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Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm

Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm

by Robert Latham, Saskia Sassen
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691119878
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/25/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robert Latham is Director of the Social Science Research Council Program on Information Technology and International Cooperation. He is the author of The Liberal Moment. Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her books include The Global City and the forthcoming Denationalization: Territory, Authority, and Rights in a Global Digital Age (both Princeton).

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Digital Formations

IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm



Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen

COMPUTER-CENTERED NETWORKS and technologies are reshaping social relations and constituting new social domains. These transformations assume multiple forms and involve diverse actors. In this volume we focus on a particular set of instances: communication and information structures largely constituted in electronic space. Examples are electronic markets, Internet-based large-scale conversations, knowledge spaces arising out of networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and early conflict warning systems, among others. Such structures result from various mixes of computer-centered technologies and the broad range of social contexts that provide the utility logics, substantive rationalities, and cultural meanings for much of what happens in these electronic spaces. In this regard, the electronic spaces that concern us in this volume are social. Digital formation is the construct we use to designate these specific types of information and communication structures. Digital formations are to be distinguished from digital technology tout court; not all digital networks are digital formations.

This volume seeks, then, to advance researchthat is at the intersection of what we might simplify as technology and society. We do not assume that technology and society are actually separate entities, and we accept many of the propositions in the critical social science literature that posit that technology is one particular instantiation of society-society frozen, that is, one moment in a trajectory that once might have been experienced as simply social (Latour 1991). Without losing this critical stance, we want, nonetheless, to capture the distinctiveness and variable weight of "technology" and to develop analytic categories that allow us to examine the complex imbrications between the outcome of society that we call technology and the social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics through which relations and domains are constituted. Much rides in social analyses of IT on the category of "newness," and this volume is no exception. We believe we are looking at formations that have not existed before, and we mean this to imply two things: that the forms were not present in a given social context before, and that the formations in question are novel social forms.

That these are novel forms implies that we are looking at entities that are likely in the early-if not initial-stages of formation. We are not claiming this status for IT itself. Beniger (1986) underscores that the reflexive development and organization of complex IT-based formations is discernible as early as the nineteenth century. Rather, we attach this status to the emergence of a wide range of formations of varying scales that depend on digital technologies, cross a variety of borders (national or otherwise), and engender a diverse array of spatial, organizational, and interactive practices.

The set of cases explored in the chapters that follow is meant to give readers a sense of that range and to cover topics that have been considered important to the social analysis of IT, especially as it bears on trans-boundary phenomena, including transnational civil society, transboundary public spheres, global finance, transnational corporate networks, global technological diffusion, regional integration, and international economic development. There has been no attempt to be comprehensive, however. What joins the chapters is not only the effort to capture constitutive and transformative processes, but also concerns with design and social purpose.

Locating a New Field of Inquiry

One of the distinct capabilities of these technologies when it comes to the communication and information structures that concern us in this volume is the rescaling of social relations and domains. What has tended to operate or be nested at local scales can now move to global scales, and global relations and domains can now, in turn, more easily become directly articulated with thick local settings. In both types of dynamics, the rescaling can bypass the administrative and institutional apparatus of the national level, still the most developed scalar condition. As a result of the growing presence and use of these technologies, an increasing range of social relations and domains have become de facto transboundary. It need not be this way, and indeed many of these digital formations are not, but the trend is definitely toward expanding the world of transboundary relations and domains. This trend is evident in this volume, where even digital formations that need not be transboundary, such as large-scale conversations or knowledge spaces, wind up being so directly or indirectly.

We are, then, seeing the transnationalizing of a growing range of local or national relations and domains, as well as the formation of new ones. Such transformations enable nonstate actors to enter international arenas once exclusive to states and the formal interstate system. This is well illustrated by specific features of the growing numbers and types of international nongovernmental organizations, global business alliances, and diasporic networks. These transformations have also furthered the formation of new types of spaces constituted partly through cross-border actors and transactions. All of this partly reconstitutes the world of cross-border relations and takes this world beyond formulations common in the specialized literature on international relations.

To some extent these transformations in the world of cross-border relations are overdetermined in that they entail multiple causalities and contingencies. This volume's focus on computer-based interactive technologies and networks does not presume to posit a single causality. What we refer to below for short as sociodigitization is deeply imbricated with other dynamics. In some cases sociodigitization is "derivative"-a mere instrumentality of these dynamics-but in others it is "transformative"-by reshaping social relations-and even "constitutive"-by producing new social domains of action. Yet even when derivative, sociodigitization is contributing to the rescaling of a variety of processes with the resulting implications for territorial boundaries, national regulatory frames, and cross-border relations. The outcome is a set of changes in the scope, exclusivity, and competence of state authority over its territory, and, more generally, the place of interstate relations in the expanding world of cross-border relations.

An organizing assumption in this volume and in the larger Social Science Research Council (SSRC) project on information technologies to which it contributes is that these new conditions have implications for theory and for politics. The social sciences are not well prepared to take on these developments. The discipline that has had cross-border relations at its core, international relations, remains mostly focused on the logic of relations between states and has not generally treated communication and information as essential to analysis. Exceptions to the state-centric focus in IR include work on transnational relations (Nye and Keohane 1971), which assumes new relevance under current conditions. Also warranting greater attention is pioneering work incorporating information and communications (Deutsch 1953, 1957; Jervis 1976) and more recent research and analysis that focuses on information technologies. However, this work cannot quite fully encompass today's multiplication of nonstate actors and new conditions in transboundary cooperation and conflict.

An alternative line of scholarship is centered on the technical properties of the new technologies and their capacities for producing change. These technologies increasingly dominate explanations of contemporary change and development, with technology seen as the impetus for the most fundamental social trends and transformations. Such explanations also tend to understand these technologies exclusively in terms of technical properties and to construct the relation to the social world as one of applications and impacts.

Neither theorizations centered on the state nor those centered on technology as the key explanatory variable can adequately capture the transformations in the world of cross-border relations that concern us in this volume. Understanding the place of these new computer-centered networks and technologies from a social science perspective requires avoiding a purely technological interpretation and recognizing the embeddedness of these technologies and their variable outcomes for different economic, political, and social orders.

Confining interpretation to the properties of these technologies neutralizes or renders invisible the social conditions and practices, place-boundedness, and thick environments within and through which these technologies operate. Such readings also lead, ironically, to a continuing reliance on analytic categorizations that were developed under other spatial and temporal conditions, that is, conditions preceding the current digital era. Thus the tendency is to conceive of the digital as simply and exclusively digital, and the nondigital (whether represented in terms of the physical/material or the actual, all problematic though common conceptions) as simply and exclusively nondigital. These either/or categorizations filter out alternative conceptualizations, thereby precluding a more complex reading of the intersection and interaction of digitization with social, other material, and place-bound conditions. Another consequence of this type of reading is to assume that a new technology will ipso facto replace all older technologies that are less efficient, or slower, at executing the tasks the new technology is best at. We know that historically this is not the case.

Nonetheless, it is important for our effort to recognize the specific capacities of digital technologies. They are central to the emergence of new information and communication structures and the transformation of existing ones. In their digitized form, these structures exhibit dynamics of their own that derive from technological capacities that enable specific patterns of interaction. These technology-driven patterns are, then, endogenous to these digitized structures rather than the product of an exogenous context such as the interstate system. Among such patterns are the simultaneity of information exchange, capacity for electronic storage and memory, in combination with the new possibilities for access and dissemination that characterize the Internet and other computer-centered information systems.

These technical capacities can change the relationship between information and a broad range of entities and conditions. For instance, new resources and capabilities are being created for NGOs and other private associations via web pages and document storage (Garcia, this volume). This matters because groups, particularly when involved in contestational politics, can use these information resources to challenge certain kinds of interpretations of developments, events, or policies. Such challenges lead to new knowledge spaces (Bach and Stark). Groups, such as diasporas connected to zones of conflict, can construct their histories and make them accessible to insiders and outsiders. These possibilities, in turn, prompt a reexamination of assumptions about the role of "knowledge" circulating within and across groups in the shaping of intergroup cooperation or conflict (Alker). Technology here makes it easier to trace the history of interactions and events, which in turn has implications for reciprocity and repeated strategic interaction. When it comes to major economic actors such as transnational corporations, the typically private information systems offer whole new organizational and managerial capabilities, such as the global flagship networks examined by Ernst.

From a social science perspective, as compared to a purely engineering one, such digitized information and communication structures and dynamics-what we call digital formations-filter and are given meaning by social logics. By social logics we intend to refer to a broad range of conditions, actors, and projects, including specific utility logics of users as well as the substantive rationalities of institutional and ideational orders. The distinctiveness of digital formations can contribute to the rise of social relations and domains that would otherwise be absent. Examples of such distinctive structurations in our volume are open source software communities (Weber), the formation of digitally based large-scale conversations (Sack), new types of public spheres (Cederman and Kraus), certain types of early warning systems (Alker), and electronic markets for capital (Sassen).

The presence of social logics in the structuring of these formations means, from a social science perspective, that the technical capacities of these new technologies get deployed or used in ways that are uneven and contradictory within diverse digital formations. They unfold in particular contexts and evince both variability and specificity. Digital formations, as we define them here, do not exist as purely technological events. This, in turn, makes it difficult to generalize their transformative and constitutive outcomes. Variability and specificity are crucial dimensions emerging from the diverse foci of analysis in the volume. The choice of chapters seeks to address this as each focuses in great detail on a different subject. While variability and specificity make generalization difficult, detailed study can illuminate patterns and structures helpful in hypothesizing future trends and in developing agendas for research and analysis as IT continues to evolve.

The uneven and often contradictory character of these technologies and their associated information and communication structures also lead us to posit that these technologies should not be viewed simply as factor endowments. This type of view is present in much of the literature, often implicitly, and represents these technologies as a function of the attributes of a region such as Asia or an actor such as an NGO-ranging from regions and actors fully endowed, or with full access, to those without access. Rather, we recognize that any given region or actor can be associated with uneven or inconsistent technological capacities. Cederman and Kraus make clear that even in wired Europe, attempts to construct a rich communicative space confront the limits of online public engagement.

Variability also emerges because the deployment and diffusion of these technologies is shaped by the diverse operational logics of social forms, including prominently states and markets. For instance, technologies relating to the Internet, satellite surveillance, and data banks can be strongly associated with cooperative policies and practices (e.g., transborder access to IT infrastructures, data, and human capital, greater transparency, the formation or strengthening of transboundary public spheres) or they can be linked to conflict (e.g., applications of IT in the military, the identity politics of ethnic groups involved in violent conflicts, the confrontational politics of activists, and the competition for sectoral economic dominance among large transnational corporations).

Variability is also a function of unintended consequences. Guthrie shows us how the state-controlled development of an IT industrial sector in China had the effect of setting in motion processes of change not foreseen by any of the players involved, most importantly a trend toward reducing some aspects of state authority as networked individuals could gain access to information about foreign models of economic development. Developing the industrial side of these technologies had the perhaps ironic effect of altering-if ever so minimally-the position of individuals toward the state.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Digital Formations: Constructing an Object of Study by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen 1


Recombinant Technology and New Geographies of Association by Jonathan Bach and David Stark 37

Electronic Markets and Activist Networks: The Weight of Social Logics in Digital Formations by Saskia Sassen 54

The New Mobility of Knowledge: Digital Information Systems and Global Flagship Networks by Dieter Ernst 89


Cooperative Networks and the Rural-Urban Divide by D. Linda Garcia 117

Networks, Information, and the Rise of the Global Internet by Robert Latham 146

The Political Economy of Open Source Software and Why It Matters by Steven Weber 178


Designing Information Resources for Transboundary Conflict Early Warning Networks by Hayward R. Alker 215

Discourse Architecture and Very Large-scale Conversation by Warren Sack 242

Transnational Communication and the European Demos by Lars-Erik Cederman and Peter A. Kraus 283

Information Technology and State Capacity in China by Doug Guthrie 312

List of Contributors 339

Index 341

What People are Saying About This


A valuable contribution to scholarship, and one that I enjoyed reading, Digital Formations takes a unique approach to the subject of information technology. In seeking to build new conceptual frameworks and develop new perspectives, it provides a solid foundation for the elaboration of future empirical and theoretical work on IT and globalization.
Michel S. Laguerre, University of California, Berkeley, author of "The Informal City" and "The Global Ethnopolis"

Mark Poster

Comprehensive and insightful, Digital Formations will be greeted warmly in the fields that overlap its concerns. It addresses a most important set of questions concerning the relationship of information technologies to globalization. And this is an urgent topic for social science.
Mark Poster, University of California, Irvine, author of "The Mode of Information" and "What's the Matter with the Internet?"

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