Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why digital networks are ruling the world

For the last few years, the name Manuel Castells kept popping up in things I read about digital media, social networks, and mass communications. He is a Spanish sociologist who spent much of his career at UC Berkeley.

Recently I have been reading his "The Rise of the Network Society," the first of three volumes in a series "The Information Age." He wrote them two decades ago, but he seems to have predicted many of the trends we are living through now.

The free flow of money, information, and power through global networks means those networks, not nations, are the source of power, he wrote. Institutions, societies, and ethnic groups with rigid structures that cannot take advantage of these flows will be left behind.

He wrote a new preface for the 2010 edition, before the Arab Spring, before the Syrian civil war, before Brexit, before Trump. He pointed out that structural changes were taking place in society because large sections of the world's population were being excluded from the global networks that accumulate knowledge and wealth.

Highly educated elites from financial and technological centers were profiting from the flow of money and power, while the rest of the world was being left behind.

Control the flow of money, information, power

That has, indeed, happened in many ways. Facebook and Google are controlling the flow of information through social and search networks, and the money flows to them as well. Their algorithms dictate what news we see; they control public discourse. The traditional media are subjected to playing by the rules of these giant technology platforms in order to get exposure and revenue.

Big investment banks around the world profited mightily from the flow of money into sophisticated real estate investments -- collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps -- until it all came crashing down in 2008. Meanwhile, homeowners and communities are still digging out from the damage.

International crime syndicates, which don't respect borders and laws, are also profiting from these new global flows of capital. In fact, the differences in legal systems, regulations, and enforcement standards allow drug dealers to move their operations quickly to where resistance is weakest. And they can move their cash offshore in various fiscal paradises to avoid detection.

Police departments, health agencies, and heads of state publish policy statements in social networks, but it is really the networks themselves that control the flow and decide what becomes shared, what goes viral, Castells observed. And these populations -- in Europe, the U.S., Islamic countries, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and elsewhere-- have reacted with a backlash against global elites in the form of a retreat into religious fundamentalism and ethnic identities.

"Switches connecting the networks (for example, financial flows taking control of media empires that influence political processes) are the privileged instruments of power," he wrote. "Thus, the switchers are the power holders." That is, the people who interpret what is happening can become the connection among networks and thus shape, guide, and misguide societies. 

Personal identities -- with a cause, an ethnic group, a language group, a religious group -- have become more important than national identities. Anyone who can connect multiple identities can control the public debate. So a message that is anti-establishment, anti-business, anti-media, anti-politician, anti-wealthy can resonate with many groups.

Manuel Castells (Photo: USC Annenberg School)
A weakened media sector

The political establishment has lost its connection with the public, Castell said. The mass media used to be the vehicle for politicians to communicate their ideas and information to the public.

Now, no one controls this information flow as completely. Control is fluid, topical, short-lived. All kinds of information and ideas are produced and disseminated, including "the most outrageous, distorted, and unfair, among millions of people.”

More of his nuggets:

“Whoever, or whatever, wins the battle of people’s minds will rule, because mighty, rigid apparatuses will not be a match, in any reasonable timespan, for the minds mobilized around the power of flexible, alternative networks.” The networks he is talking about here can be built around issues, ideology, identity, or other factors -- pro-life, pro-choice, pro- or anti-immigration, language, race, culture, ethnicity, geography, religion, political identity.

Leadership is personalized, and image-making is power-making.” This explains how a person with a high profile and a large public following can command the attention of the public -- this is power in the world of networks.

The traditional media in the U.S., stung by the triumph of Donald Trump, are attempting to control the public conversation. But Trump continues to control them. They are boring and serious. He tweets out controversial and outrageous statements, and they all have to react. He is winning, for now.

In this new world a reality TV star and businessman can command far more attention, and wield far more communication power, than a traditional politician. This is why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has no political experience, was being talked about seriously as a candidate for president.

If you feel dizzy, you are not alone. All around you, people are trying to control the flow of information that reaches you and to impose their power over you. Part of this is not new, as Castells would admit. Propaganda has always been a part of political control programs.

What is different is that it is easier for people outside the traditional power structures to grab hold of the controls and exert their influence, at least for a time. That constant shifting of power and attention is enough to make your head spin.


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