Innovation Reading Circle: Communication Power

Tonight I’ll be participating in Nico MacDonald‘s technology and society bookclub, the Innovation Reading Circle, where we’ll be looking at Manuel Castell’s latest book, Communication Power. I admit to being an enormous fan of Castells for well over a decade. At a time when quality writing on communications policy and technology issues was scant, Castells stepped in with his watershed trilogy, The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, which over three years effectively defined the social dynamics of a networked society.

Where the Information Age trilogy focused on the interrelationships between power, production and personal experience, his latest book focuses absolutely on power, although he notes extensively throughout that belief, influence and experience (not to mention democratic participation) all impact on the exercising of power. He concentrates on information flows, detailing how institutions and governments (both political and corporate) can either facilitate or exacerbate production.

This is crucial: he notes that communication is possible, regardless of the political landscape in which it operates. The traditional barriers of censorship, copyright, and other legal imperatives are easily, even if not legitimately, overcome. Thus the barriers to information access are now more pyschological than physically or autocratically imposed. They are barriers from within, rather than from without. This means that the power battle of the new information age is about communication engagement and influence rather than protocol and legal process.

Castells gives numerous examples of how political bodies and corporates alike are being systematically undermined by the actions of the always-connected information elite. He notes that a creative community is one which collectively negotiates and influences, rather than blindly following the teachings of an authority – whether that be a political authority or a corporate brand. Power has shifted from the leaders of the networks themselves – media, political, financial and cultural networks – to the programmers and switchers who control the network infrastructure. He identifies Rupert Murdoch as the greatest switcher of them all, so while he avoids specifically identifying power-holders of the world, he implicitly indicates that media owners and controllers are those who can psychologically influence beliefs, opinions and values more than any other institution of our time. He does indicate that there is an opportunity for a digital counter-culture to revolutionise networks and to chip away at the influence of someone like Murdoch, but it is precisely because switchers and programmers are those with the greatest power in the current era, that Murdoch will be the last to be influenced by the impact of the information society.

There is certainly the sense of the inevitable in Communication Power. But based on the ideas Castells articulates, I’m not at all sure that the next several decades will be particularly promising for knowledge building and innovation. There will certainly be action and the efforts of those of us that will echo the establishment of media empires in the pre-1970s era – Google perhaps most pre-eminent among these – but it will take another generation before the belief systems of network users shifts inexorably from consumption-only to collaborative production.

I look forward to tonight’s discussion. Should be fascinating.

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