Millennia ago, huge lumps of rock with exotic names such as Gondwana, Vaalbara and Laurasia bumped around and the Himalayas, Alps and Andes popped up, changing the very nature and condition of life on planet Earth. It took a while but the results are magnificent and you can’t exactly miss them – the results of monumental but subtle tectonic shifts.
Likewise, the societies and environments within which we live, breathe, work and sleep, are undergoing shifts of similar proportion, and although the visibility of these shifts is less clear, the results may well be as massive as the impact of mountain ranges and deep sea valleys of their tectonic forebears.
The convergence of the digital information technology and the continuing dominance of the market , have over the last decade or so provided a vehicle for decentralized organizational capacity, not only at a local level but on a global scale. This phenomena has encouraged a new global economy: an informational economy, in which, as Manuel Castells, guru of modern culture, states, “the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale” becomes a reality.
This economy is reliant upon the capacity of organizations to create, analyse, process, navigate, disseminate, manage and apply information in accordance with the desires and drives of the market. This is especially true of finance, where information is a critical resource, but increasingly the information economy and the ability to act collaboratively using information is making inroads into manufacturing, design and research. The value of the potential of information economy processes is the degree of utter synergy which can be brought about through mass use of know-how and the management of that. Such a fine example is Linux, whereby, simply put, one organization, using a collaborative informational process enabled through ICT, has achieved what no one single conventional company could ever hope to achieve, producing output which conventional human resources, financial and time constraints prevent.
Successful organizations in this economy are those capable of generating, managing and utilising information efficiently; and are flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in the economic environment, increasingly forced by institutional, cultural, societal and technological change. Collaborative or networked enterprise increasingly play a part in securing organizations’ roles in the economy. Connectivity also contributes to overall performance, along with how well the objectives of its networked and collaborative components are aligned with the goals of the enterprise itself. At heart, survival in the competitive informational economy demands constant information driven innovation.
Of the environment within which these organizations operate, or the society with whom they interact, several tectonic shifts are taking place, concerning labour, perception, space and time.
Labour is becoming a global resource and, as Castells discriminates, is breaking up into two spheres: generic labour, and informational producers. Labour markets, no longer restricted by powerful unions, have new kinds of workers (women, youth, immigrants), new work environments (offices, high-tech industry) and a new organizational structures (the network or collaborative enterprise). Flexitime and temporary employment have also changed the workplace.
Perception is also being altered as networks, providing increased access to data, and readily available technology allow the convergence of electronic data – text, audio and video – to provide a viruality of perception, a confluence of opinionated, and therefore biased, reality. Further, technology allows the easy ‘mashup’ and altering of such data, changing narratives. The result is that ‘reality’ is metamorphosed through network filters and electronic data forms the real data of experience, from mainstream media through to Second Life.
The nature of space and time is also evolving. Where once power resulted from presence at a location, movement or flow is becoming congruent with that power, Society is increasingly structured around flows of information influenced reactions, creating rapid real world reactions out of information derived ideas, opinions and decisions. A logic and meaning is enveloped within networks. Time is increasingly speeded up – product life-cycles shortened, news dissemination almost real-time – but also increasingly, perceived sequences and rhythms are being interrupted or shuffled in perception.
Of course networks and collaborative ventures are nothing new but in the 21st century these are beginning to pervade entire social structures, as networks, as well as their participants, take on the status of societal actors Presence or absence in the network, and the activity of one network toward another, determine social domination, performance, and change. The complete and utter effectiveness of networks may be questioned, especially given the ability of the human element to be empowered through collaborative or networked activity – the real world still places legitimate constraints – but that it is changing the way that nation states operate is clear. Information is now a primary currency but is no longer the preserve of and controlled by the state, presenting challenges to the governance and democratic process, as the informed citizen, increasingly either globally networked – of the Net – or locally entrenched – of the Self, accesses masses of time-shifted, altered, biased, framed and constantly flowing data, either over wide spectrums or selectively tunnel-visioned.
Through these complex prisms, “in a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.” Like it or not, networks are causing tectonic shifts that the San Andreas fault would be proud of.