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Reviewed by:
  • Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics?
  • David Lyon
Frank Webster , ed, Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics?London and New York: Routledge, 2001, 231 pp.

Two kinds of social change, technological and political, come together in this volume of essays. Without suggesting that one might somehow simply be the product of the other, the authors discuss in part one some issues of "new media, politics, and culture" and in part two, of "new social movements." What holds the chapters together is a concern with common themes such as globalization, and with its corollary, an uneven erosion of national sovereignty, alongside capitalism as an uncontested mode of social organizing, pervasive networked media of many kinds, and a social flux relating to shifts in class, community, and individual choice. Older political parties have been somewhat eclipsed, and lifestyle questions are fore-fronted within new social movements.

Because new communication and information technologies are prominently implicated in both technological and political change, it comes as no surprise that the work of Manuel Castells is frequently invoked. This provides a stimulating and productive foil for debate, given Castells' bench-mark studies of the "information age" (Castells 2000). Castells sees information flows, the key feature of "network society', as a key factor in the emerging volatility of old social and political institutions such as labour unions or state welfare. But such flows also enable new modes of organizing, from collective identities to government responsiveness, yielding possibilities for enhanced democratic participation. No less than seven of the twelve authors, plus Webster, engage with Castells' arguments (including the crucial question of how far the concept of "network" can be generalized in the technology/political sociology relation).

Despite the use of the word "new" in both parts of the book, doubts about newness are expressed throughout. The volume is a welcome contribution to subtle and careful argument that stresses long-term continuities while acknowledging that profound alterations in the social environment do occur as technology [End Page 240] and economy mutate. Alan Scott and John Street, for instance, show that while politicians may nod to popular culture in their use of language, and while some demonstrations are increasingly carnivalesque, familiar instrumental motives lie behind them, not necessarily a new way of doing politics. However, John Tomlinson proposes, intriguingly, that the content of politics may alter significantly as time-space compression — a consequence of using new communication technologies — helps produce a world in which certain issues are highlighted due to their "global proximity."

The collection also includes a variety of interpretations of "new" social movements, including studies of how Friends of the Earth (FoE) has become increasingly "translocal" — rather than "networked" — using information technologies, and of how those same technologies were also implicated in the demise of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The key moment in the latter story was when the February 1997 draft was posted online such that a public space was opened for participation. At the same time, such victories also depend on the organizational skills of NGOs, and their capacity to exploit technological potential. This is also underlined in Jenny Pickerill's chapter on FoE which suggests that in the case of three British environmental groups, new technologies facilitate recruitment, but mobilization still relies on integration into existing networks.

If a crucial test of sociological leadership is whether one's work is widely debated, Castells certainly qualifies. This book is one of a number now appearing that both take his work very seriously and also subject it to searching critique. The authors in this volume take a variety of positions vis-a-vis Castells, but several question both the extent to which new technologies really have the effect of producing profound social change, and how far optimism about these effects is warranted. Additionally, Nick Stevenson acutely observes that while Castells' agenda is implicitly critical — the public sphere possibilities of informational society — it stops short of the moral and ethical. Kate Nash expands this point, arguing for a thoroughgoing cultural turn in politics, as both an analytic and a normative stance. To do so, she opposes Foucault's analytics of power to Castells' more limited view...


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pp. 240-242
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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