Manuel Castells & Martin Ince, Conversations with Manuel Castells, ed . Polity, London, 2003, p.55-58.

 

 

The Space of Flows

martin ince The one thing everyone I have told about this book has asked is: what is the Space of Flows? I find this odd, as the idea is one I understand instinctively, but it might be helpful to converge on it rather than attack it directly.

As you say in The Information Age, every schoolchild nowa­days learns the connection between space and time. In the quantum era we know that mass, length, and time, the funda­mentals of all measurement, all arise from the same deep struc­ture of the universe. But you point out that the way we perceive them is a very human matter, and has changed over time. The change has been caused partly by technology - most promi­nently with the development of clocks in the eighteenth century, which allowed position on the Earth's surface to be measured accurately. But you point out that, as usual, techno­logical determinism is not the whole story. Time systems, devised by people, have had an important role in political reform, as you point out in the case of Russia - and one might add other examples, such as the calendar and clock reforms of Revolutionary France.

So what is it that flows in the space of flows? Is it correct to say that it is information - either in the form of bits and bytes, or of people, or sometimes in physical form as your work on FedEx package destinations shows?

MANUEL CASTELLS The most difficult concept to grasp of my whole theory is the space of flows. Yet, it is fundamen­tal. I have tried again and again to explain it, to illustrate it,

because I believe it is the most direct expression of the tech­nological transformation of our existence. But it is difficult because it is counter-intuitive. Space is always a mental con­struction. Not only a cultural construction, but a materially mental construction because we must place ourselves some-

because I believe it is the most direct expression of the tech­nological transformation of our existence. But it is difficult; because it is counter-intuitive. Space is always a mental con­struction. Not only a cultural construction, but a materially mental construction because we must place ourselves some­where. But the space of our lives, of our direct experience, is not the space of the economy, not the space of information, not the space of science, not the space of art - all realms of activity that ultimately frame and influence our lives. Thus, to understand the transformation of space, I rooted myself in a philosophical tradition, that of Leibniz particularly, but also that of the genius theoretical geographer Harold Innis and his analysis of regimes of space and time. Leibniz particularly has a very lucid formulation of the concept of space as the material construction off time simultaneity which is what brings human practice together in time.

Throughout History in most human practice, simultaneity  depended on vicinity, on territorial proximity. Now, what happens when we can do things" together in real time, but from very distant locations? There is simultaneity, but the spatial arrangement that allows it is a different one. It is based on telecommunications, computer systems, and the places from where this interaction takes place. This is the space of flows: not just the electronic/telecommunications circuits, but the network of places that are connected around one common, simultaneous social practice via the electronic circuits and their ancillary systems.

Is there also a negative and more political definition, which con­trasts the space of flows with its obverse, the space of places? If you are not within the space of flows, are you instead in the Fourth World - excluded from the information and access of elites, unable to get educated or participate in economic life, and quite likely deprived of political and civil rights?

What I observed is that the dominant activities in our soci­eties follow this logic, while most personal interaction, and the construction of human experience outside instrumental­ity, tend to still be clustered in localities, defining simultaneous social practice in terms of vicinity. Thus, global financial markets and global management services are made of financial places, and their systems of companies, facilities, and telecommunications-linked computers constitute a whole financial system throughout the world. Thus, global cities are not just their business centers (New York or Tokyo), because much of New York and Tokyo is very local. The global city is made of many bits and pieces of  cities including financial centers in the developing world.

You show that although London, New York and Tokyo are the biggest nodes of the space of flows, lesser nodes are also present and can change in importance or be added. Madrid, for instance, has been added because of Spain's integration into the world economy. But is there also significant inertia in the system? You point out that Munich's lead role in German technology owes a lot to decisions taken under the Third Reich. High technology in Scotland began because factories moved there to be out of reach of bombing during the Second World War. Despite the example of Finland (conversation 2), it is rare for unexpected places to join the world technology mainstream. Elites talk mainly to each other: is the Space of Flows partly the modern-day way in which they do so?

The part of New York that is global is a much larger share
of New York's space than the global space of La Paz, Bolivia.
But La Paz is also part of this global network in its tiny
financial and managerial center. So the space of flows is at
the same time an abstract concept and also a very material
construction that connects places as nodes
instrumentality. These places
       are not meaningful in them-

selves, but only as nodes of these networks.

I tried to develop a similar analysis for the space of high-tech manufacturing, for information systems, for the crimi­nal economy, and so on. The network is the message in the space of flows. In addition, this space of dominant activities tends to generate a style of architecture, a certain type of cos­mopolitan aesthetics, and a series of facilities that character­ize the lifestyles of the global elite. However, my theoretical

mistake was to assimilate the practice of the space of flows to the global elites and their instrumental activities, while opposing this to the space of places where most people build their meaning and live their lives. Dominant activities are indeed global (from high-tech manufacturing to financial markets, and from CNN to the drug trade], and so are the elites that thrive as their agents. But the space of flows is materially based on the new technologies of communication. So people of all kinds, wishing to do all kinds of things, can occupy this space of flows and use it for their own purposes.

So is it an oversimplification to say that in these countries of the mind, people who lack the life opportunities to have broad horizons and to be comfortable with ideas and information, and who tend to do low-value work are the inhabitants of the Space of Places, while the Space of Flows is the home of the people who have inner and outer resources to cope with the speed of the information age and the demands it makes on people?

While in the early 1990s the space of flows was mainly the space of dominant activities, in the late 1990s, the space of flows became as contested as the space of places, and in early 2002, the Argentinian revolt against globalization largely used the Internet, and the movement extended throughout the world via Internet-based networks. In 1999 I gave a lecture (later turned into a paper] entitled "Grassrooting the Space of Flows," where I corrected my original analysis of the matter. So what is truly important is that the space of flows coexists with the space of places, and both express contra-"History social interests, even if, by and large, dominant activ­ities and global elites tend to use the space of flows as their privileged form of spatial practice, because it is more efficient and enables them to remove their practice from the spatially rooted social and political controls (for example, the World Bank in 2001, setting up an Internet and video conference system to escape from physical meeting places surrounded by protesters].