Archive for the ‘media activism’ Category

This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

Read Full Post »


The telekommunist manifesto is an interesting and inventive re-imagining of the communist manifesto for the network society penned by Dmitri Kleiner. In the age of international telecommunications, global migration and the emergence of the information economy, how can class conflict and property be understood? Drawing from political economy and concepts related to intellectual property, The Telekommunist Manifestois a key contribution to commons-based, collaborative and shared forms of cultural production and economic distribution.

Proposing ‘venture communism’ as a new model for workers’ self-organization, Kleiner spins Marx and Engels’ seminal Manifesto of the Communist Party into the age of the internet. As a peer-to-peer model, venture communism allocates capital that is critically needed to accomplish what capitalism cannot: the ongoing proliferation of free culture and free networks.

In developing the concept of venture communism, Kleiner provides a critique of copyright regimes, and current liberal views of free software and free culture which seek to trap culture within capitalism. Kleiner proposes copyfarleft, and provides a usable model of a Peer Production License alongside a useful critique of Web 2.0 as a capitalist reterritorialisation of the space of possibility for commons based peer production.

Encouraging hackers and artists to embrace the revolutionary potential of the internet for a truly free society, The Telekommunist Manifesto is a political-conceptual call to arms in the fight against capitalism.

Read Full Post »

Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of June I was at BarnCamp, a fun filled weekend of tech activist related tomfoolery organised by the Hacktionlab network. On the Sunday I gave a talk about the Social and Ecological costs of Technology, which was recorded by the Catalyst radio collective, who launched a 24 hours a day seven days a week at BarnCamp. The talks are available for streaming here.

The first talk on the audio stream is on the Luddite movement and the contemporary relevance of their actions ahead of the bicentenary of the Luddite rebellion in 2012, the second is some thoughts on technology, the self and upgrade culture, and my talk is on third, about 35 minutes in.

Read Full Post »

On Friday I was in London for an unconference hosted by Furtherfields.org at the University of Westminster, London which approached the subject of re-rooting digital culture from an ecological perspective. Here’s the brief for the event:

Over the last decade the awareness of anthropogenic climate change has emerged in parallel with global digital communication networks. In the context of environmental and economic collapse people around the world are seeking alternative visions of prosperity and sustainable ways of living.

While the legacy of the carbon fuelled Industrial Revolution plays itself out, we find ourselves grappling with questions about the future implications of fast-evolving global digital infrastructure. By their very nature the new tools, networks and behaviours of productivity, exchange and cooperation between humans and machines grow and develop at an accelerated rate.

The ideas for this transdisciplinary panel have grown out of Furtherfield’s Media Art Ecologies programme and will explore the impact of digital culture on climate change, developing themes adopted in grass-roots, emerging and established practices in art, design and science.

One thing which left me somewhat confused was why the event was billed as an unconference, when in reality it was a fairly straightforward event with three speakers and a short Q+A after. Listening to three presentations (with accompanying powerpoints and prezis) and then having the chance to ask a few questions at the end is not a participant driven meeting, its the same format as you find at any conventional conference panel.

The first speaker was Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives. Bauwens began by prescribing the central problems of the contemporary socio-economic system with regards to sustainability and equity. The first problem he outlined was that of pseudo-abundance: the aim of achieving infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources and the externalisation of ecological costs from our limited understanding of economics. The second problem he delineated was that of artificial scarcity: the ways in which intellectual property is enforced via patents and copyrights which create scarcity around assets whose cost of reproduction often approaches zero with digital networked technology. This Bauwens argued, leads to the stifling of innovation, which prevents the types of solutions to ecological crises being developed as commonwealth, outside of a profit driven market framework. The final problem Bauwens diagnosed was that of social justice, as exemplified by the cavernous (and growing) divide between rich and poor on a global level.

Bauwens’ suggestions around potential solutions to these problems is primarily through commons based peer production. In commons based peer production, individuals are able to voluntarily self-aggregate into distributed networks based on coordination through networked telecommunications. While Bauwens presents this as an entirely new phenomena, afforded by the massive increase in computational power and networked connectivity associated with the information revolution, it is worth mentioning that voluntary self-aggregation and democratised and decentralised ownership of projects has long been a foundational concept of anarcho-syndicalist thought. What appears to be different about P2P networks in the contemporary context however are their ability to connect peers outside of a localised context through digital telecommunications networks, and also for the projects to be scaled up accordingly in terms of size and scope. These affordances have the potential to enable commons based peer production to out-compete market based initiatives in many circumstances, however what is potentially of greater significance than the efficiency gains P2P networks can provide is the alternative set of values they tend to embody.

Bauwens used examples of numerous forms of consumer electronics as instantiations of planned obsolescence, whereby the company making the product has a financial incentive to create a product which has a highly limited shelf life, and whose design is not modular, so that failure of individual components leads to users replacing the entire device. While the manufacturer profits each time this cycle continues and new items are bought, the ecological costs increase, however these are externalised from the market transaction. By contrast the open design methodology is based around values whereby the user/designer (the term prouser was suggested) wants their device to be as durable and long lasting as possible, and for a modular design to exist which eanables them to easily replace any parts which are damaged over time. Consequently the argument Bauwens promoted was that the values of the open design movement present an ethical alternative to market production whereby ecological sustainability and social justice can be built into the production process itself.

Bauwens argued that this argument was not merely utopianism but was based on a material analysis of the prescient features of contemporary capitalism, which he argued already needs commons based peer production in order to remain profitable.

The second speaker was Catherine Bottrill of Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation which works with arts ‘buisnesses’ to reduce their carbon footprint. While I’m sure the organisation does good work, the scheduling seemed somewhat odd. Following a talk about the problems of contemporary capitalism and the necessity to replace it with a system with alternative ethical values created via grassroots and decentralised P2P networks we had a talk which seemed to imply that if the major record labels reduced their carbon footprint slightly and their star acts planned their world tours slightly differently there would be no ecological crisis.

It was problematic that Bottrill didn’t address any of the concerns or solutions Bauwens had just raised, and one slide in particular caused (presumably) inadvertant entertainment with her diagnosis of contemporary challenges to society. First came recession, second came the Middle East Crisis, followed by cuts to Arts Council funding. I’m not sure what came next because I was laughing too hard. On a more serious note though, for a group of uniformly white middle class people at a posh London university to listen to someone raise arts funding cuts as a major social problem above the other aspects of the government’s austerity programme; cuts to disability benefits, cuts to welfare, cuts to education, the privatisation of the NHS etc was somewhat depressing.

The final presentation was from Ruth Catlow of Furtherfields.org on ecological approaches to networks, tools and digital art. Catlow began with a delineation of network topography, referring to a 1964 RAND corporation diagram on various forms of structure

Catlow argued that while mass media networks resemble the centralised structure on the left, the Internet is a mixture of the decentralised (via the cables and gateways that make up the material apparatus of connectivity) and distributed (as each computer functions as a node in a distributed network). While this has been a traditional way that the Internet, and its potential for creating a democratic media system has been trumpeted for over two decades now, this analysis misses a crucial part of the picture. Recent research into the structure and connectivity of complex networks such as the World Wide Web (which is the most common encounter people have with the Intenet) reveals that far from a distributed system in which all nodes are equal or every blogger is a pamphleteer, the structure of these networks is that of a power law, with a few preferentially attached ‘superstars’ such as Google, Facebok, Twitter and Amazon, while the vast majority of content resides in the ‘long tail’ where it receives scant attention.

Systems as diverse as genetic networks or the World Wide Web are best
described as networks with complex topology. A common property of many
large networks is that the vertex connectivities follow a scale-free power-law
distribution. This feature was found to be a consequence of two generic mech-
anisms: (i) networks expand continuously by the addition of new vertices, and
(ii) new vertices attach preferentially to sites that are already well connected.
A model based on these two ingredients reproduces the observed stationary
scale-free distributions, which indicates that the development of large networks
is governed by robust self-organizing phenomena that go beyond the particulars
of the individual systems
Barabasi and Albert 1999

When we talk about network topology we need to engage with these findings, as while the power law functions as an attractor which partially determines the distribution of the network, there has been some research which suggests that this is not a fixed and finite determinism and that there may be methods or tactics which communities can use to make these networks more equitable. But for me, that discussion is the interesting one to be having about network topologies now, not merely a recapitulation of the earliest models.

Following this, Catlow went on to detail a number of projects which Furtherfields have been involved in, including the Zero Dollar Laptop Project; which is an innovative way of both mitigating the ecological cost of contemporary computing hardware while also providing social benefits to disadvantaged groups, We Wont Fly For Art, a project designed to mitigate the carbon emissions created by artists and the Feral Trade Cafe, a project by Kate Rich which establishes social networks to ethically trade goods.

Overall the event was worth attending, Bauwens’ talk in particular being a highlight.

Read Full Post »

Communication Power is the latest book from Manuel Castells, the Spanish sociologist most famous for his trilogy of books on the Information Age, which give a theoretical overview and empirical evidence for the transition from an Industrial society to an Informational one, which Castells describes as ‘the rise of the network society.’

communication Power seeks to build on Castells previous theories pertaining to the Network Society, in formulating a theory of power relevant to the information age, and elucidating the ways in which power relates to media, both in terms of traditional mass media forms and also the exploding forms of user generated Internet based media, which Castells terms mass-self communication.

Castells argues that increasingly in the contemporary world power is not exercised by overly coercive behaviour, or the thinly veiled threat of such direct violence as it has been in previous times, but that power is a relation which exists between subjects, and is largely resultant of the capacity of actors to affect the minds of others. To this end Castells applies research from the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience to argue that people’s minds are affected not by rational and logical discourse as the tenets of post-enlightenment critical thought have traditionally argued, but that a huge amount of our decision making capacity is framed by our affective and emotional responses to information. Castells identifies mass media, the large, interdependent media corporations who own the majority of newspapers, television stations and radio stations as the primary device by which communications flows have been constructed to large audiences throughout the latter half of the 20th century. One of the features of contemporary society identified as having the potential (some of which is now being realized) to change the status of the relationship between media and power is that of the mass-self communication afforded by the Internet’s architecture of a distributed network of peers who are able to communicate between one another in a way which significantly differs from the top down hierarchical structure of the mass media. As with Castells’ Information Age trilogy, Communication Power covers a vast amount of ground, both theoretically and empirically over the course of its 433 pages, and so doing justice to the breadth of material he draws upon to support these central arguments in a short review is no easy task.

The book is structured into five main sections, with a brief opening which gives readers an insight into Castells’ own personal history while introducing the main areas of inquiry taken up in the text and a conclusion which draws together the various strands and hypotheses developed throughout the main body.

The first section, entitled Power in the Network society is largely a brief recapitulation of Castells’ earlier work on the network society, looking at some of the cultural, social, economic, legal and technological changes which have created what Castells argues forcefully to be a qualitatively different kind of society to the industrial paradigm which was dominant for much of the 20th century. Castells contends that describing the contemporary globalised world as a network society is apt as within contemporary contexts

Networks became the most efficient organisational form as a result of three major features of networks which benefited from the new technological environment: flexibility, scalability and survivability. Flexibility is the ability to reconfigure according to changing environments and retain their goals while changing their components, sometimes bypassing blocking points of communication channels to find new connections. Scalability is the ability to expand or shrink in size with little disruption. Survivability is the ability of networks, because they have no single centre and can operate in a wide range of configurations, to withstand attacks on their nodes and codes because the codes of the network are contained in multiple nodes that can reproduce the instructions and find a new way to perform. (p23)

Furthermore, Castells goes on to argue that the new contexts provided by the network society have fundamentally reorganised the spaces and relationships between which power operates

The terrain where power relationships operate has changed in two major ways: it is primarily constructed around the articulation between the global and local; and it is primarily organised around networks not single units. Because networks are multiple, power relationships are specific to each network, but there is a fundamental form of exercising power that is common to all networks: exclusion from the network. (p50)

Having defined the network society as the cultural context in which his investigation of communication and power will take place, the second section, entitled Communication in the Digital Age proceeds to conduct an analysis of both what communication is, and how it largely operates within the network society. Addressing the former point, Castells argues that

Communication is the sharing of meaning through the exchange of information. The process 0f communication is defined by the technology of communication, the characteristics of the senders and receivers of information, their cultural codes of reference and protocols of communication, and the scope of the communication process. Meaning can only be understood in the context of the social relationships in which meaning and information are processed. (p54)

He then proceeds upon a detailed exploration of the complex interlinking of ownership, partnership and other interconnections which exist between the major players in the global media business, providing evidence for the argument that ‘because the media are predominantly a business, the same major trends that have transformed the business world – globalisation, digitisation, networking and deregulation – have radically altered media operations.’ (p71) Indeed using this data Castells argues that the globalisation of media businesses has concentrated ownership while at the same time meaning that ‘media conglomerates are now able to deliver a diversity of products over one platform as well as one product over a diversity of platforms.’ (p74).

This section also provides detailed accounts of crucial roles of advertising in financing media conglomerates, and of legislative policy decisions in creating the social and economic spaces in which media corporations operate.

There is no technological necessity or demand-driven determination in the evolution of communication. While the revolution in information and communication technologies is a fundamental component of the ongoing transformation, its actual consequences in the communication realm depend on policy decisions that result from the debates and conflicts conducted by  business, social and political interest groups seeking to establish the regulatory regime within which corporations and individuals operate. (p99)

Castells goes on to examine the ways in which regulation of the Internet and other communications based commons are constantly under threat under the present climate from enclosure and expropriation by commercial interests which seek to open up communal resources to the logic of the market and profit. The section concludes with a reformation of Umberto Eco’s model of communication, with Castells providing an updated schema for  the information age, in which the creative audience are able to feed back into the process of production utilising methods of mass-self communication which supplement the codes and messages of the mass media, potentially transforming the networks of meaning.

The third section, Networks of Mind and Power begins by arguing that ‘Communication happens by activating minds to share meaning.’ (p137) Castells stresses that the mind is not reducible to the brain however, stating that ‘The mind is a process, not an organ. It is a material process that takes place in the brain in interaction with the body proper.’ (p138) Where I would diverge from Castells’ position here is that his version of the mind is something which is immanent only within the individual human being, as opposed to the conception of distributed cognition proposed by theorists such as Gregory Bateson or Edward Hutchins whereby the process of mind is not restricted to the individual human, but is a process which includes environmental factors (with social factors included in this sense of organism and environment), without which the human mind cannot meaningfully function. However having defined mind as a process at the outset of the chapter, Castells later argues that ‘power is constructed, as all reality, in the neural networks of our brain.’ (p145) which presents a distinctly unecological, reductionist position whereby one organ is isolated from the material networks which support it, both functionally (the other bodily systems which materially sustain the brain) and operationally (the sensory systems both within and outside the body without which the brain cannot operate).

Despite these shaky foundations, this chapter goes on to provide some innovative analysis on the role of emotion and cognition in politics, examining the ways in which emotional states effect and condition our responses to information which precludes the kind of rational critical thinking which most Enlightenment thought presupposes. Instead Castells shows how belief and emotional framing are key to comprehending the ways in which people make political decisions. Mobilising this theoretical framework,  Castells argues that one of the key ways in which media operate is through the creation of frames or images which produce emotional resonances with viewers, which are achieved in several ways.

‘The framing of the public mind is largely performed through processes that take place in the media. Communications research has identified three major processes involved in the relationship between media and people in the sending and receiving of news through which citizens perceive their selves in relation to the world: agenda setting, priming and framing.’ (p157) Of these, agenda setting allows the terms and boundaries of acceptable debate to be delineated, and framing is the way in which providing coverage which emphasises certain features of events promotes particular interpretations, evaluations or solutions. Castells argues here that ‘The critical issue is that frames are not external to the mind. Only those frames that are able to connect the message to pre-existing frames in the mind become activators of conduct… Frames are effective by finding resonance and increasing the magnitude of their repetition.’ (p158)

To provide a concrete example of these hypotheses regarding framing Castells selects information, news and misperceptions regarding the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The case study utilises a wide variety of polls and sources to convincingly argue that ‘It appears that information per se does not alter attitudes unless there is an extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance. This is because people select information according to their cognitive frames.’ (p169) This conclusion presents interesting connotations for the majority of traditional media activist methodologies which have been rooted in the Enlightenment values of truth and accuracy, which according to Castells are not effective conductors for altering people’s beliefs unless they also present emotionally potent affective frames – which many media activists have traditionally condemned as mass media techniques of emotional manipulation.

Section four , Programming Communication Networks: Media Politics, Scandal Politics and the Crisis of Democracy is an empirically led investigation into the ways in which media corporations affect the various social networks which comprise contemporary society. Castells rebuke’s the notion of the media as a conduit for rational argument and debate, contending that

The notion of a deliberative democracy based on in depth exposes and civilised exchanges about substantive issues in the mass media is at odds with the broader cultural trends of our time (Graber 2001). Indeed, it is the mark of a small segment of elite media that caters primarily to decision-makers and to a minority of the highly educated strata of the population. This does not mean that people in general do not care about substantive issues. It means that for these issues (for example, the economy, the war, the housing crisis) to be perceived by a broad audience, they have to be presented in the language of infotainment. (p201)

Along similar lines, Castells analyses the media performance and efficacy of policy think tanks from both the right and left, coming to the conclusion that ‘while liberal and independent think tanks are mainly engaged in policy analysis, following their belief in rational politics, the conservative think tanks are primarily orientated toward shaping minds by the means of media politics.’ (p210) Again the conclusion that rational discourse is not an effective method for garnering support over a range of issues flies in the face of Enlightenment rationality, the traditional logic which left wing groups have engaged in when trying to influence public sphere debates. The conclusion that affecting framing is actually a more efficient strategy is one which should have wide-ranging ramifications for the way that media activists engage in promoting campaigns and issues.

Castells goes on to examine some of the complex ways in which contemporary political campaigns use computerised databases to engage in sophisticated political marketing by combining techniques from polling and social data analysis to specifically target key demographics which can see their candidates/party elected. Also covered are ways in which politicians can their spin doctors can frame and subsequently re-frame issues in the news by aligning them with affects and emotions which mobilise supporters in spite of the rational evidence which often provides an altogether different perspective on affairs.

Castells then provides case studies looking at the relationships between mass media and politics in Spain, Russia and China, illustrating each case study with a broad array of meticulously sourced information. He concludes that ‘State power, in its most traditional manifestation, that is manipulation and control, is pervasive in the media and the Internet throughout the world.’ (p285) This manipulation Castells argues is partly to blame for what he describes as the crisis of democracy, whereby according to empirical studies conducted across the world, as ‘the majority of the citizens in the world do not trust their governments or their parliaments, and an even larger group of citizens despise politicians and political parties, and think that their government does not represent the will of the people. This includes advanced democracies, as numerous surveys show that public trust in government has substantially decreased over the past three decades.’ (p286) Castells that scandal politics, whereby the wrongdoings of politicians and political parties are documented in sensationalist fashion  is partially to blame for the escalation of this crisis of democracy. He concludes this section however by making the argument that

The most important crisis of democracy under the condition of media politics is the confinement of democracy to the institutional realm in society in which meaning is produced in the sphere of media. Democracy can only be reconstructed in the specific conditions of the network society if civil society, in its diversity, can break through the corporate, bureaucratic, and technological barriers of societal image making. Interestingly enough the same pervasive multimodal communications environment that encloses the political mind in the media networks may provide a medium for the diverse expression of alternative messages in the age of mass-self communication (p298)

The final section of the book, entitled Reprogramming Communication Networks: Social Movements, Insurgent Politics, and the New Public Space is an exploration of some of these alternative movements which seek to reprogram communications networks in order to build a different kind of society to that of neoliberal globalisation… and the Obama campaign for the Democrat presidential nomination. Castells introduces this section by making the argument that

The process of social change requires the reprogramming of communications networks in terms of their cultural codes and in terms of their of the implicit social and political values and interests that they convey… The public mind is captured in programmed communications networks, limiting the impact of autonomous expressions outside the networks. But in a world marked by the rise of mass-self communication, social movements and insurgent politics have the chance to enter the public space from multiple sources. By using both horizontal communication networks and mainstream media to convey their images and messages, they increase the chances of enacting social and political change – even if they start from a subordinate position in institutional power. (p302)

The first case study Castells draws upon in this section  looks at the Green movement, with particular reference to global warming. While it is always going to be an impossible task to condense the actions, achievements and failures of a diverse global movement over the course of 35 pages, the way in which Castells presents this study has numerous major flaws. Firstly the teleology he presents in fifty years  of scientific research simply does not exists in reality – studies and papers which presented alternative possibilities, and in fact the vast body of work done in the area before the late 1980’s called for more research due to the huge degree of uncertainty over key areas. Castells ignores all this research to instead present readers with a reductionist history whereby ‘Formal recognition of the gravity of the problem, and the international community’s call to act on it came half a century after scientists had alerted the public to the matter.’ (p304)  Castells in fact continues to make grandiose (and entirely untrue) claims such as that ‘Global warming posed a direct threat to the Earth’ (p309), which in no way reflect the claims of climate science (which does very much stress the dangers to wide sections of humanity alongside those to thousands of diverse forms of life threatened by ACC, however this is quite different from claiming that the planet itself is at threat). Where Castells does present some pertinent analysis is his examination of how the Internet has changed the way that many environmental groups coordinate and campaign,

The versatility of digital communication networks has allowed environmental activists to evolve from their previous focus on attracting attention from mainstream media to using different media channels depending on their messages and the interlocutors they aim to engage. From its original emphasis on reaching a mass audience, the movement has shifted to stimulate mass citizen participation by making use of the interactive capacity offered by the Internet (p327)

Castells also analyses the role of celebrities in some high profile Green events (Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio etc) before concluding the case study in a most unsatisfactory way, writing that

After decades of effort by the environmental movement to alert the public to the dangers of climate change by reprogramming the communication networks to convey its message, the world has finally awakened to the threat of self-inflicted destruction that global warming represents, and it seems to be moving, albeit in an uncertain, slow pace, toward adopting policies to reverse the process of our collective demise. (p337)

Firstly this conclusion echoes the inaccurate claims Castells makes earlier regarding the total destruction, or collective demise which ACC threatens. More importantly though, it makes entirely unsupported claims that the actions which created this cataclysmic scenario are now being reversed. Quite which policies Castells is alluding to when he makes this ridiculous claim is unclear – perhaps he means cap-and-trade or offsetting, or maybe he thinks that the US’s proposed reduction of 3% of it’s CO2 emissions will magically reverse atmospheric concentrations. Given the tremendous disparity between the scientific and activist communities’ calls for action however, the miniscule steps thus far, allied with the thoroughgoing failure of the COP15 talks to create a binding international framework for emissions reductions make Castells claims here appear to be ill-conceived and entirely inaccurate .

The second case study in this section, focusing on the alternative globalization movement, and particularly on Indymedia is an improvement, examining why

The movement from the beginning was adamant about producing its own messages, and distributing them via alternative media, either community media or the Internet. The networks of information and communication organised around Indymedia are the most meaningful expression of this counter-programming capacity. Such capacity, while rooted in the creativity and commitment of the activists, is inseparable from the revolution in digital technologies. Hackers and political activists came together in the networks of alternative media. (p344)

However Castells then goes on to characterise the movement as utopian anarchism, which he claims is useful as it opens up new horizons of possibility. The danger with this characterisation is that is ignores the problems which activist groups have had in gaining access to mainstream corporate media networks, due to the various economic mechanisms which see corporate media function as businesses, not a fourth estate devoted to critique of policy and events, and equally ignores the successes of building an international media movement – which in some countries is a major source of political news – based on a completely different set of political and economic principles to the mainstream. By ignoring these crucial issues, Castells only gives a partial and in some ways blinkered perspective on Indymedia.

The other case studies, looking at the ways that mobile telecommunications were key to bringing down the Aznar government in Spain in 2004, and examining the strategy of the successful Obama campaign for the Democratic primary are somewhat stronger, as they operate closer on more politically conventional ground, analysing events and mass media coverage alongside political developments at the party and state level, as opposed to covering the actions of social movements ands activists.

The concluding sections, which draw together themes from across these case studies draws some interesting conclusions, that

Acting on the cultural codes that frame minds, social movements create the possibility of producing another world, in contrast with the reproduction of norms and disciplines embedded in society’s institutions. By bringing new information, new practices, and new actors into the political system, political insurgents challenge the inevitability of politics as usual and regenerate the roots of our fledgling democracy In both instances they alter existing power relationships and introduce new sources of decision-making about who gets what and what is the meaning of what we get.

Enacting change in the network society proceeds by reprogramming the communication networks that constitute the symbolic environment for image manipulation and information processing in our minds, the ultimate determinant of individual and collective practices. Creating new content and new forms in the networks that connect minds and their communicative environment is tantamount to rewiring our minds. (p412)

Interestingly, given that during the case studies he fails to adequately explore the relationships between corporate media+IP vs alternative media+commons, Castells also concludes that

The technologies of freedom are not free. Governments, parties, corporations, interest groups, churches, gangsters and power apparatuses of every possible origin and kind have made it their priority to harness the potential of mass-self communication in the service of their specific interest… As the potential of the industrial revolution was brought to the service of capitalism by enclosing land-commons, thus forcing the peasants to become workers and allowing landowners to become capitalist, the commons of the communication revolution are being expropriated to expand for-profit entertainment and commodify personal freedom. (p414)

Indeed, Castells goes as far as to conclude that

The most important practical conclusion of the analysis presented in this book is that the autonomous construction of meaning can only proceed by preserving the commons of communication networks made possible by the Internet, a free creation of freedom lovers. This will not be an easy task – because the power-holders in the network society must enclose free communication in commercialized and policed networks, in order to close the public mind by programming the connection between communication and power

Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »

This story was found on BBC Devon and came to my attention via the Bristle blog

All five members of a group arrested in connection with an alleged terror plot have been released without charge.

Police say the final member of the five, a 25-year-old man, was freed on Tuesday night.

The man was arrested in Plymouth on 27 March, along with two 20-year-old women, a 19-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy after police found explosives.

Police said investigations were continuing, but those freed were no danger to the public.

‘Firework-like devices’

A search of a Plymouth flat after the arrest of the eldest man led to police finding “political literature”.

After the flat was searched, a number of “firework-like devices” were made safe by Royal Navy bomb disposal experts.

Literature found in the flat was described by officers as political but “not extremist”.

The last activists to be released without charge were freed from police custody on the 9th of April having been arrested under the Terrorism act between the 27th and 29th of March according to the Devon and Cornwall Constbualry. So that means that activists were held for up to up to weeks without charge under terrorism laws before being released on the basis that they had not done anything unlawful.

As ever the BBC seeks to defend the police’s actions, describing fireworks as ‘explosives.’ I hate to think what they would make of my house, where my fire performing housemates have what would undoubtedly be described as ‘a large volume of highly flammable liquids’ alongside my collection of ‘political literature.’ Its quite frightening to think that this combination could land someone in prison, held without charges for two weeks.

The BBC article concludes that ‘Detectives were investigating the possibility they were planning to mount protests in London against last week’s G20 summit of world leaders.’ It appears then that detaining people without charge for two weeks because they have ‘political literature’ and intend to attend protests is now seen as legitimate police tactics in the face of the grave terrorist threat posed by the eclectic mass of dancers, musicians and street performers seen at climate camp last week.

This just adds to the growing list of abuses of power perpetrated by police forces using Terrorism act legislation. At the protests in London police were using Terrorism act laws to force protesters to delete digital photographs and video footage. Given that this kind of citizen journalism has played a major part in highlighting the police’s role in the events surrounding Ian Tomlinson’s death alongside graphic illustrations of riot police callously attacking peaceful protesters with their hands raised chanting peace not riot at climate camp, I’m left wondering how much longer these ridiculous laws can be defended for when they are being used to so clearly to breach innocent people’s rights.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »