Innovation Reading Circle: Communication Power in the network society

Book: Communication PowerLast night the Innovation Reading Circle run by Nico Macdonald met to discuss Manuel Castells Communication Power (previously reviewed here). Nico kindly asked me to introduce the book, which on arrival became mildly more nerve inducing when I learnt I was sitting next to the George Por, a former academic colleague and friend of Castells, but he was most generous.

Below are some of the words I used as a basis for the introduction, but I can highly recommend reading Christian Fuchs review (PDF) of Castells book, as he breaks down each section and topic and clarifies many areas of the book.

Joanne Jacobs live blogged the evening and her concise summaries of what was said again make everything much clearer.

On which note, as a group we recognised that very little had been written or discussed about Communication Power and for our part in rectifying this everyone attending has been asked to write a few words on their thoughts. These will be added to the Facebook group page, more background material also can be found on the Innovation Reading Circle page for those wishing to follow the discussion further.

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Innovation Reading Circle
Introduction
14 September 2009

Communication Power
Manuel Castells
Hardback, 575 pages (of which the Appendix, Bibliography and Index take up the last 150 pages)
Published: July 2009
Oxford University Press

Communication Power, it needs to be said up front, is an academic book written in an academic style with references within the text to other academics and books. It is not an easy read, despite Castells’ hopes of it being read by anyone interested in communication and power. It takes time and dedication and there is much to digest.

The book builds on Castells’ series of three books looking at the Information Age published in the late 90s, early 2000s and his book The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective. It therefore assumes the theory of a network society thus, for those seeking theoretical criticisms of the book they should also consider looking at analysis of the network society and the extent to which networks are influential on individual and institutional decision making – which is beyond the scope of this introduction, but anthropological research on how socially many of us respond to and as the herd, despite ourselves is worth reviewing.

Castells begins by relating his personal experiences living and growing up in authoritarian Franco Spain where control of information and communication were paramount to maintaining power. If Castells wanted to read Freud he had to visit the only library in Barcelona with access to Freud’s work and fill out a form explaining why he wished to read the text. To read Marx or Sartre a journey in to neighbouring France was necessary – Franco’s Spain was resolutely anti-communist. Such was the political regime and common place censorship that influenced Castells understanding and interest in power and communication and how it applies within a global media industry and age of digital and internet communication.

In the first part of the book Castells takes us from an analysis of power – referencing a great number of thinkers not normally grouped together along the way – to how this understanding of power can be applied to a network society. He describes his perspective on power as “ecectic” and summarises that:

…power is not located in one particular social sphere or institution, but it is distributed throughout the entire realm of human action. Yet, there are concentrated expressions of power relationships in certain social forms that condition and frame the practice of power in society at large by enforcing domination. Power is relational, domination is institutional.

Castells identifies four kinds of power within the network society:

  • networking power
  • network power
  • networked power
  • network-making power

The book then examines communications in a digital age, looking at areas such as key relationships between multinational media and diversified internet corporations, regulatory policies and creative audiences.

The majority of the book delves into how the relationship between communications and politics within this networked society; how it is programmed and how it needs re-programming. It can be roughly summarised as: the commons of the Internet (but note, little mention of mobile phones is made) is holding in check and modifying those who have traditionally been seen as in power. The extensive appendices and charts through the book back up his examination, and also offer and alternative starting point for understanding some of the key points of the book, such as the role of political scandal.

I am going to presume that this element of the book is that which most attendees to the reading circle will be familiar with and where most discussion will surround, so I will not spend time here examining this part too closely, other than to note that Castells comes to similar conclusions as the author of Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, regarding Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch is an ideologically conservative media tycoon who keeps personal control over the third largest and most profitable mutlimedia business conglomerate in the world. But he is, above all, a successful businessman who understood that his power would be maximised by keeping his options open.

I will however raise, for the purposes of this reading circle introduction (the instructions of which include the examination of the “depth and quality of references”) chapter 3 and Castells’ explanation of consciousness, which forms a basis for his theories of networks of mind and power.

These explanations, and how Castells builds up his argument, are fascinating, and I was particularly taken by the theories of metaphor, narrative formation and frames, their evolutionary role and hence how they influence our understandings of, for instance, the family and organisational structures.

But as Castells admits himself, this section is “largely based on research in neuroscience as theorised by Antonio Damasio” (pg 137) and the work of George Lakoff. Whilst I have no doubt that these are a correct re-telling and explanation of Damasio’s work, they rely strongly on it and, don’t look at arguments that may have critiqued such work or look beyond neuroscience to possible other understandings of how human behaviour operates, or even if other disciplines support such theories. For example the relationship between community, narrative and ethics has been written of within philosophy, philology and theology (and in all probability sociology and political science).

This is in all probability a minor issue, but it does lead me to wonder how the academic world have received the book (I’ve not had time to look), and whether the balance between wanting many people to read what he has to say and also the need to satisfy academic requirements is one that can be easily balanced.

Castells concludes his book with a task: to ensure the preservation of the internet – “a free creation of freedom lovers” – against the power-holders within the network.

… if you think differently, communication networks will operate differently, on the condition that not only you, but I and a multitude choose to build the networks of our lives.

This is wonderfully idealistic. But is this not the same recipe for others who seek power without good intent?

Books for August part 3: Boo Hoo!

Book: Boo Hoo - A dot com story So, I promised three books for August. Thankfully there are a few days left and with the bank holiday ahead there is time just to squeeze one more read in (Amazon allowing). My final recommendation for this month is:
Boo Hoo: A Dot Com Story
Authors: Ernst Malmsten (one of the founders), Erik Portanger, Charles Drazin
Paperback: 385 pages
Published: New edition 2002
Random House
Ease of reading: 5/5

The book describes the journey from the idea of Boo.com (an UK internet company founded by Swedes Ernst Malmsten, Kajsa Leander and Patrik Hedelin) through it’s growth to final demise. This is the tale of probably the most famous UK Dot Coms to go bust and provides a good reminder in how much we’ve forgotten so quickly.

Written collaboratively Ernst Malmsten (on of Boo’s founders) and two other writers it is essential to try not to get annoyed by the gloss of arrogance that pervades the book and keep on reading.

You’ll be taken into a world that started small, and somehow became overwhelming, overly ambitious and out of control. On the way you travel first class across the Atlantic, stay in 5 star hotels, drink champagne in London clubs, go through various office moves and begin to see how easily the company burned through $130million + of investors money in the shake of a lambs tail (otherwise known as 18 months). Owing their creditors (mostly advertising agencies) £12 million and their 400+ employees wages when the company went under.

Keen observers will also notice how some of the simpler parts to running a business, let alone a complex multi-national web start-up, are rarely apparent. Commercial realities were not something that these founders were familiar with. Project management, keeping tight control of budgets, timings and good HR practices are not what this book is about (which does keep things interesting).

The launch of the site was delayed and it’s user experience heavily criticised. Usability expert Jakob Nielesn wrote a mini review at the time of the launch, saying:

Boo.com takes itself too seriously. Instead of making it easy to shop, the site insists on getting in your face with a clumsy interface. It’s as if the site is more intent on making you notice the design than on selling products.

But were the founders entirely to blame? Investors and investment banks at the time were all keen to have a Dot Com on their books, to claim their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Surrounding the founders were investors and supposed financial experts, who themselves bought into the Boo dream. In doing so they left their more rational, cost conscious, profit margin, ROI, selves behind. They were the ones who put in the millions, hoping that Boo would make a large and quick returns their investment.

But few asked how.

Ernst’s last message to staff was:

I wanted to write to you one last time as a group. I’m very proud to have worked with all of you to create this business. I’m sorry that in the end we couldn’t turn things around and maybe that was my fault.

KPMG must finish this process. I will help them in any way I can, but they are in charge.

I will still be around to help anyone with anything I can, especially finding new jobs, and want to spend time with people individually. You’ll be able to find me in the global cafe, Golden Square during the days and at various bars around Soho (to be advised) during the evenings at any time over the next few weeks.

I’m also going to visit all of the foreign offices and try to help them in any way that I can.

You can contact me at: emalmsten@hotmail.com or on my mobile number which will remain +44 7887 791 298. I’d really like to keep hearing from you all.

Thank you.

Ernst.

Ironically, when the company went into liquidation many of the usability problems that had caused difficulty at launch had largely been resolved.

This book is a primer for anyone considering launching a digital media start-up but also for those considering investing in one.

Books for August and beyond part 2

Continuing on from yesterday’s media theme:

Book: Communication PowerCommunication Power
Manuel Castells
Hardback, 575 pages (of which the Appendix, Bibliography and Index take up the last 150 pages)
Published: July 2009
Oxford University Press
Ease of reading: 1/5

It needs to be said up front that this is an academic book, written in an academic style with references within the text to other academics and books. It builds on from Castells’ series of three books looking at the Information Age published in the late 90s and early 2000s and his book The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective.

Castells starts by relating his personal experiences living and growing up in Franco Spain – where if he wanted to read Freud he had to go to the only library in Barcelona with access to his work and fill out a form explaining why or if he wanted to read Marx or Satre a journey in to neighbouring France was necessary – and how this influenced his understanding and interest in power and communication.

In the first part of the book Castells takes us from an anlysis of power – referencing a great number of thinkers not normally grouped together along the way – to how this understanding of power can be applied to a network society. He describes his perspective on power as “ecectic” and summarises that:

…power is not located in one particualar social sphere or instituion, but it is distributed throughout the entire realm of human action. Yet, there are concentrated expressions of pwer relationships in certain social formas that condition and frame the practice of power in society at large by enforcing domination. Power is relational, domination is institutional.

The book then examines communications in a digital age, looking at areas such as key relationships between multinational media and diversified internet corporations, regulatory policies and creative audiences. The majority of the book delves into how the relationship between communications and politics within this networked society; how it is programmed and how it needs re-programming.

As an aside, Castells comes to similar conclusions as Nick Davies regarding Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch is an ideologically conservative media tycoon who keeps personal control over the third largest and most profitable mutlimedia business conglomerate in the world. But he is, above all, a successful businessman who understood that his power would be maximised by keeping his options open.

Castells concludes his book with a task: to ensure the preservation of the internet – “a free creation of freedom lovers” – against the power-holders within the network.

… if you think differently, communication networks will operate differently, on the condition that not only you, but I and a multitude choose to build the networks of our lives.

Whilst Castells hopes that anyone interested in communication and power would read this book, it is only for the most determined within that group. As ‘Norman‘ amusingly, but unfairly points out with his Amazon review: “Considering this is a book about communication it is the most badly written book I have ever read. There are some good (and interesting) points made but a very difficult book ‘to get into’.”

If you want a less hard going book this summer on the media read Flat Earth News. But if you want a book that gives a wider perspective of how communications, not just the media, operate in the context of politics, commercialisation and the network society this is your mountain to climb.

Books for August (and/or beyond) part 1.

Whether you’re enjoying a staycation, holidaying or working through August here is the first installment of three books that are worth a peek this August. I’ve graded them out of five for “ease of reading” so that you know what you’re possibly getting into.

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Book: Flat Earth NewsFlat Earth News: an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media
Nick Davies
Paperback, 320 pages
Published: Jan 2009
Ease of reading: 4/5

Whilst to many cynics Davies’ revelations may be nothing new, the research and evidence gathering that has gone into his book combined with a strongly built argument, make it essential reading for consumers, students and those working in the media industry alike.

Davies wholeheartedly believes that the role of journalism is to seek out and report the truth, and he finds very little in today’s media upholding this ideal. Analysing what has happened to create this situation Davies takes the reader on a journey through newspaper ownership, corporatisation, the new rules of production, the role of newswires, PR and looks into some of the darker corners of the industry.

You may not agree with all his conclusions, or his idealism, but the overview he portrays of the industry is insightful and gives plenty of pause for thought.