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Communication Power

Manuel Castells is University Professor and the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as well as Research Professor of Information Society at the Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona.  He is also Distinguished Visiting Professor of Technology and Society at MIT and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University. In his new book, Communication Power, he analyses the transformation of the global media industry and argues that a new communication stystem, mass self-communication, has emerged, and power relationships have been profoundly modified.  In the excerpt below, Castells shares a personal anecdote about discovering the relationship between power and communication.

I was eighteen years old. My urge for freedom was bumping against the walls that the dictator had erected around life. My life and everybody else’s life. I wrote an article in the Law School’s journal, and the journal was shut down. I acted in Camus’ Caligula, and our theater group was indicted for promoting homosexuality. When I turned on the BBC world news to find a different tune, I could not hear a thing through the stridency of radio interference. When I wanted to read Freud, I had to go to the only library in Barcelona with access to his work and fill out a form explaining why. As for Marx or Sartre or Bakunin, forget it – unless I would travel by bus to Toulouse and conceal the books at the border crossing, risking the unknown if caught transporting subversive propaganda. And so, I decided to take on this suffocating, idiotic, Franquist regime, and joined the underground resistance. At that time, the resistance at the University of Barcelona consisted of only a few dozen students, since police repression had decimated the old democratic opposition, and the new generation born after the Civil War was barely entering adulthood. Yet, the depth of our revolt, and the promise of our hope, gave us strength to engage in the most unequal combat.

And there I was, in the darkness of a movie theater in a working-class neighborhood, ready to awaken the consciousness of the masses by breaking though the communication firewalls within which they were confined – or so I believed. I had a bunch of leaflets in my hand. They were hardly legible as they were printed on a primitive, manual copying device, soaked with purple ink that was the only communication medium available to us in a country blanketed by censorship….So I decided… distributing a few sheets of paper to workers, to reveal how bad their lives really were (as it they would not know it), and call them to action against the dictatorship, all the while keeping an eye on the future overthrow of capitalism, the root of all evil. The idea was to leave the leaflets in the empty seats on my way out of the theater, so that at the end of the session, when the lights came on, the moviegoers would pick up the message – a daring message from the resistance intended to give them enough hope to engage in the struggle for democracy.

I did seven theaters that evening, moving each time to a distant location in another workers’ lair to avoid detection. As naïve as the communication strategy was, it was no child’s game, as being caught meant being beaten up by the police and most likely going to jail, which is what happened to several of my friends. But, of course, we were getting a kick out of our prowess, while hoping to avoid other kinds of kicks. As I finished that revolutionary action for the day (one of many until I ended up in exile in Paris two years later), I called my girlfriend, proud of myself, feeling that the words I had conveyed could change a few minds which could ultimately change the world. I did not know many things at that time. Not that I know substantially more now. But I did not know then that the message is effective only if the receiver is ready for it (most people were not) and if the messenger is identifiable and reliable. And the Workers Front of Catalonia (of whom 95 percent were students) was not as serious a brand as the communists, the socialists, the Catalan nationalists, or any of the established parties, precisely because we wanted to be different – we were searching for identity as the post-Civil War generation.

Thus, I doubt that my actual contribution to Spanish democracy was equal to my expectations. And yet, social and political change has always been enacted, everywhere and at all times, from a myriad of gratuitous actions, sometimes uselessly heroic (mine was certainly no that) to the point of being out of proportion to their effectiveness: drops of a steady rain of struggle and sacrifice that ultimately floods the ramparts of oppression when, and if, the walls of incommunication between parallel solitudes start cracking down, and the audience becomes “we the people.” After all, as naïve as my revolutionary hopes were, I did have a point. Why would the regime close down every possible channel of communication outside its control if censorship were not of the essence for the perpetuation of its power…Why did students have to fight for the right to free speech; unions to fight for the right to post information about their company (then on the billboard, now on the website); women to create women’s bookstores; subdued nations to communicate in their own language; Soviet dissidents to distribute samizdat literature; African American in the US, and colonized people around the world, to be allowed to read? What I sensed then, and believe now, is that power is based on the control of communication and information, be it the macro-power of the state and media corporations or the micro-power of organizations of all sorts. And so, my struggle for free communication, my primitive, purple-ink blog of the time, was indeed an act of defiance, and the fascists, from their perspective, were right to try to catch us and shut us off, so closing the channels connecting individual minds to the public mind. Power is more than communication, and communication is more than power. But power relies on the control of communications, as counterpower depends on breaking through such control. And mass communication, the communication that potentially reaches a society at large, is shaped and managed by power relationships, rooted in the business of media and the politics of the state. Communication power is at the heart of the structure and dynamics of society.

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