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The Network Society

Author: Darin Barney
Publisher: Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004
Review Published: April 2005

 REVIEW 1: Alison Powell

As the internet becomes more and more a part of daily life for most North Americans, academic researchers have begun to focus closely on people’s specific interactions with network technology. This approach has been fruitful, but has often meant that cyberculture studies fail to consider the wider implications of these technologies. Darin Barney, an assistant professor of communication at McGill University, takes this wider view in his book The Network Society. Commissioned as part of the "Key Concepts" series of social science texts, this work introduces and discusses the articulation of the "network society." Barney questions to what extent this articulation is useful as a description of the character of our age, and further, whether it provides any critical reflection on contemporary experience.

Intended as an introductory textbook for undergraduate students unfamiliar with network theory, this work distills current research and theory, presenting it in four main contexts: "Network Technology," "Network Economy," "Network Politics," and "Network Identity." Most of the research presented will be familiar to those working in the area but Barney does an admirable job of elegantly and succinctly synthesizing current concerns emerging from the network society theory, such as the instrumentalist/social constructivism debates in technology studies, the process of globalization and the development of a "new economy," the decline of the nation-state, the potential for networked democracy, and the nature of virtual community. These elements, supported by classic and up-to-date work in politics, economics, and sociology, create the framework for Barney’s introduction to the network society. However, the central assessment of the network society articulation rests heavily on the elements of the "network society" outlined by Manuel Castells in The Rise of the Network Society, End of Millennium, and The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on Internet, Business, and Society. Barney's argument acts as both a parallel and a corrective to these works, reaffirming many of Castells' ideas about the concentration of capitalistic power within networks, but generally displaying a less than enthusiastic view of network technology's potential for social mobilization or the development of new identities.

This is not to say that Barney merely shadows Castells, although he draws extensively from Castells' writing throughout. Because of this, students who have read Castells will likely find The Network Society less interesting than those who are approaching the network society theory for the first time. Unlike Castells, Barney refuses to take a strong position on whether the network society is a useful framework for explaining changes in contemporary life. Throughout the book, he questions the usefulness of the "network society" as a key concept. Beginning with a summary of other concepts advanced as potential descriptions of contemporary life, including post-industrialism, information society, post-Fordism, postmodernism, and globalization, Barney examines the network society as one of a "galaxy of recent attempts to capture decisively that of which we are in the midst" (4).

For Barney, responding to our current situation requires paying attention to "network politics." Although "politics" is identified as the theme of only one chapter, the current of politics runs throughout the work. In "Network Technology," Barney discusses the "essence or spirit of technology, technical design, situation, and use of technologies" (43, emphasis in original) from a political perspective -- describing the way that network technologies tend to empower the already empowered. As an example of how technical design and politics meet, Barney mentions the perverse way that the process of one’s obtaining a connection to the network, instead of being emancipating, merely establishes the preconditions for one's continued disempowerment. The preoccupation with politics continues in the economics section, where Barney discusses the relationship between networks and globalization, noting that it is debatable whether or not anything about the network society upsets the continuing consolidation of capital and power characteristic of late capitalism. He questions as well whether this consolidation of ownership has begun to undermine democracy: "whatever potentials its instrumental uses might hold for democratic politics, network technology remains situated in a political economy in which a great deal of democratic, public control over communications -- a crucial democratic resource -- has devolved to the private calculations of massive corporate actors" (76-77).

This critical undercurrent permeates the politics section as well, where Barney comes into his own with a discussion of how the movement from nation-states to globalized institutions such as the IMF and the WTO alters the way we understand democracy. Continuing to interrogate positions that claim massive shifts in democracy as a result of networked technology, Barney writes, "the informational politics of the network society simply escalates tendencies that have always been present, wherever political power has been organized via institutions that are at least formally democratic" (123). He also criticizes research that suggests that the internet encourages democratic participation, noting that only a slim proportion of internet users engage with political sites of any kind, much less alternative political sites.

In the "Networked Identity" section, Barney interrogates the process of identity-formation in the context of a globalized and networked world, attempting to determine the roles of community, virtual or geographic, and of culture, both practiced and produced. At the end of the chapter, he discusses the implications of the increasing fragmentation and specialization of internet content, writing, "the internet transforms the daily newspaper into the ‘Daily Me’: culture ceases to be an environment of traditions and practices we learn and share, and becomes simply a reiteration of our individual choices" (174). Throughout, Barney pushes at the existing frameworks for understanding the "network society."

Introducing such a wide-ranging concept is surely challenging, and Barney is careful to position this book as an inquiry rather than as a manifesto. However, this can detract from an argument's power: in an attempt to provide an alternative to Castells' enthusiasm for the transformative possibility of the network society, Barney's position -- which could be summarized as "some things seem to have changed, and possibly not for the better" -- lacks a certain strength. In the book's conclusion, he describes a key distinction between the network society as "a tool of investigation and interpretation" and the ideological discourse of a "Network Society," noting that "our appreciation of the former must be tempered by a recognition of the liabilities of the latter" (181). But even in this discussion he avoids taking a strong stand on the overall appropriateness of the network society articulation. It’s frustrating to see such a clear thinker and strong theorist restrain himself in this way, but a more fulsome critique may have detracted from the book's quality as a basic textbook. Such reticence may also stem from a desire to create a more enduring work. Already, works such as Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), with its enthusiasm for the political possibilities of "assembling virtually," seem dated. In addition, as Barney points out, despite Castells' commanding description of our present society as "networked," there is no conclusive proof that this is in fact the best description. In essence, this is Barney's underlying argument -- that in fact the network society may not exist, and if it does, it may not be a particularly useful articulation.

Despite his unwillingness to definitively lay out his point of view, this introductory text will be a great asset to instructors. The writing is clear, engaging, and sometimes very funny -- to describe the role of a technology's characteristics in the context of its use, Barney notes, "you cannot catch a cod with a lighthouse" (58). His light shines brightest in the section on "Network Politics" where he provides profound insight into the political and economic structures underlying the network society -- not surprising for a researcher with a background in political philosophy.

However, when the level of analysis moves from the "macro" structures of the network to the "micro" experiences of individuals, the light fades slightly. This is to be expected, since Barney elsewhere calls for more broad research at a time when many "internet studies" are narrowly focused in scope (see Barney 2003). However, some of his claims about "digital culture" are based in the now disputed notion that "virtual community" and "virtual identity" are separate from "real" community and identity, and that a distinction (in North America at least) between "internet users" and "non-users" is a valuable one. Yet investigating individual identity and internet use is not Barney’s project here. In fact, he’s critical of our focus on individual internet use as a benchmark for the personal experience, pointing out that "perhaps what is more important is the extent to which digital networks in the whole range of applications affect and structure the material environment" (164, emphasis in original). Barney makes a convincing attempt to analyze the network society on both theoretical and practical levels, from both the micro and macro perspectives. That his critique is most successful at the macro level is unfortunate but unsurprising -- the concept of the "network society" perhaps lends itself better to large-scale analyses. What Barney has done here, and done well, is to provide a strong overall summary of Castells’ network society hypothesis, and to reposition the analysis of that hypothesis to take account of our waning belief in the transformative potential of networked communication.

Barney, D. 2003. Invasions of publicity: digital technology and the privatization of the public sphere. In New Perspectives on the Public-Private Divide, edited by Law Commission of Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

___. 1997. The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

___. 1998. End of Millenium. Oxford: Blackwell.

___. 2001. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rheingold, H. 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Alison Powell:
Alison Powell is a Ph.D. student in the Joint Programme in Communications at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She conducts research on the use of public internet access points and the social construction of WiFi technology by community wireless groups. She has presented her work in Canada, the United States, and the UK.   <a_powell@alcor.concordia.ca>

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