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miércoles, 16 de junio 2021
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“The World We Knew Is Over, and It’s Not a Sentence”

by Alma Mater’s Editorial Department-Programa Cultura Centro

Manuel Castells, current minister of universities in the Spanish government, points out that humankind today faces a “complete dichotomy between solidarity and individualism”. Below is a selection of the ideas he left us after his appearance on Memorias del presente, a space for conversation promoted by Universidad de Antioquia.

Manuel Castells is one of the most cited academics in the field of social science, especially due to his work on communication. Photo: courtesy of Fronteiras do Pensamento.

Spanish Manuel Castells is one of the most important sociologists in the contemporary world. In a moment such as the one that humankind is going through as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, his reflections prove enlightening and offer some insight to understand the complexities of matters such as the role of social movements, Internet networks and the new individuals that the planet requires. We take five ideas from his conversation with Journalist Alonso Salazar for the show Memorias del presente, a space for conversation promoted by Universidad de Antioquia, Comfama and Confiar Cooperativa Financiera.

Internet Access

The digital divide is a social divide made up of two elements: the computer system’s divide in connectivity and the divide in education. The less educated a person is, the less able they are to use the Internet. When the two divides come together, the middle class obviously uses the Internet better than the poor, who cannot profit from its advantages in many cases. Teachers are the most important element in a school, but if they have computer equipment, they are more powerful. Therefore, the separation of digital learning from the rest of a person's education is a false dilemma.

To bring about social change, states must guarantee equipment and Internet networks that reach remote areas. Big communications companies equip the rich neighborhoods with cutting-edge networks. Their presence is smaller in rural areas because they can’t make a profit there. Therefore, national and international policies have to be developed against the digital divide. We have to be careful not to extrapolate the intellectual idea of “I need to touch the book, the physical book”. If you have the book, great! But if you don’t, and you have it on-line, it helps a great deal.

Social Networks

Nowadays, if you don’t interact on social networks, politics becomes very limited. They are the space where minds are won over or manipulated. Who are actors? The networks. There is no actor, intellectual or avant-garde party that develops great ideas separately. Never let an intellectual lead a transformation movement because the intellectual ego is much more powerful than people’s needs.

Networks are a swarm of individuals. There are thousands of people saying things. In many cases, they manage to have an influence and establish projects for collective wellbeing and social and political innovation. The destructive capacity of networks is evident, but they are also the stage for the main social struggles. They are an expression of what human beings are collectively: angels and demons. Therefore, if we want to, we can bring out the best of our species using social networks.

The Planet’s Habitability

The fact that the work world doesn’t need that massive urban concentration it has required so far is a start. The problem is that only the professional classes and a few companies can work from home. The green transition isn’t only desirable but necessary if we want to avoid catastrophes. This pandemic is just one effect of an uncontrolled globalization of contagion networks on a global scale. However, there are other effects, such as catastrophes, deforestation and water pollution. All of this challenges our model of civilization, but the fear of the unknowns is paralyzing us. Paralysis in such a fundamental crisis is self-destruction.

Overcoming the crisis requires not only reconstruction but transformation. The main transport system around the world is based on the gradual destruction of the planet’s habitability. If we don’t want to get to that point, we need to start to change now. The automobile industry must make the transition to electric mobility easier. The sources of energy of electric mobility are renewable–green hydrogens. Today, it’s much cheaper to live in a town than a city. Since many companies are OK with telework now, they can change the model of how people relate to nature.

It’s a Moment of Change

The world we knew is over, and it's not a curse or a sentence. It will always depend on what we do as humans. Telework and the fact that almost all our interactions are digital prove it, although I think it would be best to develop social interaction along with the ability to build relationships on digital networks. We started a speedier digital transition than we expected. With that, many established norms have to be reconsidered; for example, workers’ rights and control of digital networks.

And there’s more. It’s clear that the core of society is public health. However, the most important geopolitical change taking place in the world is the United States’ heightened supremacy crisis and the increased influence capacity of Asian models. It’s a huge change. And then there’s the fundamental change, which is becoming aware of what we didn’t consider important–ties with family and friends, what I call “the society of hugs”. We will value hugs, being with people and partners, going to the supermarket and meeting up with someone more than before. We are in a complete dichotomy between solidarity and individualism; we are at a crossroads. Our existence was on autopilot. Now, we must take the steering wheel.

Social Movements

We must distinguish between social movements as mind-transforming practices and political action movements through the state. The movements that really transformed the world weren’t the ones that tried to destroy the state. Those were revolutionary movements, and they were fundamental in history. However, social movements are something else. Their importance lies in the spread of cultural values. The change of minds then translates into political changes. Where there is exploitation and domination, there is resistance. Otherwise, ours would be a hopeless history. There are social movements because democratic institutions don’t allow for the full expression of popular demands.

Colombia had generations linked to a violent opposition that destroyed the democratic channels. There clearly was a collective suicide represented in an endless war. Social movements disappeared, but social problems didn’t. For that reason, they will exist until there are institutional expressions that voice the demands for social justice. Colombia isn’t a poor country; it’s an unjust country. Social movements can and must change minds and procedures. They must make the left in the system really be the left. They must make it take on popular demands and not let it be a complete prisoner of ruling interests, even if it respects the rules of democracy. We know that when a social movement without political instruction reaches power, it is a dictatorship; not a dictatorship of the current but of the former working class.


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