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Information Age: books


September 7, 1999: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, but please include this introductory paragraph. For information on subscribing or unsubscribing to Papyrus News see


The main contradiction of the information age is that between the forces of globalization on the one hand and identity politics on the other. The unfolding of this contradiction shapes the nature of language, literacy, and education in the information era.

A number of books have been written about this contradiction. Two books written in a journalistic style are _Jidad vs. McWorld_ by Benjamin Barber (Ballantine Books, New York, 1995 & 1996) and _The Lexis and the Olive Tree_ by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, New York, 1999). Of a completely different genre -- and far more interesting -- is Manuel Castells' three-volume series on the information age. Here is a review I wrote last year of the Castells series. A revised version of this review later appeared in Computers and Composition, v. 15, no. 2, 1998, p. 265-267


The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture

Castells, Manuel

Volume 1: The Rise of the Network Society (1996), 556 pp.

Volume 2: The Power of Identity (1997), 461 pp.

Volume 3: End of Millennium (1998), 418 pp.

Malden, MA: Blackwell

Reviewed by Mark Warschauer, University of Hawai'i

In his seminal book on the computer, hypertext, and the history of writing, Jay David Bolter (1991) concluded that "the computer is an ideal writing space for our networked society" (p. 238) If we agree with Bolter, then we must recognize that our work in computers and composition depends to a large degree on our understanding and analysis of the nature of the network(ed) society. Fortunately, developing such understanding and analysis is greatly facilitated by Manuel Castells's comprehensive three-volume series, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.

Castells, formerly a researcher at the Centre d'Études des Movements Sociaux in Paris and now a professor of sociology and planning at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent the last 35 years studying the political economy, sociology, and culture of the postmodern world. This research has culminated in Castells's three-volume magnum opus which is gaining recognition as one of the most penetrating and complete analyses of global informational capitalism. Indeed, Castells's work is so rich in empirical detail and theoretical insight that it has been compared with Marx's Capital, a work which similarly analyzed the operations and social tensions of an earlier era of capitalism.

The immense amount of economic and sociological data found in this 1437-page work will probably fall beyond the interest of most readers specializing in composition. Nevertheless, the mass of statistics culminate in gems of theoretical insight which will certainly be of interest to all readers. Castells posits that in today's world societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the Self. Volumes one and two of his work draw this opposition out in detail. Volume one, The Rise of The Network Society, provides an economic and sociological analysis of informationalism, which Castells describes as a new phase of capitalism.

The first half of the book, in which Castells discusses globalization, the network enterprise, and the transformation of work and employment, offers irrefutable empirical evidence of the importance of networked communication in today's world. Even more interesting to Computers and Composition readers, though, will be the second half of the book, in which Castells theorizes on the changing nature of time and space in the current era and puts forth his concept of the culture of real virtuality. Castells' point -- that it is within the framework of timeless, placeless, virtual symbolic systems that we construct categories shaping our behavior -- puts him opposite researchers such as Sherry Turkle (1995), who emphasize the fantasy nature of the virtual world rather than its real impact.

More specifically, Castells analyzes the development of the Internet in the context of broader media developments of the 20th century. He concludes that the Internet and multimedia further two trends of the electronic era. On the one hand there is widespread social and cultural differentiation in which users have increasingly more channels of communication, as seen for example by the vastly expanded number of television and radio stations. On the other hand there is increasing social stratification among users, with choice of media constrained to those with time and money to access, and with cultural and educational differences decisive in determining level of interaction and influence. In some ways, the Internet is potentially the most democratic medium in that it allows for a limitless number of communications channels, thus creating previously unimagined possibilities for receiving and even publishing information. In other ways, though, it is the least democratic, in that a relatively high degree of wealth, education, computer skills, and language skills is required to access and use it well. Thus a far smaller proportion of the world's people have access to the Internet than to radio, newspapers, or television, and this differentiated access is highly stratified by income, nationality, language, and gender. Access is expected to continue expanding quickly, especially in the industrialized world, but the type of access will vary, with a relatively wealthy elite (the interacting) having the computer equipment and training to shape the content of the multimedia future, while a larger number of the world's people (the interacted) will be shut off from the information highway or will access it passively through dumbed-down terminals such as web TV.

In volume two, The Power of Identity, Castells dissects the other half of the Net-Self contradiction, demonstrating how and why identity issues are so critical to personal development in the information age. Castells illustrates how, at the dawn of the information age in the late 1960s, the class-based movements of the industrial era gave way to new social movements in the U.S., France, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Whatever the stated goals of these movements, their actual thrust was not so much to seize power but rather to assert a new cultural identity, based on pacifism, personal (and collective) liberation, feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights. These movements, and the informational age in which they grew, later brought forth reactivist movements of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. Thus today while unions and political parties are losing strength, a variety of identity-based movements-ranging from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the militias in the United States to the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan-fight against what they perceive to be the excesses of globalization. Castells demonstrates that a key strategic weapon of each of these groups is the ability to access and manipulate the media, in particular through skillful use of the Internet. One especially interesting section of this volume is Castells' brief analysis of language and identity. Castells claims-and I would agree (see, for example, Warschauer, in press)-that with other identifiers such as class and the nation-state weakening, language becomes an especially critical attribute of self-recognition in the current era.

In the final volume, End of Millennium, Castells applies his earlier analysis to interpreting global politics. Castells description of the fall of the Soviet Union-based on the failure to make the transformation from industrialism to informationalism-is rich in detail and analysis, as is his discussion of the so-called "Pacific Era" (an era that now ends the global domination by "the West" and creates a new multicultural foundation of global economic interdependence). Looking at the uglier face of the new economy, Castells provides a devastating critique of growing economic and social polarization which has resulted in pockets of systematic social exclusion he terms black holes of informational capitalism. These black holes largely overlap with areas whose people lack the equipment, tools, or training to access or use information technology. This is part of a broader polarization between generic labor (those who have non-reprogrammable skills and thus can be replaced by other workers or machines) and self-programmable labor (those who through education have acquired the capability to constantly redefine the necessary skills for a given task, and to access the sources for learning these skills).

I consider Castells' books as a sort of "Postmodernism for Modernists." His thorough grounding in empirical data, ranging on everything from the lesbian movement in Taipei to electronic populism in Bolivia, provides convincing evidence for the postmodern changes he describes in areas such as politics, architecture, media, and education. Readers of these volumes will not find any prescriptions for how to teach a composition class on Monday morning. Nevertheless, a careful reading of this masterpiece can reshape the entire way one thinks about the context of computers in schools and in society. As Bossert (1996) suggests, "the key question that needs to be answered is not 'What is the role of information technologies in schools?' but rather 'What is the role of schools in the age of information technology?'" (p. 20). Educators looking for answers to that question would do well to read and reread the three volumes of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.


Bolter, Jay David (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bossert, Phil J. (1996). Understanding the technologies of learning environments. Bulletin, 80(582), 11-20.

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet.. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Warschauer, Mark (1999). Electronic literacies: Language, culture, and power in online education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (info at )

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Last updated: October 30, 1999