Introduction—ancient network societies

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date



© Øystein S. LaBianca, Sandra Arnold Scham and contributors 2006. All rights reserved. Thus did Manuel Castells end the final volume of his masterwork The Rise of the Network Society. As we edit this volume, during what seems to be a dawning of a new phase of globalization where the initial promise of solidifying human bonds throughout the world seems to have been replaced by the wide and rapid dissemination of destructive technology, the ‘dream of the enlightenment’ seems more elusive than ever. Western politicians and political writers assure us that technology is still the key-the more ‘connected’ societies are, according to a recent interview with Thomas Barnett of the US Naval War College, the less danger they pose to world peace. He goes on to say, ‘Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder.’ This is what he calls the ‘new security paradigm that shapes this age’ (Barnett 2004). Disregarding the implication in this pronouncement that world peace is synonymous with online banking, there is, in fact, some comfort to be gained from the knowledge that the ties that bind societies together, which postmodernists have been wont to dismiss as Western hegemonic control, can augur well for global stability. It is also obvious that Barnett, whether he acknowledges the debt or not, has been strongly influenced by Castells-who may well become the most imitated and unwittingly referenced theorist of the millennium. Is this, however, a ‘new’ paradigm, as Barnett suggests, or do those who have a sense of déjà vu about these ideas, stretching back to the first historical imperialist enterprises, have a valid point? The answers to this query are as varied as the disciplines that have been strongly influenced by Castells’ work. Communications specialists and students of modern politics and international affairs will inevitably stress the essential modernism of The Network Society and argue that adding the dimension of the past to Castells’ body of theory, would unnecessarily obfuscate some of the author’s essential premises. His work is, after all, meant to be uber-historical and so firmly rooted in postmodernity and the information technology revolution that it appears to exist beyond time as well as physical space. Further, throughout the three volumes, the author suggests that each phenomenon he describes in such detail is distinct from anything that might have gone before. Nevertheless, students of the past including historians, archaeologists, social anthropologists and political scientists who take the long view tend to agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that ‘there isnothing new under the sun’—or, rather, human phenomena remain more constant than the terms used to describe them. Networks dependent upon new technology, identity versus collectivization issues and globalization itself, they would argue, are features of many ancient and historical civilizations. Those of us who work in these disciplines can hasten to assure Castells that, while his theoretical framework is wholly innovative, the trends he explicates are quite typical of cultures and societies from previous millennia. On a smaller scale, for example, Castells’ ‘space of flows’, the non-substantial dimension in which information is transmitted and transactions conducted without physical proximity, was prefigured by trade networks that may have begun as far back as human prehistory. With the exchange of goods came an exchange of ideas that often moved far beyond the areas or regions of the world where the physical exchanges took place. The ‘ripple effect’ of these exchanges is just beginning to be known to students of the past. Certainly, technology can facilitate such networks but the technology in this case may amount to something as simple as the domestication of pack animals. The ‘space of flows’ is not established by mere technology, however, and important influences can be transmitted across cultural and physical boundaries-expanding and redefining the ‘territory’ of human contact. This phenomenon can be mapped in physical space but physical space is not its boundary. Ancient empires were the original globalizing forces along with the spread of the world’s great religious traditions. So powerful were some of these institutions that they could forcefully establish languages of transaction, not unlike today’s globalization and informationalization through the medium of English. Aramaic became the enforced mode of speech and writing for those under the control of the Persian Empire and the Inca managed to spread the Quechua language throughout the Western half of the South American continent. The expansionist compulsions of historical states and empires may stem originally from their commercial transactions and ‘hearts and minds’—and purses-have historically been won before conflict and conquest ever enter the picture, suggesting that the corporate and national ‘tyranny’ of flows that is implicit in globalization processes today are not new. Finally, that great postmodern concept that, for Castells, operates to balance and challenge information technology, ‘cultural identity’ as opposed to the ‘individualization of identity’ of the network society, is inextricably embedded in the past as he readily admits: ‘A cultural community, organized around language and a shared history…is not an imagined entity, but a constantly renewed historical product, even if nationalist movements construct/reconstruct their icons of self-identification with codes specific to each historical context, and relative to their political projects’ (Castells 1997: 49-50). People are conscious of their past before they become conscious of their collective or individual identities and, logically, it is that past which is used to construct and legitimate those identities. Many scholars will be understandably suspicious of what may appear to them to be a hyperdiffusionist perspective inherent in the papers here. For a vital connector between Castells’ theories and modern archaeology the contributors have turned to the great French historian Fernand Braudel and in particular Braudel’s first major work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Time of Phillip II. First of all, cognitive history and archaeology have made great use of one important Annales concept-mentalités (mentalities). The suggestion that historical cultures, societies and people can only be considered in the context of their contemporaries-and not as viewed in relation to moderns-is not unique to this school, but it is in the application of mentalities that cognitive archaeologists have made their mark. For example, there are similarities at the outset between the Annales historical school represented by Braudel and others and the work of today’s archaeology with its recent emphasis on region, landscape and gradual processes. Braudel’s concept of time is sufficiently different from that of traditional historians to make it particularly functional forFigure 1.1 Hong Kong, China, 19th-century church amid modern skyscrapers. archaeologists who seldom deal with events and often deal with spans of time totaling a century or more. Braudel defines three types of historical time-événements (events), moyenne durée (medium duration) and longue durée (long duration). Although dividing history into short-, medium-and longterm processes hardly qualifies as revolutionary, the Annales concept of time is more complex than it first appears. At the short-term level of historical events, chance occurrences and individual men and women comprise what Braudel viewed as the traditional approach to history. He played down the importance of this level, seeing events and individuals as the ‘ephemera’ or ‘trivia’ of the past, as the following passage illustrates:When I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand, fixed in a landscape in which the infinite perspectives of the long term stretch into the distance both behind him and before. In historical analysis as I see it, rightly or wrongly, the long term always wins in the end (Braudel 1972:244).

First Page


Last Page


Book Title

Connectivity in Antiquity: Globalization as a Long-Term Historical Process


Oystein S. LaBianca, Sandra Arnold Scham


Taylor and Francis


New York





First Department

Behavioral Sciences