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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

Information Technology, Globalization and Social Development

For the first time in history the entire planet is capitalist. Even the few remaining command economies are surviving or developing through their linkages to global, capitalist markets. Yet this is a brand of capitalism that is at the same time very old and fundamentally new. It is old because it appeals to relentless competition in the pursuit of profit, and because individual satisfaction (deferred or immediate) is its driving engine. But it is fundamentally new because it is tooled by new information and communication technologies that are at the root of new productivity sources, new organizational forms, and the construction of a global economy.

In the following paper, presented at the UNRISD conference on Information Technologies and Social Development (Geneva, June 1998), Manuel Castells examines the profile of this new world, centred around multinational corporations, global financial markets and a highly concentrated system of technological research and development. He stresses the extreme flexibility of the system, which allows it to link up everything that is valuable according to dominant values and interests, while disconnecting everything that is not valuable, or becomes devalued. This simultaneous capacity to include and exclude people, territories and activities is based upon a capacity to network.

A network is simply a set of interconnected nodes. It may have a hierarchy, but it has no centre. Relationships between nodes are asymmetrical, but they are all necessary for the functioning of the network—for the circulation of money, information, technology, images, goods, services, or people throughout the network. The most critical distinction in this organizational logic is not stability, but inclusion or exclusion. Networks change relentlessly: they move along, form and re-form, in endless variation. Those who remain inside have the opportunity to share and, over time, to increase their chances. Those who drop out, or become switched off, will see their chances vanish.

In other words, networks—all networks—ultimately come out ahead by restructuring, whether they change their composition, their membership, or even their tasks. The problem is that people, and territories, whose livelihood and fate depend on their positioning in these networks, cannot adapt so easily. In a downgraded region, capital disinvests, software engineers migrate, tourists find another fashionable spot, and global media close down. Networks adapt, bypass the area (or some people), and re-form elsewhere, or with someone else. But the human matter on which the network was living cannot so easily mutate. It becomes trapped, or devalued, or wasted. And this leads to social underdevelopment, precisely at the threshold of the potentially most promising era of human fulfilment.

It is urgently necessary to reverse the downward spiral of exclusion and to use information and communication technologies to empower humankind. The reintegration of social development and economic growth in the information age will require massive technological upgrading of countries, firms and households around the world—a strategy of the highest interest for everyone, including business. It will take a dramatic investment in overhauling the educational system everywhere. It will require the establishment of a worldwide network of science and technology, in which the most advanced universities will be willing to share knowledge and expertise for the common good. It must aim at reversing, slowly but surely, the marginalization of entire countries, or cities or neighbourhoods, so that the human potential that is currently being wasted can be reinvested.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Sep 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD