Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reading :: Communication Power

Communication Power
By Manuel Castells

Although Internet media had played a role in politics before, including the early success of the Dean campaign, perhaps the most startling impact it had was on Dan Rather's famous report about George W. Bush's National Guard service. Based on what he called "unimpeachable sources," Rather claimed to have solid evidence for the long-circulating rumor that Bush had used family connections to avoid serving in Vietnam, and in the waning days of the election, he grimly told the electorate that the war president was a draft dodger. His evidence: memos purportedly written by Bush's National Guard commander.

You know the rest. Bloggers and commenters at Free Republic, Little Green Footballs and Powerline examined the memos and noticed what anyone who has closely followed the shift from typewriter to word processor should have noticed: the memos were written in a proportional font and were automatically tracked. One person created an animated GIF showing one of the memos alternating with the same text typed into Microsoft Word with the default settings; except for smudges, the two were identical. Alerted by these differences, others noted content discrepancies. The story, which could have seriously compromised the Bush campaign, instead damaged CBS News. Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, was terminated, and Rather was put out to pasture. And bloggers famously told the legacy media that they would "fact check your ass."

It's telling – and disappointing – that the closest Manuel Castells gets to addressing this watershed event is to call Bush a "draft-dodging, alcoholic, drug abuser" (p.236) while holding Rather up as a sterling example of the US media, trying and sometimes failing to criticize the Bush adminstration enough (p.171, footnote 21). I found this quite disappointing, since one of the things that I admired about Castells' The Power of Identity was his evenhandedness in examining networked relations among disparate social movements despite his sympathy for one (the Zapatistas) and his antipathy for the other two (the black-helicopter crowd and Aum Shinrikyo). We sorely need that sort of evenhandedness to understand the very phenomenon Castells is trying to examine here – communication power – but Castells is anything but evenhanded. And in ignoring the Rathergate blog swarm and other examples that go against the anti-Bush narrative, he loses several opportunities to provide a fuller, more challenging analysis.

Indeed, I regret to report that Castells seems to entirely give up the analytical view in spots. His account of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, for instance, reads like a campaign ad – or a love letter – in which he is unaccountably credulous of the campaign's statements and actions. He extensively cites Obama's books as his major sources on the candidate's life, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that political autobiographies are typically crafted to work within a campaign's narrative. He enthuses that Obama is a different kind of candidate, oriented less to the left-right divide and more toward the future vs. the past (p.375). He even finds himself arguing that "Obama ... made a strategic alliance with the Chicago political machine, but he was not part of it" – and in the next sentence, suggesting that since the Daley machine produced such successful policies, maybe this dynasty wasn't so bad after all (pp.388-389).

Omissions such as Rathergate and commissions such as the offhand embrace of machine politics (when they support Obama, at any rate) are hard to overlook, and they cast a pall over the purpose of the book. In the opening, Castells describes how as a college student in Franco's Spain, he tried to resist the dictatorship's censorship. He came to believe that "power is based on the control of communication and information" (p.3). He is interested, then, in "why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind" (p.3). In particular, he's interested in how communication power is exercised in the network society, which is constructed around digital technologies, technologies that have produced media of "mass self-communication" (p.4). What's mass self-communication? Think in terms of the blogs by which bloggers published their own analyses of Dan Rather's memos and contributed to each others' interpretations – just to pick an example out of the air.

Castells, as usual, is wide-ranging, and he tells us at the beginning that he will draw on various theories (which he characterizes as "disposable tools," p.5) without wasting too much time critiquing or reconciling them (p.6). And so he does. At times, this is regrettable: actor-network theory, for instance, is cited in a single sentence, called "brilliantly theorized," yet is characterized as being about "humans" – which is pretty much the opposite of Latour's intent (p.45). Nevertheless, Castells covers the network society pretty well in chapter 1, which is largely an update of his argument in The Rise of the Network Society.

His next chapter, on communication in the digital age, delves into the idea of mass self-communication: communication that could potentially reach the masses, but "is self-communication because the production of the message is self-generated, the definition of the potential receiver(s) is self-directed, and the retrieval of specific messages or content ... is self-directed" (p.55). Mass self-communication coexists with interpersonal and mass communication, generating a hypernetworked diversity that encourages mixing and recombining (p.55). This present age is undergoing at least four transformations of communication: a technological transformation based on digital communication; a transformation of the organizational and institutional structure of communication; a transformation of the cultural dimension of multilayered communication; and a transformation involving the social (typically power) relationships underlying the evolution of this multimodal communication system (pp.56-57). Castells traces the implications of each here, quite densely; I won't summarize all of his conclusions.

So far so good. But things start to slide, I think, in Chapter 3. Here, Castells starts borrowing from neuroscience and cognitive science, and I'm not thrilled with the results, which seem sutured together without enough theoretical structure to provide a well-structured argument. Castells tried to counter this criticism in the Overview, but I'm not buying it. I'll skip over the neuroscience portion he borrows from Damasio and go straight to the Lakoff. Frankly, I haven't read Lakoff, but every summary of his work has read like Castells' summary here: (a) Framing an issue is important because once people accept a frame, they can't see outside of it; (b) conservatives have successfully framed issues by activating the frames of terror and patriotism, frames that trigger conservative impulses in the hearers because we get more conservative when we think about death; (c) liberals need to therefore get off the ball, stop being so cerebral and even-handed, and start activating their own frames. I won't launch an extended critique of this line of reasoning (as Castells represents it, anyway). Instead, I'll just point out that that there's a rich history of studying and theorizing persuasion (i.e., rhetoric) and it has historically been critiqued by those who don't trust persuasion because the truth is so obvious that people could not be persuaded otherwise without some sort of nefarious trickery. I don't give this any more credence than I do the other side of the coin: conservative rumors that President Obama is such a successful speaker because he uses known hypnosis techniques.

Castells rides this horse a bit more in Chapter 4, discussing the rise of scandal politics (and illustrating it, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review), and really contributing some valuable theoretical work on why it is ascendant. Scandals, he says, have become the hidden expression of political struggle by other means (p.261; think here about Speaker Pelosi's claim that the CIA had never briefed Congress about waterboarding, for instance). He examines three different countries (the US, Russia, and China) to demonstrate how states use techniques tailored to their political climates in order to assert message control. This is among the most valuable parts of the book: how communication networks are "programmed."

Even more valuable is Chapter 5, on "reprogramming" communication networks through individuals' insurgent activities. Let's pass over Castells' merciless characterization of non-actors as "selfish parasites" (p.300), and let's applaud the apparent return of Castells' analytical distance as he points out that social change could be in any given direction (p.301). He argues that social change requires "reprogramming" communication networks, changing the power relationships embedded in these networks (p.302), and he points to "the potential synergy between the rise of mass self-communication and the autonomous capacity of civil societies around the world to shape the process of social change" (p.303). His extended example is that of the 2004 Spanish election, in which the ruling party claimed falsely that terrorist bombings were the work of Basque separatists rather than al Qaeda (p.349). The mass media were constrained from reporting fully, but citizens exchanged text messages, organized rallies, and forced further journalistic investigation, leading to the defeat of the ruling party. Alas, later in the chapter, he covers the Obama campaign in much less analytic detail, as I mentioned above.

Castells concludes by counseling us, without apparent irony, to "practice your critical thinking every day" (p.431).

I've been hard in this review on Castells, who I have admired in his previous efforts for his ability to cover and synthesize many different bodies of research in the service of understanding the network society. And Castells has some genuine, solid contributions here. But as I've intimated above, the book is quite patchy, with some parts reading like a second draft, some parts highly polished, some parts highly analytical, some parts glossy and nearly analysis-free. In a way, this book reminds me of Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society, which (to my eye) seemed like the sort of book one writes when one no longer wants to bother answering critics. Unfortunately, the result is a fair amount of gold mixed with a fair amount of dross. Proceed carefully with this book, and "practice your critical thinking every day."


Life @ the crossroads said...

Thank you Clay for dissecting this book. I have just read it cover to cover hoping for the same incisiveness found in his web trilogy. Like some musicians his return to book writing/studio after 10 years has proved that he has seemingly not grown in knowledge and experience as one might expect. As you rightly noted Chapter 3 was a disaster he really should stick to his "frame" of sociology and not try to gain points suggesting that neuroscience has all the existential answers. That chapter set alarm bells ringing for the rest of the book. A let down for sure.

Life @ the crossroads said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernard said...

The interesting idea of reprogramming networks could be linked to a recent theorization on the potential (political) use of network thinking : http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a916116619

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Thanks, Bernard, will check it out.