BOOKS: A web of wonder - Despite the burst bubble, an upbeat view of the internet's future convinces

BOOKS: A web of wonder - Despite the burst bubble, an upbeat view of the internet's future convinces - THE INTERNET GALAXY; By Manuel Castells; OUP; pounds 14.99

by STEFAN STERN, worked for a web site until it closed last month
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

THE INTERNET GALAXY; By Manuel Castells; OUP; pounds 14.99

If you got your fingers burned in the internet boom and bust of 2000/1, you might need help turning the pages of Manuel Castells' new book. But it will be worth it. The Catalan sociologist and thinker has written a superb guide to the internet and its wider implications.

The book is based on lectures given by Castells at Oxford University late last year. Although he has updated the material, the author is inevitably caught out by fast-moving events and shifts in market sentiment. The fact that 99.9% of the book still reads so well is impressive. Few business reporters or management consultants would enjoy re-reading what they said about the internet this time last year.

Castells' academic discipline is sociology (bear with me here). He brings a sociologist's understanding of the importance of culture in business to his analysis of the internet. Culture matters. When you hear the word culture, reach for your Castells.

Many of the more fanciful business plans for web enterprises would never have been written had some of Castells' insights been better understood 18 months ago. 'The internet was purposely designed as a technology of free communication,' Castells points out. It has a communal culture.

Like a strange kind of amoeba, the net seems to resist attempts to exploit it commercially. We should know by now that there is no use charging people to use web sites if the content is of minimal value to them, or is freely available elsewhere. The spirit of the net remains free exchange. Indeed, the net is bad news for many intermediary businesses that want a slice of the cake in a transaction. The net empowers consumers but does not necessarily generate new revenue streams.

Castells is not a pessimist, however. He thinks the anti-net backlash has been overdone. There are still many great web businesses out there. The world has become, inevitably and unalterably, networked.

Politics, development and the workplace also come under Castells' microscope in this wide-ranging book. And always, at the heart of the discussion, remains the all-conquering, all-connecting internet. The obituaries for internet businesses were premature and inaccurate. Castells stands supreme as an insightful guide to the web.

But if a media executive tells you that is heading safely for breakeven, ask him, or her, in true Jerry Maguire fashion, to show you the money.

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