Network Society - Rise of Digital Networks

Introduction

A network society refers to the phenomenon related to the social, political, economic and cultural changes that have occurred due to the spread of the networks of digital and information technologies that have engendered the changes in the areas mentioned above. The rise of the network society has brought in its wake newer modes of organizing things and doing business in as much as it has brought about other challenges due to the interconnected and integrated nature of the global economy. The emphasis in this article would be on examining the ramifications of a network society on capitalism, media and the political discourse along with a section on whether we are entering a brave new world of equality or whether the over connected nature of the world is perilous to the citizens of the planet.

Global Capitalism and the Network Society

The clearest manifestation of the rise of the network society is seen in the way the global financial markets operate. With the rapid advances in technology and the rise in network power, the global financial system is integrated as never before and this integration has brought into focus both the rise of “exotic” financial products that are hedges against risk of all kinds as well as perpetuation of already existing inequalities. The point here is that like everything else, the network society is both a force for good as well as for bad and hence global capitalism has indeed increased its reach but at the same time has widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

A criticism which is labeled against globalization is to do with the issue of access or how certain groups benefit at the expense of others due to differing access to knowledge and information. The same can be said about the network society (in fact globalization and the network society can be thought of as synonyms) where those with access to the network or those who are “plugged in” reap the benefits whereas the others who are left out of the global grid end up being hit with a double whammy where they have to contend with rising inequality on one hand and the lack of access to solve their problems which leads them into a downward spiral from which there is no escape.

However, this is not to say that the rise of the network society has not contributed to the betterment of society. As can be seen in the way in which countries across the world have made rapid strides in bridging the “digital divide” and consequently have empowered citizens, the rise of the network society has indeed contributed to improvement in overall well being and rising standards of living. Hence, Castells prognostications about how the network society can explain many of the recent changes in the world is indeed correct in so far as the emphasis on how well the phenomenon can be explained by recourse to the concepts presented by Castells is concerned.

Brave New World, or Over Connected ?

The preceding discussion has focused around how the rise of the network society has influenced global capitalism and contributed to the power of media as an agenda setting and opinion forming agency. However, the rise of the network society is not without its perils thought the benefits to the global economy are manifold. For instance, the ongoing global financial crisis is a manifestation of how quickly contagion can spread across the world irrespective of where it originates and hence the “over connected” nature of the global economy has indeed brought into the open new dangers for the peoples of the world. However, the positive side is that we are indeed entering a “brave new world” of integration and interconnection where as Castells’ predicted, the boundaries between nations and peoples dissolve and the rise of the cosmopolitan or the global citizen heralds an exciting new phase in the evolution of humanity.

The point here is that the integrated and interconnected global economy has brought in its wake newer forms of communication and benefits to humanity in the form of access to newer markets and cheaper goods. However, it has also engendered an increasing dependence on global modes of thought and communication which is uprooting traditional modes of communication and thought and this conflict between the old and new has given rise to both “mutations” of language and evolutionary processes as well as contributed to the growth of Islamic terrorism which is at its heart a revolt against Western inspired and global ways of living. Hence, the point as to whether we are entering a new and exciting phase in our collective consciousness or whether we lapse into the old forms of tribalism and fragmented world is entirely up to us (Bellow, 2006).

The spread of pandemics like AIDS and the Bird Flu virus are yet other manifestations of how the global economy is a force for good as well as a force for rapid spread of unmanageable diseases. The “hidden connections” in the network society indicate that like all complex adaptive systems, the global economy can and will evolve into an ordered state even when it is threatened by life consuming crises. An example of this is the “order from chaos” instance in the winter of 2008 when the global financial system was near to meltdown and at the point in which the system threatened to veer out of control, there was a spontaneous evolution into order.

Conclusion

It is clear from the discussion in the preceding sections that we are indeed living in a world that is characterized by spread of information and the rise of forms of work and life which are characterized by the networked nature of organization. Hence, it can be said that Castells was right when he proclaimed that we are living in a networked society and that the promise and perils of such and endeavor depend upon whether we can harness the technological improvements for our own collective good. As such technology is value neutral and hence the rise of the network society means that the age old human element is indeed present. The point here is that how well we adapt to this phenomenon and the decisions we take as to how we use this has implications for the future of humanity.


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