Associate Director and Head of Operations, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT
Over the years, I have come across enough references in discussions of the internet to know I ought to read Manuel Castells The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. It is clearly a (if not the) touchstone work of cultural criticism regarding the impact of digital technologies in the past fifty years. A combination of the cost of the 3 volume set (in excess of $100) and the sheer enormity of the task (~1500 very dense pages) has in the past held me back, but I am pleased to say that I have finally launched into it.
I have made my way through the first two chapters of Volume 1, The Rise of the Network Society, and am able to say at this point that it looks like it will richly reward the effort. The first chapter provides an overview of the internet technology revolution, and the second an in-depth examination of the impact of those technologies on the world economy, especially since 1990.
Castells descriptions of the internationalization of labor, production and capital flows tracks very closely of my lived experience of working on an information-based project in the new economy he describes. Reflecting back on my experience, I am struck by how quickly internet technologies are adopted to take advantage of differential labor costs world wide, even in our own project. At MIT OpenCourseWare, we have used FileMaker and instant messaging since the project’s inception (2002) to communicate with an outsourced publication team in India. In the early days, FileMaker painfully slow for the India team, but in the intervening years has become as fast as communicating with someone across campus.
This rapid adoption mirrors the breathtaking pace of change Castells documents in the economy as a whole. Here is the punchline of eighty-five pages of economic analysis contained in chapter 2:
The new economy is certainly, for the time being, a capitalist economy. Indeed, for the first time in history, the whole planet is capitalist or dependent on its connection to global capitalist networks. Bu this is a new brand of capitalism, technologically, organizationally, and institutionally distinct from both classical (laissez-faire) capitalism and Keynesian capitalism.
As the empirical record (in spite of all the measurement problems) seems to indicate at the turn of the millennium, the new economy is/will be predicated on a surge in productivity growth resulting from the ability to use new information technology in powering a knowledge-based production system. For new sources of productivity to dynamize the economy, it is, however, necessary to ensure the diffusion of networking forms of organization and management throughout the economy—and networks are indeed spreading throughout the entire economy, phasing out, through competition, previous, rigid forms of business organization. In addition, the dramatic expansion of the productive base requires an equivalent broadening of markets, as well as new sources of capital and labor. Globalization, by dramatically expanding markets and tapping into new sources of capital and skilled labor, is an indispensable feature of the new economy.
The economics is not the heart of my interest, nor an area of expertise for me, and I would probably benefit from rereading the chapter, but it lays the groundwork for upcoming chapters that are of great interest, including the next two: The Network Enterprise: the Culture, Institutions, and Organizations of the Information Economy and The Transformation of Work and Employment: Networkers, Jobless, and Flex-timers. I’m sure I’ll have much more to write about as my odyssey continues.