodernity as a frame for criticising modernity.  Is this a contradiction?  Sure.

However, we can not consider Touraine’s reading of society as anything but Whiggish – when he views the “defense of the [human] subject […] against the logic of apparatuses and markets” as a shift from class-struggle to human-struggle through the technology of modernity, we must ask where these technologies took shape; who manufactured them?  Who designed them?  Who programmed them to serve against the machinations of the human subject beset with his own modernity (22-3).  When Castells’ argument has the opportunity to make Touraine’s modernity and cultural self-perpetuation more complex, he makes it more simple.

To say that these things are interrelational is not to provide a theory of anything, let alone a social theory of network society as a whole.  Nothing is caused but through correlation.  That is to say, nothing is causal.  Similarly, arguments that Soviet socialism fell through the influence of information, information technology, and Beatles records are nothing new – but then again, neither is Whig history at this point.

Only if you believe that Marxian-Leninist models were the sole expression of Soviet ideology, and only if you believe that Beatles records are social progress in comparison to non-occidental cultural socialism, can you read the early chapters of Rise of the Network Society as anything but well-intentioned progressive exceptionalism.

It’s one of the joys of reading Castells comes from watching him hinge so much of the Whig reading of communal democratic progress upon western readings of networked interrelation, while utilizing the fall of the Iron Curtain so frequently as the metric of the rise of the market economy of information – as if information was not the political coin of the realm since long before the socialist model was a twinkle in the eye of William the Orange (who had, it might be noted, his eye on an entirely non-constitutional, non-parliamentary monarchy returned to righteous ascendancy (posthuman-struggle over class-struggle?  Or is that too on the nose?)

It’s a noble effort, but for a globalized text heavily West-centric and almost jingoistically Frst-World in its interpolation of information and capital – as if it is not in the world of information specifically where the gap between have and have-not is closed by the generation of new, regionalized, specialized, and globalized knowledges formed through communities and discourses found as readily (if not moreso) within the Third World as in the First.  The absence of the remnants of Second World ideology and market practice in an exploration of how the Cold War and post-WWII global interrelationality functioned to give rise to the information society is… glaring, to say the least.

That in such a post-Marxian, post-socialist, post-Soviet reading of information culture, the author fails to even acknowledge the ideological (and numerical) vacuum between First- and Third-Worlders in “emerging markets” reveals a troubling understanding of how, precisely, the Cold War changed the social alignments of knowledge globally.  This, one might note, is a danger is assuming a commonality between ideations of “information” and “technology” as inherently related simply because of the linked terminology of IT Society.  No culture in human history, it is likely, has been more information-centered than the pre-digital Soviet Union.  No society has been more necessarily networked.

As such, what does it mean to say that “technology is society,” or to claim that society is defined only through “its technological tools?”  How can we claim that technology embodies society (5), but then fail to notice that it is humans, not networks, which are embodied within society, technology, and culture?  How is this not technological determinism?  How is this not Latour’s Leviathan?  How is this not technocracy redefining and reclaiming pre-technological “progress” on the path towards a Whig future?

In the end, what is a non-Whig reading of The Rise of the Network Society?  It is likely one, simply, which eliminates the notion of “rising” entirely from the argument, and views globalism as a facet, and not an effect, of networks.  Network Society has always, does currently always, and will always exist in all facets and at all levels of social knowledge and social structure.  But it does not exist within us, and it is not the perpetuation of an ideology borne of the past and moving into a liberal progressive technoscientific posthuman cyborg communality and commonality of the egalitarian future.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Connections – “And How Did We Get Here?” or, William the Orange conquers the mind, capitalism, and computers.

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