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Updated: September 1, 2009 14:20 IST

Dynamics of network power

MUJIBUR REHMAN
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The author’s agenda is to persuade the critics of globalisation to re-examine their premises of criticism. While the objective is not revolting, it cannot be achieved by over-simplifying the meaning of globalisation. The most striking shortcoming in his analysis is his argument that comfort and convenience must serve as substitutes for the larger goals of justice and egalitarianism. Put differently, considering that network power and globalisation often result in convenience, issues concerning distributive justice or economic or social/economic egalitarianism in our highly stratified and unfair world need to be overlooked.

Although he does not state this categorically, this is what appears to be the bottom line. But the fact is that globalisation benefits a few at the cost of too many and their economic interests are mutually exclusive, which is what makes the task of giving a sympathetic ear to the idea of network power and its attempt to show the good side of globalisation hard. How does network power address the issue of distributive justice, not just among individuals, but among communities, as well as nation states? He does not raise this question at all. Maybe, it is because he considers this unnecessary and obsolete. If this is so, it shows how much he has understood the process of globalisation, which is now practised as a political philosophy and as an economic system. In his narrative, he takes a safe path by saying that his interest is confined to the social dynamics of globalisation; hence this supposedly innovative idea, called “network power,” and complete silence on key ideas of state and market and their character and contribution to the processes of inclusion and exclusion.

Global standard

According to the author, “network power” is power that a successful standard possesses when it enables cooperation among members of a network. A network is united by a standard, a shared norm or practice that facilitates cooperation among its members. The author’s general claim is that we need a global standard for everything. Considering that we have multiple standards, and they are often so varied and incompatible that they make our lives hard, it is vital to endorse any standard that affords convenience.

The author seeks to explain ‘network power’ by examining the dominance of English language today and the dominance of gold standard in the 19th and the 20th centuries. He has devoted an entire chapter for this purpose. This argument is flawed at multiple levels. First of all, Indians were made to learn English only by an accident of history. Had the French been successful in their attempt to colonise India, the answer to the author’s question to the alumni of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai at New York City in the summer of 2008 — which he finds so convenient and helpful to buttress his argument — would have been ‘French’, not ‘English.’ The claim that a multi-lingual society is itself undesirable is certainly grounded on a very poor understanding of culture, economic history, and political economy. There are inherent strengths in the diversity of language and culture which such naïve ambition of standardisation cannot accomplish.

This is not to suggest that ‘network power’ is a casual proposition. In fact, if a full chapter is taken by the author to discuss its rival concepts, a bulk of the book — more than six chapters — is devoted to presenting network power in the context of global trade, technology, culture, and so on.

Strategies

The author shows his good intentions when he deliberates on possible strategies for defusing network power when it becomes harmful. He proposes that the best way to counter network power is through institutional changes to the configuration of networks. The only way to manage it is to provide alternative and multiple channels for such access, refusing to privilege any one in particular.

What seems to have excited the author is his perception that the dominant trend across the world is driven by high technologies. He analyses the spread of global technologies, including technical standards and practices. The emergence of telecommunications and personal computing in the past few decades is the most striking technological development, and these technologies are dependent on underlying standards for technical coordination and thus present striking examples of the dynamics of network power in action. But, what about the vast chunk of population that lives outside the world of technology? What benefits would network power bring to this large section of deprived humanity? In his analysis, the author has little to offer by way of an answer to these questions. Without doubt, for epistemic communities, standardisation helps and network power could be meaningful, but it is certainly not a remedy to our current day social and cultural problems arising out of a flawed version of globalisation. All in all, the book is cleverly argued, lucidly written, and makes interesting reading. The author’s failure to place the argument in the larger context of human history, to relate with ideas of distributive justice, and to locate with ideas of state and market, renders the narrative too simplistic and severely restricts the appeal of the argument.

NETWORK POWER — The Social Dynamics of Globalization: David Singh Grewal; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 850.

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