[INET'99] [ Up ][Prev][Next]

Networks, Communication Technologies, and the Reorganization of Urban Space: Challenges for Analyzing the Case of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rainer RANDOLPH <randolph@uol.com.br>
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro


The purpose of our paper is to raise questions about the ongoing transformations of modern societies into so-called "network societies" -- a debate recently stimulated by the books of Manuel Castells about the Information Age, the rise of network society, and the new roles of governance. We intend to present initial results of an investigation into the transformation of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area. From the point of view of the technical, organizational, and infrastructural support of such a transformation, the convergency between different information and communication technologies -- such as television, informatics, communication networks, telecommunications, and multimedia -- has been pointed out as one of the principal reasons for these changes. Stressing the specific importance of the concentration of telecommunication infrastructure in urban spaces, the investigation seems to be of strategic importance for the reorganization of economy and society. Analytically we will distinguish three different levels for our investigation. On the local level we have to observe modifications of forms of socialization, transmission of values and beliefs, and the reformulation of traditional forms of social (and economic) integration (exclusion) -- that is, the modification of social networks. On the level of the leading actors -- big corporations, local and national governments, and international institutions -- and their presence in urban spaces we can identify the redefinition of the traditional tasks and roles between them creating and consolidating a series of new strategic networks. Finally, on the urban/metropolitan level we meet the synthesis of all contradictional and conflictual social, economic, and political processes: the formation of a new territorial network with its proper forms of dynamics and necessities (fiscal-infrastructural, and regulational). Our study will emphasize the theoretical discussion and some critical remarks about the transition of industrial and developing societies into post-Fordism, information/informational, or post-modern societies. The case of Rio de Janeiro will illustrate the special conditions of a metropolitan area where the diffusion of the new technologies tends to create new forms of social, economic, and political integration, but simultaneously exclusions, too.


I. Introduction

Space is a expression of society. Since our societies are undergoing structural transformations, it is a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that new spatial forms and processes are currently emerging (Castells 1996, p. 410).

The purpose of our paper is to contribute, critically, to the recent discussion about the transformation of modern societies into so-called network societies; we are looking for some logic underlying those new spatial forms and processes just mentioned which are both cause and result of these transformations.

From the point of view of the technical and organizational support of such transformation, the convergency between different information and communication technologies -- such as television, informatics, communication networks and telecommunication, and multimedia -- has been pointed out as one of the principal reasons for these changes. That's one of the principal focuses of our paper, and we shall deepen this discussion later.

As we mentioned in the title of this essay, the "case of Rio de Janeiro" will be a reference for our investigation; but it is necessary to explain in which sense we want to use this reference.

There will be no doubt with respect to the importance of this city which represents one of the most populous regions in the world (see Castells 1996, p. 405) and the second major metropolis of Brazil. Obviously, there has been a lot of investigations about different socioeconomic and political characteristics of Rio de Janeiro and its metropolitan area; but, in our opinion, they didn't grasp the point of the possible impact of telecommunication, networking, computer-mediated communication, and so forth on urban structuring. We too cannot yet offer results of empirical studies, hypotheses, or evidences about the (possibilities of) reorganization of its space which might be the consequences of a possible diffusion of new communication technologies in the near future. More studies are crucial, because, despite its populational importance, Rio de Janeiro until now lacks the dynamics in core sectors of manufacturing and advanced services which we could see, until now, in São Paulo, the greatest brazilian and South American city and metropolitan region (there are many studies about the so-called decline of Rio de Janeiro since the 60s and 70s).

Mentioning Rio de Janeiro as a "case" in this context means that we want, for now -- as a preparation for planned empirical investigations -- to elaborate and develop some questions, a series of arguments, and conceptual and perhaps instrumental tools about the more generic characteristics and consequences of the transformations of contemporary societies, as well as about urban restructuring. This will make it possible, in the future, to analyze this "case" within a major context -- not merely identify its more or less intrinsic, apparently local characteristics.

We will not, however, neglect the specifics and particularities of Rio de Janeiro's situation; on the contrary, these special properties of our city and region have to be viewed, too, as part of a broader context of global transformation and shift. It seems to us that a comparative perspective will best contribute to the comprehension of our city.

II. Conceptual and analytical remarks

Any investigation about the impacts of new communication technologies on society as a whole and its urban subspaces needs to point out its main assumptions and limitations because it is not possible for us to deal with this issue in a holistic way. In our case we shall focus on the methodological questions rather than practical and empirical ones; at first, therefore, we don't want to deepen our analysis about the specific conditions of each country or place to integrate in this global diffusion process.

Our point of departure is the question about the general (somewhat "logical") connections and threads established between new communication technologies -- and especially of computer-mediated communications -- and the transformation of traditional urban structures.

(i) In the literature we can distinguish four dominant perspectives that investigate these relations between technology and society -- in a wider way -- and the new technologies and the city in a narrower manner (see the excellent discussion in Graham/Marvin 1996).

These positions are:

(a) In the first perspective, as the "mainstream" of social research on technology, new telecommunications technology are seen to directly cause urban change because of their intrinsic qualities or "logic" as space-transcending communications channels. Electronic spaces are seen to affect the physical form and socioeconomic development of urban places. Very often, parallels are drawn here between the current role of telecommunications in determining urban change and the historic roles of other technological systems.

This approach is based on the linear notion that innovation leads to new technologies which are then applied, used, and go on to have effects and technological impacts of society .... Most [impacts] are virtually inevitable (Graham/Marvin 1996, p. 83).

This approach is based upon two key assumptions: first, that technological change is of overwhelming importance in directly shaping society; and second, that the forces that stem from new telecommunication innovations are seen to have some autonomy from social and political processes. Even investigations that adopt the notion of "technological long waves," drawing on the work of economists such as Schumpeter and Kondratiev, tend to adopt versions of this macroscale "technology cause" and "societal effect" approach.

(b) The second viewpoint will explore not so much the current effects of telecommunications on cities but more so speculation and forecasting the future. A central theme of much of such work has been forecasting the effects of the radical technological changes under way in computing, media technologies, and telecommunications upon cities in the future. This trend is to be bound up with the many variants of the "great metaphor" approach within which western society is seen to be moving en masse to a new and novel stage in its development as some form of "information society" or "information age."

In this way, the proliferation of electronic spaces and networks is often seen to have very positive effects both for the physical aspects of cities and for urban life more widely. Where there are negative effects, these, too, it is argued, can often be solved through the technologies (see Graham/Marvin 1996, pp. 84 ss.). A more detailed analysis shows generally that certain social forces and interests of huge corporation of the mass media and computers and telecommunication industry encourage the current frenzy of debate and hype over the information superhighways, which are often being cast as some sort of technological panacea for all social, economic, and environmental ills of society.

Futurism is often linked with utopianism. Utopianism -- the search for radically better and new forms of social life -- has attacked the negative aspects of industrial cities:

"...[and] tend to see new telecommunications and telematics technologies as being solutions to the social, environmental, economic and physical problems ..." (Graham/Marvin 1996, p. 87).

The most universal assumptions in futuristic and utopian writings on cities and telecommunications are that the basic time- and space-transcending nature of electronic spaces means that we are moving to a world where all information will be available at all times and places to all peoples.

(c) Observing the third approach, we'll meet "dystiopianist" and political economists stressing the way in which the development and application of telematics technologies are not somehow separate from society. Influenced by several works like George Orwell's 1984; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and William Gibson's Neuromancer, this perspective perceives technologies as rather fully inscribed in the political, economic, and social relations of capitalism. Following this, telecommunications and electronic spaces are not seen as simple determinants of urban change. Nor are they cast as panaceas or quick-fix technical solutions to urban problems. Nor are they seen as somehow neutral in their social and spatial effects and able to be shaped to benefit different interests accordingly.

Here the effects of telecommunications (technologies and services) on cities are defined by the ways in which they are used to support wider processes of economic, political, and spatial restructuring, and seen in the way they are infused with the wider conflicts between the social and economic class interests that characterize capitalist society and so are set within the wider cultural orientation of modern societies. These processes are not simply driven by technological change.

A key focus of this approach is to highlight the functions that new telecommunications and telematics are playing in terms of facilitating new ways of organizing more mobile modes of social life that can be more easily and flexibly controlled. The economic and geographical restructuring resulting from these changes is seen to be a complete reshaping of capitalism on a global basis. In particular, the new capabilities of telematics are underpinning what is called 'time-space compression' -- the overcoming or reduction of time and space barriers (Harvey 1989).

(d) The final approach to city-telecommunications relations -- called the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach -- has also arisen from the rejection of technological determinism. As with the political economy approach, its objective is to demonstrate how society influences technology. Instead of seeing technology as somehow autonomous from society, social constructivists argue that "the compelling nature of much technological change is best explained by seeing technology not as outside of society, as technological determinism would have it, but as an inextricable part of society" (MacKenzie/Wacjman 1985, p. 14).

However, SCOT also tends to reject many of the arguments of political economy, with its stress on the central importance of the structures of capitalism and the overwhelming power of political-economic forces in shaping how telecommunications develop in cities. For the social constructivists, both social determinism and its mirror image, technological determinism, are flawed.

"Micro-level processes of human agency are the focus of SCOT research. Individuals, social groups and institutions are seen to have some degree of choice in shaping the design, development and application of technologies" (Graham/Marvin 1996, p. 105).

The purpose of research in the SCOT tradition is, therefore, to understand how technology and its use are socially and politically "constructed" through complex processes of institutional and personal interaction, whereby many different actors and agencies interplay over time. But, the great difficulties in studying these shifts and exploring their implications for city in a very detailed manner (micro) is one of the reasons why studies within this perspective remain relatively rare.

(ii) Finally, with respect to our own positioning, we adopt neither the view of technological determinism nor the futuristic/utopianist perspective; within a methodological proposal that will use four basic levels of investigation we try to approximate the political economy and the social constructivist approach. Analytically we will distinguish four different levels for future investigations of the current restructuring of social, economic, political, and cultural processes, which should not be misunderstood as different spatial scales:

These four analytical levels mean that the study of the two main issues of current restructuring -- the sociopolitical and cultural transformations in a life-world sphere of societies and the economic and political transformation of the economic and administrative systems -- have to consider various scales and their articulations. It is necessary to analyze the local and the global level, and especially their interfaces.

It is our hypothesis that the fourth and last level is the truly "spatial" and "concrete" one, despite the "material" processes focused on the first; that it is the level of the reunion of multiple determinations that have their origins in the micro- and macroprocesses mentioned above.

For now, our study will emphasize the theoretical discussion and some critical remarks about concepts such as postfordism, information and informational societies, and postmodernity. We just mentioned some of the difficulties that empirical investigations will face. Therefore, the case of Rio de Janeiro will only illustrate the special conditions of a metropolitan area where the diffusion of the new technologies hasn't yet a significant expression, but where future diffusion tends to create new forms of social and economic integration and, especially, exclusion.

We'll find important elements for this discussion in the investigation of Castells about the multiple transformations challenging the world today; because this author adopts an analytical distinction between different "qualities" of transformations that recall the first two levels we just introduced.

III. Networks, communication, and the space of flows

In his latest book (The Information Age, 1996, Vol. I) Castells analyzes articulations on the second level of our analytical scheme: the "network society" isn't really a society (see Randolph 1997) but a global articulation of flows of money and power (essentially strategic).

We can start with this level with the purpose to identify the "logic" between social and technological transformation and the new "nature" of time and space they are creating -- that's the main hypothesis of Castells. He wrote:

Space and time are the fundamental, material dimensions of human lives. Physicists have unveiled the complexity of such notions, beyond their fallacious intuitive simplicity. ... superstring theory, the latest fashion in physics, advances the hypothesis of a hyperspace that articulates ten dimensions, including time (Castells 1996, p. 376).

With regard to the coming network society, the author raises the hypothesis that space will organize time. Adopting a point of view between a political economic and a technological determinist approach, he seeks to contemplate the complexity of the interaction between technology, society, and space; he thinks that both space and time are being transformed under the combined effect of the information technology paradigm, and of social forms and processes induced by the current process of historical change. However, the actual profile of such transformation sharply departs from common-sense extrapolations of technological determinism.

He shows some examples for this observation: Advanced telecommunications didn't turn office location ubiquitous (see studies of Manhatten's business in the 80s); home-based electronic communication didn't induce a decline in density of urban forms (see Minitel in France);and telecommuting -- work at home online -- is emerging more as an effect of flexibilization and networking than as a direct consequence of the available technology.

The design of his investigation will follow nearly the same steps we idealized before; He will examine the

(a) At the more global (macro) level we are interested in the geographic distribution of activities, power, and functions (new spatial processes) and in the correspondent new spatial logic that was labeled as space of flows.

The purpose of our essay, like that of Castells, is to draw the profile of these new spatial processes, the space of flows, that is becoming the dominant spatial manifestation of power and function in our societies.

The informational/global economy is organised around command and control centres able to co-ordinate, innovate, and manage the intertwined activities of networks of firms. Advanced services, including finance, insurance, real estate, consulting, legal services, advertising, design, marketing, public relations, security, information gathering and management of information systems, but also R&D [research and development] and scientific innovation, are at the core of all economic processes, be it in manufacturing, agriculture, energy or services of different kind. They all can be reduced to knowledge generation and information flows. (Castells 1996, p. 378.)

Citing some cases in Europe (Madrid) he says that advanced telecommunications systems could make possible their scattered location around the globe. Yet more than a decade of studies on the matter have established a different spatial pattern, characterized by the simultaneous dispersal and concentration of advanced services. In this context the study by Cappelin on services networking in European cities shows the increasing interdependence and complementarity between medium-sized urban centers in the European Union. He concluded that

The relative importance of the city-region relationships seems to decrease with respect to the importance of the relationships, which interlink various cities of different regions and countries.... New activities concentrate in particular poles and that implies an increase of disparities between the urban poles and their respective hinterland (Cappelin 1991 p. 237).

On this macro level, the restructuring process cannot be reduced to a so-called "global city phenomenon" and a few urban cores at the top of the hierarchy. It is a process that connects advanced services, producer centers, and markets in global network, with different intensity and at a different scale depending upon the relative importance of the activities located in each area vis-à-vis the global network. Inside each country, the networking architecture reproduces itself into regional and local centers, so that the whole system becomes interconnected at the global level. Territories surrounding these nodes play an increasingly subordinate function, sometimes becoming irrelevant or even dysfunctional; consider the example of Mexico City's colonias populares that account for about two-thirds of the megalopolitan population without any importance for the functioning of Mexico as an international business center.

This process doesn't mean the extinction of regions; on the contrary, globalization stimulates regionalization. In Europe, for instance, growing internationalization of economic activities has made regions more dependent on these activities. Under the impulse of their governments and business elites, regions have restructured themselves to compete in the global economy, and they have established networks of cooperation between regional institutions and between region-based companies. Thus, regions and locality do not disappear, but become integrated in international networks that link up their most dynamic sectors.

The international experience shows that the hierarchy in these networks is by no mean assured or stable; in the early 90s there was a shift between a series of cities with an explosive growth, while others stagnated, showing the dependence and vulnerability of any locale, including major cities, to changing global flows. Therefore the hierarchy is subject to fierce inter-city competition, as well as to the venture of highly risky investment in both finance and real estate.

At this general level we can identify various changes and their logic that shows the complexity (and its antagonism and conflictuality) of these processes.

On the one hand, there are advanced services, which still depend on agglomeration in a few metropolitan nodes able to offer four ways of functioning (see Sassen):

  1. as highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy;
  2. as key locations for finance and for specialized service firms;
  3. as sites of production, including production of innovation in these leading industries; and
  4. as markets for the products and innovations produced.

In these cases, flexibility and adaptability are better served by this combination between agglomeration of core networks, and global networking of those cores and of their dispersed, ancillary networks, via telecommunications and air transportation.

But, on the other hand, advanced services and, even more so, services at large, do indeed disperse and decentralize to the periphery of metropolitan areas, to smaller metropolitan areas, to less-developed regions, and to some less-developed countries.

In synthesis,

... while the actual location of high-level centres in each period is critical for the distribution of wealth and power in the world, from the perspective of the spatial logic of the new system what matters is the versatility of its networks. The global city is not a place, but a process. A process by which centres of production and consumption of advanced services, and their ancillary local societies, are connected in a global network, while simultaneously downplaying the linkages with their hinterlands, on the basis of information flows (Castells 1996, p. 386).

Therefore, the new logic of networks isn't organizing the space in terms of "concentration" (agglomeration) and "decentralization" (dispersion); in the "industrial space,"

Regions and networks in fact constitute interdependent poles within the new spatial mosaic of global innovation. Globalisation in this context involves not the leavening impact of universal processes but, on the contrary, the calculated synthesis of cultural diversity in the form of differentiated regional innovation logics and capabilities (Gordon 1994, p. 46).

The new industrial space is organized in a hierarchy of innovation and fabrication articulated in global networks; is submitted to the endless changing movements of Cupertino and competition between firms and locales; retains its geographical discontinuity, paradoxically made up of territorial production complexes; and is organized around flows of information that bring together and separate at the same time -- depending upon cycles or firms -- their territorial components.

(b) On a more microlevel -- of people's everyday life -- the development of electronic communication and information systems allows for an increasing disassociation between spatial proximity and the performance of everyday life's functions: work, shopping, entertainment, healthcare, education, public services, governance, and so on.

But, the different modalities of the telecommunication's utilization in the everyday life sphere aren't yet very expressive now -- even in the industrialized countries. Nevertheless, the tendencies to concentration or decentralization are quite ambiguous. With respect to teleworking, for instance, only 1 to 2 percent of the total labor force in the United States are now working at home; other forms of localization such as telecommuting in telecenters can create a major increase of urban decentralization.

Even teleshopping is growing slowly, mainly substituting traditional mail catalogue orders. It seems to represent much more a supplement rather than the replacement of commercial areas. A similar story can be told of most online consumer services, like telebanking:

Health services, too, offer an even more interesting case of the emerging dialectics between concentration and centralization of people-oriented services. And schools and universities are paradoxically the institutions least affected by the virtual logic embedded in information technology, in spite of the foreseeable quasi-universal use of computers in the classrooms of advanced countries.

But, on the other hand, computer-mediated communication is diffusing around the world, although with an extremely uneven geography. Thus, some segments of societies across the globe, invariably concentrated in the upper professional strata, interact with each other, reinforcing the social dimension of the space of flows.

It seems to us that this analysis, founded on the investigation of Castells, needs to be complemented with respect to another kind of "impact" or consequences of new communication technologies which escaped this author. In his analysis of everyday life Castells focuses only on certain kind of activities and practices that are "extensions" of the former discussed instrumental activities -- work, consumption, education, services, and so on. But, we have to see the urban place too as a point of crystallization of cultural, social, and individual practices that not always have been submitted to instrumental determinations.

And the new technologies could be able to transform not only the instrumental appropriation of urban space and resources, but also its cultural, social, and personal expressions because of its penetration in social reproduction spheres of communicative actions.

IV. Looking for the fourth level: A challenge for investigations about the case of Rio de Janeiro

It is possible to discuss the analytical elements of investigations of the new forms of transformation -- which have to be multi-scalar (from local to global and vice versa) and multifocal (contemplate the different economic, social, political, and cultural expressions of the transformation processes) -- only with a more general spatial delimitation as reference for this phenomenon; for instance, the preoccupation with one country or region or even city (or set of cities) as general framework for the processes.

But it is necessary, at some point, to elaborate an articulation between all these processes with respect to one determined spatial delimitation not only to introduce a somewhat "spatial dimension" explicitly into our analysis, but to reconstruct the complexity of society (and even of a "network society") itself -- that's what we proposed on the fourth level of our investigation. If space, from the point of view of social theory, is the material support of time-sharing social practices which always bear a symbolic meaning, than our spatial delimitation will "bring together those practices that are simultaneous in time. It is the material articulation of this simultaneity that gives sense to space vis-à-vis society" (Castells 1996, p. 411).

Speaking once more with Castells, "this task is not an easy one, because the apparently simple acknowledgement of a meaningful relationship between society and space hides a fundamental complexity. This is because space is not a reflection of society, it is society. Spatial forms and processes are formed by the dynamics of the overall social structure. This includes contradictory trends derived from conflicts and strategies between social actors playing out their opposite interests and values" (idem, pp. 410 s.). Or in the words of David Harvey (1990, p. 204), "from a materialistic perspective, we can argue that objective conceptions of time and space are necessarily created through material practices and processes which serve to reproduce social life.... It is a fundamental axiom of my inquiry that time and space cannot be understood independently of social action."

We believe that it will be clear that those inquiries of the complexity of a single space or region will be extremely difficult; especially in a moment where "space" seems to be no longer a privileged "locus" of phenomenon (materialization, localization, "totalization"), but is more and more a "focus" necessary to lead with the increasing complexity of modern society; complexity turns itself to a solution and, at the same time, problem for our societies.

Therefore, our investigation about Rio de Janeiro can be differentiated in some analytical phases:

The privatization of the former state monopoly of brazilian telecommunication (TELEBRAS) created an entirely new situation in the last year that we are analyzing (a first report will available soon; see Randolph 1999). There is some evidence of an important presence of some global players at the new scene. Unfortunately, the picture hasn't been very clear until now.

On the other hand, we concentrated our investigation on the first level we mentioned at the beginning. We are studying the technical conditions of telecommunication in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro; and especially their spatial distribution in this region which will determine the access of different social segments to the new modalities of communication and manifestation.


Cappelin, Ricardo (1991), International networks of cities. In: Roberto Camagni (ed.) Innovation networks: spatial perspectives. London: Belhaven Press

Castells, Manuel (1996) The rise of the network society. The information age -- Vol. I . Malden, Mass., Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publ.

Giddens, Anthony (1989) The constitution of society. São Paulo: Martins Fontes (brazilian translation)

Gordon, Richard (1994) Internationalization, multinationalization, globalization: contradictory world economics and new spatial division of labor. Santa Cruz, Ca.: University of California Center for the Study of Global Transformations, working paper 94

Graham, Stephen, Marvin, Simon (1996) Telecommunication and the city. Electronic spaces, urban places. London: Routledge

Harvey, David (1990) The conditions of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell

Mackenzie, D., Wajcman, J. (eds.) (1985) The social shaping of technology. Milton Keynes: Open-University Press

Randolph, Rainer (1997) Sociedade-rede: paraíso ou pesadelo? (Network society -- paradise or nightmare?) Trabalho apresentado na IV Semana de Planejamento Urbano e Regional, IPPUR/UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, dez.

Randolph, Rainer (1999) Strategic networks and the port of Sepetiba. Research Report no. 11, IPPUR / UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro

[INET'99] [ Up ][Prev][Next]