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
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