Manuel Castells: space of flows and timeless time

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power (pp. 33-36). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“As with all historical transformations, the emergence of a new social structure is linked to the redefinition of the material foundations of our existence, space and time, as Giddens (1984), Adam (1990), Harvey (1990), Lash and Urry (1994), Mitchell (1999, 2003), Dear (2000, 2002), Graham and Simon (2001), Hall and Pain (2006), and Tabboni (2006), among others, have argued. Power relationships are embedded in the social construction of space and time, while being conditioned by the time–space formations that characterize society.

Two emergent social forms of time and space characterize the network society, while coexisting with prior forms. These are the space of flows and timeless time. Space and time are related, in nature as in society. In social theory, space can be defined as the material support of time-sharing social practices; that is, the construction of simultaneity. The development of communication technologies can be understood as the gradual decoupling of contiguity and time-sharing. The space of flows refers to the technological and organizational possibility of practicing simultaneity without contiguity. It also refers to the possibility of asynchronous interaction in chosen time, at a distance. Most dominant functions in the network society (financial markets, transnational production networks, media networks, networked forms of global governance, global social movements) are organized around the space of flows. However, the space of flows is not placeless. It is made of nodes and networks; that is, of places connected by electronically powered communication networks through which flows of information that ensure the time-sharing of practices processed in such a space circulate and interact. While in the space of places, based on contiguity of practice, meaning, function, and locality are closely inter-related, in the space of flows places receive their meaning and function from their nodal role in the specific networks to which they belong. Thus, the space of flows is not the same for financial activities as for science, for media networks as for political power networks. In social theory, space cannot be conceived as separate from social practices. Therefore, every dimension of the network society that we have analyzed in this chapter has a spatial manifestation. Because practices are networked, so is their space. Since networked practices are based on information flows processed between various sites by communication technologies, the space of the network society is made of the articulation between three elements: the places where activities (and people enacting them) are located; the material communication networks linking these activities; and the content and geometry of the flows of information that perform the activities in terms of function and meaning. This is the space of flows.

Time, in social terms, used to be defined as the sequencing of practices. Biological time, characteristic of most of human existence (and still the lot of most people in the world) is defined by the sequence programmed in the life-cycles of nature. Social time was shaped throughout history by what I call bureaucratic time, which is the organization of time, in institutions and in everyday life, by the codes of military–ideological apparatuses, imposed over the rhythms of biological time. In the industrial age, clock time gradually emerged, inducing what I would call, in the Foucauldian tradition, disciplinary time. This is the measure and organization of sequencing with enough precision to assign tasks and order to every moment of life, starting with standardized industrial work, and the calculation of the time-horizon of commercial transactions, two fundamental components of industrial capitalism that could not work without clock time: time is money, and money is made over time. In the network society, the emphasis on sequencing is reversed. The relationship to time is defined by the use of information and communication technologies in a relentless effort to annihilate time by negating sequencing: on one hand, by compressing time (as in split-second global financial transactions or the generalized practice of multitasking, squeezing more activity into a given time); on the other hand, by blurring the sequence of social practices, including past, present, and future in a random order, like in the electronic hypertext of Web 2.0, or the blurring of life-cycle patterns in both work and parenting.

In the industrial society, which was organized around the idea of progress and the development of productive forces, becoming structured being, time conformed space. In the network society, the space of flows dissolves time by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous in the communication networks, thus installing society in structural ephemerality: being cancels becoming. The construction of space and time is socially differentiated. The multiple space of places, fragmented and disconnected, displays diverse temporalities, from the most traditional domination of biological rhythms, to the control of clock time. Selected functions and individuals transcend time (like changing global time zones), while devalued activities and subordinate people endure life as time goes by. There are, however, alternative projects of the structuration of time and space, as an expression of social movements that aim to modify the dominant programs of the network society. Thus, instead of accepting timeless time as the time of the financial automaton, the environmental movement proposes to live time in a longue durée, cosmological perspective, seeing our lives as part of the evolution of our species, and feeling solidarity with future generations, and with our cosmological belonging: it is what Lash and Urry (1994) conceptualized as glacial time.

Communities around the world fight to preserve the meaning of locality, and to assert the space of places, based on experience, over the logic of the space of flows, based on instrumentality, in the process that I have analyzed as the “grassrooting” of the space of flows (Castells, 1999). Indeed, the space of flows does not disappear, since it is the spatial form of the network society, but its logic could be transformed. Instead of enclosing meaning and function in the programs of the networks, it would provide the material support for the global connection of the local experience, as in the Internet communities emerging from the networking of local cultures (Castells, 2001).

Space and time are redefined both by the emergence of a new social structure and by the power struggles over the shape and programs of this social structure. Space and time express the power relationships of the network society.”


4 thoughts on “Manuel Castells: space of flows and timeless time

  1. Pingback: Media & The Digital World | MMC 6660 Mass Comm & Society

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