Citizens unite in a web-savvy galaxy

Communication Power
By Manuel Castells
(Oxford University Press $34.95, £20)

Manuel Castells has shaped himself into the most prominent and influential theorist and analyst of the modern communications and network age. He is the Marshall McLuhan of our time, slyly donning his predecessor’s mantle by following the former’s most cited work, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) with the title of his own The Internet Galaxy (2001).

A Catalan Spaniard, he has for many years held multiple posts in the US; his output is prodigious, an outpouring of essays, learned articles, journalism, lectures, interviews and books – including his trilogy, The Information Age. He has always been a radical: an ardent anti-Francoist in his teens; an active 68-er in France; a Marxist who abandoned the dogmas of that political philosophy while transmuting it into a left libertarian sympathy; and a chronicler of power and the networks through which it operates.

This latest book examines the political and financial power exercised through the media of communication. Yet it is also the work of an activist: the long last chapter is a call for citizens to use new technologies – the internet above all, but also the messaging and mobilising potential of the mobile phone – to construct their own powers, often in opposition to that of their political and corporate masters, sometimes, as in the internet-based mobilisation behind Barack Obama, in ensuring the choice of a master.

For Castells, power in this “galaxy” is gained by the ability to leverage one form of power with others: his prime exemplars are the unique Silvio Berlusconi and that other restless septuagenarian, Rupert Murdoch. “The differing networks – media, political, financial and cultural – connected by Murdoch are separate and implement their specific programmes. But he facilitates and enhances the performance of each programme in each network by providing access and transferring resources between networks.”

But if this is the thesis, there is an antithesis. It is that the extension of new networks and the relentless spread and speeding up of the internet also puts into the hands of citizens a wonder-working, networking power they have never before enjoyed. Using three examples – the growth and spread of the environmental movement; the mobilisation of Spaniards against the outgoing Conservative government of José María Aznar, handing electoral victory to the Socialists after the former was perceived to have lied about the Madrid train bombing in March 2004; and the Obama campaign of 2008 – he argues that all, in different ways, represented a surge from below that forced individuals, governments and corporations out of power, into power, or to change their policies.

Each case is different. In the first, scientists, frustrated by official lack of interest in their evidence of human damage to the ecosphere, turned to public relations, the media and celebrities to engage a public that often does not know or want to know but can be attracted by entertainment.

The protest against the Aznar government’s continued insistence that the bombing was the work of Eta, the Basque terrorist group, rather than al-Qaeda was begun by a mobile phone message calling for a demonstration and asking for the message to be passed on – as it was, many thousands of times.

Obama’s campaign garnered extra­ordinary support from black Americans and other minorities but also from a swath of the educated middle class – web savvy, able and willing to contribute hundreds or thousands of dollars with a few clicks of a mouse.

These excursions are powered by Castell’s enthusiasm for the causes as much as by their significance as turning points of the information age. Yet they show the mobilisation potential of technology and how it has opened up huge spaces for activism. That these are open to all – reactionary and progressive, peace lover and hate-monger – is too little emphasised: an example of a network of fear and prejudice would have been illuminating.

Acute on political, corporate – and citizens’ – power, Castells has a tin ear on professional autonomy. He rightly sees journalists as important but often careless, thoughtless or gutless creators of network content, but he tends to discount the sphere in which they cleave to ideals and the practice of inquiry, verification, balance, transparency and right of reply. When we had an (amiable) exchange on this at a recent lecture he gave in London, he readily conceded the point: but it is barely in the book.

What is there, though, is of much value. Most of us reading this live in free societies – relatively. But they are free because of the constant watchfulness, engagement and activism that reside, primarily, in the media of communication.

The writer is an FT columnist

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