SAN FRANCISCO — Times of big change often require big explanations.
Manuel Castells, an owlish-faced former Marxist who once fled Franco's Spain - and then fled Marxism - is emerging as one of the big explainers of the Information Age.
No one has had much trouble characterizing the significance of this period, even though it's still wet behind the ears. Grandiose labels abound: the Digital Age, the Information Age, and the technology revolution.
But it's Mr. Castells who, perhaps, has delved deepest into how this revolution might transform society. In the digital New World, he sees the basic structure of society as far-flung networks - not the individual companies, governments, and institutions that defined the 19th century's power grid.
Many historians agree the changes in today's society are on the same scale as those that led to the Industrial Revolution, when machines replaced hand tools and society's basic structure was transformed.
The hard part is to provide reasons for the changes. Mr. Castells, a UC Berkeley sociologist, has tried to do just that in three books, the last of which, titled "End of Millennium," was published earlier this year.
Calling him a guru would be a stretch of the imagination. But among technology's intelligentsia, he has quickly earned a reputation as a pioneer, someone who has hacked out a logical, well-documented and coherent picture of early 21st-century civilization, even as it rockets forward largely in a blur. Noteworthy about Castells's work is its scope - its attempt to define the forces reshaping societies, from cultural beliefs to economic practices to political institutions.
John Seely Brown, head of the respected Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says he admires the work for its "extraordinary breadth," and of Castells, he adds: "We need more like him."
Castells's work is weighty and scholarly. And though its audience is narrow, the work has been influential. When the International Conference of Software Engineers wanted a keynote speaker for its turn-of-the-century meeting in 2000, it signed up Castells. Next year, he'll address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Castells was born in Barcelona but fled to France in the 1960s. After a brief return to Spain to advise the government of Felipe Gonzalez, he took his teaching post at UC Berkeley. Though once a committed Marxist, Castells now describes himself as a Social Democrat in the European tradition. But he says philosophy "is no longer useful" for analyzing the information society.
Sitting in his Berkeley office, Castells cuts to the core of his argument. He says society, now aided by the necessary digital technology, is rapidly reorganizing itself around networks, a kind of infinitely adaptable organism that has no center - unlike traditional governments - and no geographic boundaries.
Networks are not a new invention. But thanks to light-speed technology, such as the Internet, networks have multiplied and strengthened, eclipsing the importance of traditional institutions, such as governments, single corporate entities, and geographically-defined communities.
Networks, Castells says, are now the preeminent means by which society is organized. The consequences are profound. Networks, he says, will shatter the relevance of being in a particular locality.
Communities of interest are formed through these electronic networks with remarkable speed and ease. The round-the-clock flow of capital, in and out of world financial markets almost instantaneously, is one example. The Internet is another, enabling individuals to pursue interests among the like-minded, with decreasing participation in the institutions that make up the community in which they live.
Changing the fabric of everyday life
Castells sees all aspects of life influenced by a networked world. For growing numbers of people, work will become more isolated and not tied to a particular location, contrary to the factories and workplaces of the Industrial Age.
Culture is defined less and less by direct and real experiences "because our life, our reality, is made up, largely, from our daily experience in the virtual world," says Castells. And our concepts of space and time are also transformed as we share activities with others through computerized information networks, regardless of where they are.
But this is not an either/or world, where networks cleanly replace everything else. Networks, for instance, may be eclipsing the power of national governments, but governments can retain influence by adapting.
In Castells' view, that is exactly what the European governments are doing by forming the European Union, in itself a network version of government.
But not adapting has rapid consequences. Castells, who has advised the Yeltsin government, points to Russia as a state that has remained inflexible and suffered the effects of diminished authority among its people. Ironically, he says, Russia's criminal elements have adopted the network model and thus increased their power over the affairs of that country.
Searching for values
Castells scrupulously avoids passing judgment on any of these changes, leaving it to others to decide if this rapidly emerging structure is good or bad.
But he does say that people have an inherent understanding of the magnitude of the change, and it has triggered a widespread search for values and meaning.
In his view, older institutions were packed with their own values, whether they were corporations, workers' groups, or political bodies. Today's networks - which, by their very nature, are indiscriminate and open - contain no single set of values. People, says Castells, "are increasingly building their own personal kits of values."
Not everyone agrees with Castells' conclusions, but even critics applaud his reach. Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Global Business Network, which helps a high-powered clientele plan for the future, has put Castells' work on its recommended reading list. Says Mr. Brand: "The usual reaction is it's hard to read, but worth reading because his perspective is so broad and deep."