Thursday, 16 July 2009

Communication Power - Manuel Castells

"We think with our feelings and rationalise based on those feelings."
9 July, LSE

I don't know where I know the name Manuel Castells from but I remember reading it somewhere. I know I should look it up from one of my study packs (where I am sure I have read it) but I feel too lazy to do so. I thought the lecture would be interesting so I went along. This and the 21st Century Museum lecture were ticketed events so I had to queue up in the 'returns line' to get a space as I had not requested a ticket from the LSE on time. And, I was lucky enough to get into the lecture theatre instead of having to see it from the video-link that was set up in the next room. 

The lecture was actually a book launch for Castells' latest book Communication Power. He was introduced by Prof Robin Mansell who is the head of the media and communications department at the LSE. Castells is known for his work initially on Marxist urban sociology and thereafter for power relations, communication theory of power, networks, etc. 

It was a really interesting lecture given it was on communication, power relations, the new digital age, the mix of politics and media, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We are seeing a lot of developments taking place and new spaces and possibilities being formed so it was nice to hear an academic talk on this and get some perspective. 

The Prof said that he had given two previous lecture at the LSE: i) 2004 was on politics and power and ii) 2008 was on the central role of the internet. 

It was quite a lengthy talk so I will just list some of the key points that I picked up:

  • Power is exercised by the capacity for violence and coercion and secondly, to shape the mind. He said that purely coercive power was less decisive than the power that shapes meaning in our minds. 
  • Media is fundamentally a business - make money or win influence. 
  • Digitalisation of information and the rise of self mass communication. Whereas once it was a message from one to many, now it is many to many. These two do interact - but do not necessarily merge. This has also led to cultural transformation. The audience is not passive but an active and even a 'creative audience' that creates, produces and controls content. People that are interacting are not just 'receiving' any longer. 
  • How is meaning constructed in peoples' minds? Research in political psychology shows us that people tend to believe what they want to believe (gasp!) and it is based on emotions(gasp gasp!). Rational-choice economists and believers, this puts you out of commission. I guess you guys have to flip burgers now. The War on Terror has been successful in influencing opinion because it plays on peoples' fears of terrorists. Despite the fact that it was established that the Iraq invasion was based on fabricated evidence of WMDs and a 9-11 link, people in the US still believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9-11. 
  • Media politics or communication politics is the 'politics of our time.' It has led to a personalisation of politics. We think with our feelings. We don't read. This emotional processing leads you to trust whomever you are connected with. He spoke of character assassinations and scandal politics. 
  • Today there is a crisis of legitimacy of the political system - corruption, failure of democracy - as well as the financial crisis. This has led to a 'double crisis.' People don't believe in the state or the market. 
  • Phenomenon like YouTube and Facebook are creating 'constant possibilities.' The 'genie is out of the bottle' and can't be put back. There is 'autonomy of communication.'
  • Modern communication tools are leading to development of instant communities of practice. They are also helping to create 'outrage movements.' He gave the example of the elections in Spain in 2004. And the recent election violence in Iran. The government tried to shut down wi-fi and cell phones but did not and would not shut down the Internet - it would be virtually impossible. More servers would spring up to keep the system up. He said Twitter was not so much key here because apparently more people outside of Iran were active on it including Israel! The Internet cannot bring down a government but can open up a realm of possibilities. 
  • Difference between social movements and insurgent politics. Social movements use available tools like the Internet to change values while insurgent politics start in the margins of the system and try to change power. YouTube and Facebook are then social movements. 
  • The global climate change movement could be said to be a social movement which once had hardly any people informed about it whereas 85% of people have knowledge of it today (I guess these are US opinion polls). 
  • The Obama campaign could be said to be insurgent politics. Young people connected to the Internet were part of the campaign. The co-founder of Facebook was an adviser to the campaign. The grassroots was part of this campaign. The Internet reinforced the grassroots and vice versa. The Obama campaign did not use lobby money but received money from the grassroots. Castells cracked a joke that now Obama is the president he has a real problem now. He is President of the US. He has also generated such a high level of hope. Obama tapped into emotions and wired our brains with 'change' and 'hope.' Hillary was on about her 'experience.' 
The Prof proposed four kinds of power and networks. Networks have the tendency to dissolve power. We have to re-analyse power in asymmetrical networks:

  1. Networking power - the power of letting in the network, exclusion, gatekeeping
  2. Net war power (?) - power of setting standards i.e. Washington Consensus (aha!)
  3. Network power - within the network
  4. Network - making power - programming and switching, networks of power connected through switches, e.g. the Rupert Murdoch empire that is connected to finance, media, politics
There was an interesting question on how markets were different from networks but I did not quite get the answer. One or the other does not have any control. I wonder which. Well, markets did not have any control and that is what led to the financial crisis so let's go with markets. Markets are different from networks because they are not controlled. 

There was also a question about the BBC and other media that are getting a lot of their information, opinions from ordinary citizens - 'citizen journalists.' Were they just going cheap instead of getting academics, professionals? (This is something Wesley and I are always wondering too) But the Prof said that BBC has a large desk just for fact checking. Therefore, it is not that they are skipping professional, academic insights but this is a parallel dimension to the news we get today.

On an end note, I think it was an interesting lecture. Phenomena like Facebook or YouTube are truly changing the way we receive information, process it and disseminate it further on. It challenges mainstream media. The audience is not a passive, receiving audience any longer. We have seen the impact of this people media on elections - one of the critical aspects of democracy - in the US and Iran. There are also alternatives to the big newsmakers like BBC and CNN - i.e. Huffington Post in the US. The fact that people are able to relay information first hand themselves using technology like mobile phones, cameras, texting, Facebook, Twitter sort of challenges mainstream media and forces it to be more interactive. Like the Prof said, there are constant possibilities being created. Underlying all this is what the Prof said in the beginning - that the more decisive power is not the capacity for coercion or violence but the power to shape meaning in peoples' minds. 

Having studied VCD this year and the critique against classical, rational-choice economics forcing itself into the social sciences, it was interesting to hear the Prof saying that people are 'not rational beings and we rationalise with our feelings!' 

No comments:

Post a Comment