Castells, Networks and the Pandemic
Over a year ago, in one of my classes, I was introduced to the work of Manuel Castells and was intrigued by his take on media networks and society. Manuel Castells is a prominent sociologist whose work spans a broad category of topics from internet studies to network theory to organization studies. Castells theorized the concept of the “network society”,which is a society whose networks are embedded in the use of information and communication technology. His body of work has had deep impact on media research as he has brought to light the notion that digital technologies are not just infrastructure, but also form the social structure of our modern-day society.
Upon reflecting on the nature of our social interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic, to me, his work offers a profound perspective on how information and media networks influence and mediate social interactions in all aspects of life and work. It is this perspective that I would like to discuss in this piece. In the rest of the article, I will describe my (limited) understanding of Castells’ work and to use it to synthesize and articulate my understanding of the network society during the pandemic.
What is Castells’ Network?
Castells defines a network as a set of interconnected nodes. These nodes can be organizations, individuals, services etc., the definition of which depends on the network. Castells’ networks are open and expanding structures as long as the nodes share the same “communication codes”, such as values or performance goals. For example, individual mobile devices, people operating those devices, social media companies, content producer, server centers etc. all form the global network of information. The various technical protocols (such as TCP, HTTP, WiFi etc.) and mechanisms of social interaction form the “communication codes” of the global network of information. The crux of Castells argument is that the structure of information networks and who is included/excluded from them, organize the key structures and activities in our society.
Who has power?
According to Castells, digital networks mediated by computer systems and advanced telecommunications is where power now lies. He undermines the state-centric understanding of where power lies; knowledge, not military is might. Castells argues that media networks are now the dominant social organizations that concentrate power and manage resources. He describes two types of “network power”: switching power and programming power. Switching power is the ability to project power over existing networks by directing ideas, resources, and people to a subnetwork. “Switchers” are one of the main powerholders in a network society due to their ability to connect different networks together. They are intermediaries who broker information across different networks, negotiate and gatekeep information that flows between different networks, which grants them immense power. For example, this might be someone who works across multiple fields of study and can interpret information across those fields. That is, they speak the language of those disciples and can translate between them. Programming power is the ability to “program” new networks by selecting ideas, resources and people and designing linkages between them. Politicians often hold programming power. They “program” policies, laws, and systems that align with their own interests and values. They also form strategic alliances between dominant players in different networks, thus designing linkages.
Assumptions of the Network Perspective
In Castells and the Media, Philip Howard provides an overview of Castells’ broad body of work. Howard highlights that the “network perspective” as developed by Castells has three fundamental assumptions.
- The first assumption is that the network perspective goes beyond analyzing large groups and organizations as a unit of analysis and examines the individual content producers, and the content itself. While large organizations exercise substantial influence on media, there are plenty of instances where individuals themselves have significant political and cultural impact simply by using a social media platform on their phones. Think, Instagram influencers or Twitter users with a large following. Similarly, digital media artifacts such as websites also provide meaningful insight into the structure of social interaction. Case in point- the role of 4chan and memes in the 2016 presidential race in the United States.
- The second assumption of the network perspective is that more often than not, the links between the units of analysis reveal more than the individual units themselves. Simply studying actors of a network in isolation might not be as insightful as understanding the relationship between those players.
- The final assumption is that the structure of a network can both enable and constrain social action. While a network may serve as a bridge across individuals, organizations, and content, it may also tie together similar individuals, organizations, and content, resulting in an echo chamber or “bubble communities”. A popular example is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm creating political echo chambers. The algorithm optimizes for viewers to keep watching. In doing so it recommends similar videos to those that viewers already like to watch, pushing them further towards a specific preference, opinion, or stance.
In this way, Castells’ networks emphasize the relationships and linkages between the nodes of a network as a way of understanding how a network may enable, limit or complicate social interactions and their outcomes.
Space of Flows and Timeless Time
My favorite concepts from Castells’ theory are his proposed notions space and time: space of flows and timeless time
Space of Flows
Traditionally, a space is a physical location that people live in. It invokes a sense of physical contiguity. However, information networks have the capability to organize activities and connect people in disparate parts of the world. People can participate in the same activities, at the same time without being physically near each other. They are connected by the space of information flows. Castells’ describes the space of flows as “The material arrangements that allow for simultaneity of social practices without territorial contiguity”. He said “the space of flows … links up distant locales around shared functions and meanings on the basis of electronic circuits and fast transportation corridors, while isolating and subduing the logic of experience embodied in the space of places”
Time is a notion we use to organize a sequence of activities in our lives often in a physical space. However, as the notion of traditional space breaks down, so does the notion of time as we understand it. Timeless time refers to how information and communication technologies distort the notion of time by (1) compressing time into the almost instantaneous speed of electronic networks or (2) blurring the sequence of the past, present and future. For example, hyperlinks on webpages remove any notion of a sequence of events in time (or space), by taking a user from one location on the web to another in an instant.
Space, time and capitalism
The space of flows and timeless time have collectively ushered in a distinct form of capitalism structured around networks of financial flows. Previously, finance would be physically restricted to banks or other financial agencies governed by trading hours or bank hours. However, in this new form of capitalism, information networks facilitate the accumulation of capital by investment and reinvestment of profit over global financial networks that exist everywhere and nowhere. Financial capital dictates the fate of high-technology industries. However, the technology and information produced, partly by high-technology companies are essential in generating profit, which may then be reinvested over financial networks, thus accruing capital. Therefore, there exists an interdependent relationship between financial capital, high technology, and industrial capital, playing out over global information networks and globalizing the accumulation of capital.
Meanwhile, labor has become more disaggregated due to the decentralized structure of information networks. This is exemplified by the relationship between the Silicon Valley chip designer, the individual assembling the chip in a Southeast Asian production line, and the manager who might commute between the two regions. Therefore, while capital gets accumulated over the network of financial flows, labor is dissolving from the collective to the individual. The maintenance of capitalist relationships in light of the disaggregation of labor, results in an increasing separation of capital and labor in space and time. In this space of flows, the practice of labor and location are no longer interdependent, and practice now occurs globally, over electronic networks, as flows of information.
An overarching theme in Castells’ work has been that of decentralization in many aspects of dominant social functions. In the economic sense, this is demonstrated in examples of how firms are moving from a hierarchical (Fordist) organization to more horizontal and decentralized way of firm organization. The breaking of hierarchies has also permeated into the public and political spheres, where political campaigns are now being run in a much more decentralized manner. A similar pattern is observed in the cultural sphere of society, where instead of major studios consolidating production and distribution of content, which was delivered at a specific time (primetime TV, movie show timings etc.) and specific spaces (theaters, living rooms etc.), content is produced and distributed across networks mediated by platforms such as Instagram, Tik Tok etc. It does not rely on places or time to be delivered. However, this is also coupled with a centralization of power that is associated with media elites who own much of the information infrastructure.
The Network Society and the COVID-19 Pandemic
I … use Zoom for church youth activities. [I] use Zoom for meetings. I order groceries and takeout food online. We arranged for a ‘digital reception’ for my daughter’s wedding as well as live streaming the event.”
— Woman, 44. (Pew Research Center)
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has further enmeshed us into the network society. As physical spaces became off-limits, our social interactions increasingly occurred via information and communication networks. Our physical realities further started becoming entwined with our digital spaces. As school, work and other aspects of life that were strongly grounded in a physical space were uprooted and transitioned into a space of flows, our sense of time also got distorted. Before the pandemic, the passing of time was marked by a transition of physical space. Going to school, going to work, coming back from work, taking an evening yoga class all required us to keep track of time. In fact a study has found that our sense of time depends on our sense of space and that if our understanding of space is off, our understanding of time is also dislocated. However, during COVID-19, days are blending together as we hop from one Zoom call to another. There exist only two spaces, the space of our homes and the space of Zoom. People are working remotely from home, attending meetings at the same time from different locations and time zones, further disaggregating labor. Students are also attending classes simultaneously, while being in different states and countries. Just like the disaggregation of labor, education and learning is also disaggregated. Conflicting emotions of physical isolation and “Zoom fatigue” allude to a sense of confusion that we face with respect to our physical selves and its disembodied digital counterpart. The pandemic has pushed us to be further swept by the space of flows that dominate our lives while losing track of time. However, this has also been a moment of awakening for many who realize importance of physical social interactions grounded in real space and real time.
The pandemic has also revealed the seams of the global networks of information flows. The inequity in the distribution of reliable digital infrastructures has been made more prominent, as essential social domains such as education have moved to a remote environment. The digital divide associated with internet infrastructure and affordability has exacerbated the social divide with regards to who gets educated and who can work safely from home. At the start of the pandemic, 15 million of the US’s 50.7 million public school students lacked adequate connectivity to learn online at home. Moreover, 10% of public school teachers did not have sufficient internet capacity for online teaching. Unsurprisingly, lower income, minority and rural households are more likely to struggle with digital divide (Pew Research Center). As Castells’ suggests, who gets included and excluded from these digital networks form the structure of the network society. The pandemic laid bare the fact that the criteria for inclusion/exclusion from digital networks are determined along socio-economic and racial lines. Similarly, organizations that own digital infrastructures have accumulated more power and exercise greater control over more and more social domains of daily life, recording, controlling and commercializing how we interact.
However, Castells’ network society is complex. While “switchers”, “programmers”, and nodes with a high level of centrality wield a lot of power in a network, nobody has absolute control over how we interact and the outcomes of those interactions. This is exemplified by how misinformation over digital networks has affected vaccination against COVID-19. Researchers have found that scientific-sounding misinformation is strongly associated with a decline in vaccination intent. Recently, YouTube banned all content that spreads vaccine misinformation and took down pages that claim vaccines are not safe or cause health issues or inaccurately describe vaccine ingredients (). However, many pages on the platform are still active that spread vaccine misinformation. Moreover, after the YouTube ban, a lot of vaccine misinformation migrated to other less-regulated platforms such as Rumble. This indicates that while YouTube has a lot of power, it still cannot control how information flows, mediates social interactions, and affects individual opinion. By attempting to constrain the misinformation phenomena, YouTube simply redirected the information flow to other less powerful nodes in the network (like Rumble) and handed them the mantle of power.
The pandemic has had a complicated impact on the network society. On an individual level, it has made us value and long for interactions we previously took for granted, such as being around other people at school or work. But it has also created new expectations for life and work in a post-pandemic world and the role of digital networks in it. For example, the conversations around hybrid work highlight how we are negotiating the boundaries of the physical and the digital. It alludes to our increased comfort with transitioning work into a space of flows but also trying to retain what was good about working in a physical space. It is a reckoning of what it truly means to be in a network society as an individual, what works and what does not. On a societal level, the pandemic has exposed the edges of the network society while concealing the inequities exacerbated by it. The importance of digital networks in how they connect disparate physical locations together and conduct essential social activities, is unequivocal. Numbers, graphs, and statistics show how the digital divide has affected society’s most vulnerable. Those who are not included in these networks were unable to participate in basic social activities such as education and work and were pushed further behind. However, in the space of flows, the creative Zoom backgrounds, the ability to turn off one’s camera and microphone and only interact via chat and text conceal the realities of an individual’s situation. It creates a virtual reality where everyone is equal and where there are no empty seats to indicate who is missing. The pandemic has changed the structure of the network society and the network society has changed the course of the pandemic by manipulating the flow of information. What comes next is uncertain. What’s certain is the fact that the post-pandemic world will look very different from a pre-pandemic one and the digital networks and flows that created it will continue to play a leading role in its makeup.
Originally published at https://shruti-misra.github.io.