Monday, August 29, 2011

Manuel Castells, the Internet Galaxy andcontemporary Internet development

For good writing on the social aspects of new media ubiquity, it's hard to go past Manuel Castells and his writings on what he calls "the Network Society". In his book "The Internet Galaxy", he distinguished four different groups of people whose cultural values were responsible for turning the Internet into the mainstream success that it is today. Each group built upon and to some extent transformed the norms and mores of an earlier group. The groups, in order are:

"Techno-elites": graduates and other academics who applied the scientific culture of openness, peer review, and meritocracy (judged by technical excellence) to the development of computer communication technology. They came up with the idea of a network of computers communicating via packet-switching, and created the initial technology that enabled this.

"Hackers": not the criminal types portrayed in Hollywood movies, but creative problem-solvers. They built on the techno-elite culture, but made "freedom" one of their paramount values as well: freedom to write software, to change it, to explore how machinery worked. They built and improved the technology that made the Internet work as a space for social interaction.

"Virtual Communitarians": less interested in the technical side of things, they embraced the hacker value of "freedom" as a political and cultural ethic for how online communities should work. They and their values seeded the communities which comprised the social space of the early Internet beyond the initial cadre of academics, hackers, and other computer geeks.

"Entrepreneurs": a somewhat problematic and late-arriving group, they are the ones who sold the public on the idea of the Internet. They created the "mainstream" Internet in the 1990s, primarily by selling the public on the idea of what the future would be like with the Internet, then working to try and bring that future about through speculative investment in Internet start-ups.

There is some significant culture clash between the entrepreneurs and the other three groups, yet the entrepreneurs' money is what makes development of the Internet possible now that the original network has been privatised, and it is the techno-elites, hackers and virtual communitarians who do the work of bringing about the entrepreneurs' vision that he sells to the public.

Does this grouping still hold today? There are times when it feels like the entrepreneurs have become the dominant force in Internet development, subsuming the other groups (and their attendant cultural values of open-ness, meritocracy and freedom) to their overarching goal of "selling the future" (and the attendant money to be made from doing so).

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