Thursday, April 08, 2010

Communication Power

Manuel Castells’s Communication Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) is a sprawling 600 page analysis with something in it for everyone in a school like ours. What is the book about? – “Why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind. My working hypothesis,” Castells states, “is that the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind” (p. 3). In his “grounded theory of power in the network society” (p. 5), Castells discusses the nature of power, communication, cognitive issues, the historical context of networks, media and politics, and social movements. And in doing this, Castells makes a case for why theory is important both for research and for subsequent practical action: “By engaging in the cultural production of the mass media, and by developing autonomous networks of horizontal communication, citizens of the Information Age become able to invent new programs for their lives with the materials of their suffering, fears, dreams, and hopes. They build their projects by sharing their experience. They subvert the practice of communication as unusual by squatting in the medium and creating the message. They overcome the powerlessness of their solitary despair by networking their desire. They fight the powers that be by identifying the networks that are. This is why theory, necessarily grounded on observation, is relevant for practice: if we do not know the forms of power in the network society, we cannot neutralize the unjust exercise of power. And if we do not know who exactly the power-holders are and where to find them, we cannot challenge their hidden, yet decisive domination” (p. 431).

While at times you feel as if you are lumbering through the vast landscape painted by Castells, you also discover interesting and insightful assessments worth the effort. Here are some examples. Castells is always careful to keep the historical background of the present network society in view: “Media concentration is not new. History is full of examples of oligopolistic control over communication media, including the priesthood’s control of clay-stylus writing, the Church’s control of the Latin Bible, the chartering of the presses, government mail systems, and military semaphore networks, among others. Wherever we look across history and geography, there is a close association between the concentration of power and the concentration of communication media” (p. 74). Castells’s command of a vast array of studies and other evidence enables him to make interesting assertions about the role and implications of communication technologies: “Because mobile phones enable people to be perpetually networked, anytime, anywhere, explosions of anger felt at the individual level have the potential of developing into an insurgent community by the instant networking of many different individuals who are united in their frustration, though not necessarily united around a common position or solution to the perceived unjust source of domination. Because wireless communication builds on networks of shared practices, it is the appropriate communications technology for the spontaneous formation of communities of practice engaged in resistance to domination; that is, instant insurgent communities” (p. 363).

What I have here is just a few excerpts. Here is the publisher’s blurb, providing a broader characterization of the book: “We live in the midst of a revolution in communication technologies that affects the way in which people feel, think, and behave. The mass media (including web-based media), Manuel Castells argues, has become the space where political and business power strategies are played out; power now lies in the hands of those who understand or control communication.
Over the last thirty years, Castells has emerged as one of the world's leading communications theorists. In this, his most far-reaching book for a decade, he explores the nature of power itself, in the new communications environment. His vision encompasses business, media, neuroscience, technology, and, above all, politics. His case histories include global media deregulation, the misinformation that surrounded the invasion of Iraq, environmental movements, the role of the internet in the Obama presidential campaign, and media control in Russia and China. In the new network society of instant messaging, social networking, and blogging--"mass self-communication"--politics is fundamentally media politics. This fact is behind a worldwide crisis of political legitimacy that challenges the meaning of democracy in much of the world. Deeply researched, far-reaching in scope, and incisively argued, this is a book for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics and character of the modern world.”

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