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Communication, Power, and Counterpower in the Network Society


Finally for today we've moved to the first conference keynote, by Manuel Castells. His talk focusses on the relationships between communication, power, and counterpower in the network society. The fundamental battle here is over the minds of the people, which in turn determines the values and norms of society. If majority views are different from the prevailing values of those in power, then ultimately the system will change - and the battle over the human mind is largely carried out through the processes of communication. Recently, of course, the electronic networks have further extended the modes of human communication. Powers and counterpowers operate in a new technological framework, in which vertical mass communication has been joined by a new form of horizontal, 'mass self communication'.

Politics is primarily media politics in modern societies; citizens become the consumers of political messages. But this this does not mean that citizens simply follow these messages, which are plural and competitive in the first place, of course; but this is also further complicated by journalistic models which make a business out of ideologically inflected messages (e.g. Fox News), and by the increasing public disdain for the journalistic profession. Media messages are also necessarily only a representational form which condenses complex ideas into simpler images (whether visual or textual), of course. Credibility, trust and character become critical factors in the determination of political outcomes - but this also means that a market of intermediaries, who shape messages for maximum gain, proliferates, increasing the cost of media politics. Media politics and personality politics lead to scandal politics, which have brought down a large number of politicians and governments in recent years.

Such scandal politics may attack the person by undermining their credibility - but the proliferation of such attacks may simply lead to a lower esteem for all politicians, not just those attacked here; publics then simply choose the lesser of many evils (Bill Clinton's continuing popularity in the face of a number of personal scandals may be explained in this way). But the crisis of politics cannot be attributed to such factors alone. There is a significant level of distrust of people against politicians, governments, and the system overall. Distrust in the system does not necessarily drive depoliticisation, however - but many people increasingly feel that alternative political means are required to change the system.

One means to this end, then, is what Castells describes as mass self communication, based on Internet and mobile media forms and especially on social and collaborative media forms - a social communications network that includes the global exchange of multimodal interactive messages from many to many. Two thirds of the world's population are now connected to mobile networks, and the convergence of Internet and mobile communication means that the communicative power of the Internet is also distributed through this means. Additional social software and communication tools such as blogs, wikis, filesharing, podcasts, RSS, and others are becoming increasingly prominent, and the rise of blogs continues unabated - interestingly with languages such as Chinese and Japanese now becoming the leading languages of the blogosphere, and developments are notable especially also in troubled areas such as Iraq where traditional media struggle with sometimes unsurmountable obstacles. Further, there is an increasing media richness to this content, too, enabling the exchange of audio and video materials and an increasingly interactive rather than simply consumptive engagement with them, including also through massively multiplayer immersive online environments.

Some such user-created sources of information are rising in prominence to the point where they are becoming a first port of call for information seekers. This shows the rise of a new form of socialised exchange - mass self communication. It is mass communication because of its global reach, but self-generated in content, and it makes possible the unlimited diversity and global origin of content. Using this new system of mass self communication, power processes take on new forms. Social actors are able to exert counterpower more effectively, and in parallel with the growing crisis of political legitimacy new alternative social movements have emerged, for example to challenge globalisation trends and the marginalisation of specific social groups. Such movements may be progressive or reactionary, but they nonetheless show the same counterpower potentials in their credible challenge to the existing powers in society. They think and act globally while rooted in their local society.

This is the rise of a new culture which values individual autonomy (and autonomy and Internet use can be shown to be interrelated); it is a culture which relies on the means of mass self communication. The new means of digital communication constitute the most sophisticated organisational form, and they are the most potent political form at present. They exist not only in Internet technologies, but such technologies enable them to increase their reach to a global level; they are rooted in face-to-face interaction as well, and in local specificities: they are a blend of perspectives. They build networks of meaning in the place of networks of instrumentality. Autonomous networks, to challenge existing networks of power, are now being built. These utilise traditional as well as new media technologies to spread their messages, and they develop network communities which also connect to local communities.

Further, instant communication by way of mobile technologies creates additional changes to the way communities operate. The dismissal of the Spanish Aznar government, for example, following its insubstantiated blaming of Basque terrorists for the Madrid train bombings, was driven in large part by the exchange of alternative views using mobile phones (at a time when for legal reasons political messages could no longer be exchanged through the traditional mass media only days before the election). The Berlusconi government in Italy attempted a similar approach when it sent messages in support of itself to some 13 million Italian mobile phones - but this backfired when it was seen as spam. This may demonstrate the inability of traditional political actors to operate as mass self communicators.

Societies evolve and change by people constructing their institutions under the pressure of new power relationships. They exist as societies by constructing a public space in which private views and values can be negotiated to reach a shared understanding and consensus. In industrial society, the institutional politic space filled this role, but globalisation and communal identities are challenging the nation state - the result is the current crisis of political legitimacy, and this is also a crisis of traditional forms of civic society. But there is no social and political vacuum here - societies continue to operate and develop, and the development of public consensus is moving from political institutions to global communication networks: political legitimacy has been replaced by communication processes which use the opportunity of horizontal communication technologies. This is a contested space which expresses the new historical understanding in which the new form of society is given birth. New institutions will eventually develop into a new form of politic space, but they do not exist as yet.

The crisis of legitimacy leads to new forms of control in the realm of communication, but it is met with new forms of alternative communication which enter the battle in a horizontal communication mode. Arguments over Internet governance mechanisms and debates over Internet access rights are just one aspect of this conflict - and in the end this will lead to the latest stage in the age-old struggle to free our minds.

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