Professor Manuel Castells opens the discussions at Media Re:public by framing the relationship between media and political power. Democracy, he tels is, reflects the values of powers that shape the norms and institutions of society. And power is asserted through two methods – coercion, and through the construction of meaning in the minds of the people. This second power is “the most fundamental form of power, particularly in democracies.” Power relationships, he asserts, are never defined in absolute terms – there’s never absolute power even in dictatorships, because there’s always resistance to domination.
Meaning is constructed in societies via the process of communication, through the “interaction between our neural networks and the networks of communication.” This is a complex process, because people reject information that conflicts with their feelings. Castells sites a study that suggests that we’re four times more likely to accept information that reinforces, instead of challenges, our gut feelings. Politics is now rooted in triggering emotions, in the “evocative power of sounds and images, which trigger reactions that develop into the process of decisionmaking.” George Lakoff’s work on politics and metaphor helps us understand how this works – the power of the metaphor “the war on terror” has shaped the political reactions of the US populus, and helped set the agenda in the media.
“Social movements – which are the major agents of social change – act on the mind, changing the way we think.” The environmental movement has transformed our societies by transforming how we think about sustainability. The women’s movement has changed how we think about patriarchal assumptions. “Power is not just about winning elections, it’s about shaping the way we think about the world.”
This power is asserted in the media, “the intersection between our brains and the multiplicity of brains that constitute our environment.” Politics that doesn’t go through the media “doesn’t exist in the collective mind.” The move into media politics has “almost necessarily led to the politics of scandal.” The leaking of damaging information has become the most powerful weapon for politics in society.
“So, the transformation of the medium is a transformation of the political landscape.” Clearly, there is a transformation taking place, commercially and technologically. Castells refers to “mass self communication”, the experience of individuals broadcasting themselves to a networked environment. He believes that we’ve reached a tipping point in this space, with more than half the world’s populations connected via wireless communications. “This doesn’t mean there’s no digital divide, but means that the mass level reaches the point where it’s a decisive instrument in society.”
Castells reminds us that it’s too simple to believe we simply “oppose corporate mass media with the networks of the little guys.” These networks are also owned by powerful corporations, who are likely to clamp down on what people can do on these networks. “Murdoch – the most visionary guy in this field – knows that you have to transform freedom into a commodity.” The corporate power is counterbalanced by the “endless capacity for hackers and innovators to create more networks of communication.” So the corporate world needs to try new business models, “a new form of articulation between mass communication and mass self-communication.”
He’s most excited about the way these new tools bring “new information, new sounds into the net without corporate censorship – new images, which can participate in the launching of public debates.” He’s less excited by the blogosphere – “which is mainly commentary on what the mass media says” – and more excited by “real citizen media”, by which he means, “anyone with a cellphone anywhere in the world, uploading images to YouTube.” This constant flow of images has only a minimal part that will be relavent politically, but “the law of great numbers means a small proportion will be significant.”