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.


Innovation Reading Circle
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?