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Brave New World

THE INFORMATION AGE: Economy, Society and Culture The Rise of the Network Society; Volume I;\o7 By Manuel Castells; (Blackwell: 556 pp., $27.95 paper)\f7

THE INFORMATION AGE: Economy, Society and Culture The Power of Identity; Volume II;\o7 By Manuel Castells; (Blackwell: 462 pp., $27.95 paper)\f7

THE INFORMATION AGE: Economy, Society and Culture End of Millennium; Volume III;\o7 By Manuel Castells; (Blackwell: 442 pp., $27.95 paper)\f7

May 23, 1999|BENJAMIN BARBER | Benjamin Barber is Whitman professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of, most recently, "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World" and "A Place For Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong."


For most of our cluttered history, the human mind has outrun its paltry products: Philosophy, religion andmetaphysics overmatched the simple machines and worldly things that the mind had made, so the mind made do with God, poetry and eternity as its subject matter. In the Age of Enlightenment, so limited was the accumulated knowledge of our species and so expansive the hubris of the French philosophes that they could dare to press all they knew into the bold systemic project of a single Great Encyclopedia (1755). Half a century later, affecting to stand at the end of a modern era we now know had scarcely begun, Hegel could claim to merge the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history into a single vast and integrative phenomenology that encompassed all that was our consciousness and our world together.

Those were times when all theory was grand theory; when knowledge, like Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog, was one single great thing rather than a billion bytes and bits organized into discrete disciplines among which scholars move today at the risk of being called dilettantes or futurologists. Indeed, our current intellectual world is one in which the products of consciousness outrun consciousness itself and thinking machines create an often unintelligible world of processes and flows beyond understanding or control. Who then today would dare try to assimilate and encompass all knowledge? Grand social theory died with Talcott Parsons or perhaps Max Weber, if not Hegel. Encompassing history disappeared with the death of Toynbee or perhaps Gibbon, if not Voltaire.

Hence postmodern skepticism and postmodern despair: the trivial (and trivializing) ambitions of the deconstructive critic in place of the grand (and ennobling) aspirations of the creator. At the very moment in human history when new revolutionary communications technologies and an informational economy demand synthetic understanding, the anarchic world they produce seems immune to understanding. At best we deploy brute categories like power and interest; at worst, we retreat into subdisciplinary specialties in which we will not be required to address the dark interstices where fields join and reality begins.

So what is one to make of this magnificent throwback, Manuel Castells, this Voltaire of the information age, who has ventured a three-volume systemic account of our postmodern civilization under the title "The Information Age"? What do we make of a scholar who, rather than running from this confounding epoch's complexities, embraces them, insisting scholarly analysis can still root itself in reason, in meaningful social action and in transformative politics? Castells, this orphan child of a vanished Enlightenment, actually believes in "the hypothesis that all major trends of change constituting our new confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship."

Is Castells an anachronism, a Cartesian fossil reanimated by some vestigial Hegelian zeal come to life in the rotting garden of postmodernity? Can he actually make some sense out of an increasingly senseless world? His biography is too good to be true, leaving the impression that--rather than being a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, which he is--he may actually be a committee of scholars united under a pseudonym. When he writes about Paris in the fateful year of 1968, it turns out he was an assistant professor at the University of Paris at Nanterre. When he surveys with sharp acumen the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent anarchy of Russia, he uses personal "field research" from places like Zelenograd, Novosibirsk and Sakhalin. His insights on Japan grow out of a guest professorship at Hitotsubashi University in 1995, while his ruminations on Europe arise from his participation in the European Commission's High Level Expert Group on the Information Society, 1995-97. Mexico he understands from "twenty-five years of personal experience," the Philippines from the life of his grandmother, who grew up there.

This is sociology as anthropology, nearly every domain lived personally, none fashioned from books and data alone. Castells needs all the experience he can get, for his aim is to explicate, relate and render intelligible such diffuse fields of data as are represented by identity politics, productivity, micro-engineering, feminism, the environmental movement, global labor, the Minitel, the Fourth World, religious fundamentalism, war, virtual time, the transformation of gender politics, the end of patriarchalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Asian economy, the crisis of democracy, the marginalization of Africa, European reunification, the globalization of child exploitation, of syndicated crime and of arms trafficking and (his permanent subtext) the growing dominion of information technology. His canvas is truly global, with detailed country accounts of the United States, Mexico, Europe, Russia, China, the Pacific Rim and Africa.


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