Castells, Networks and the Pandemic

Watching people wake up on Twitter (https://www.vox.com/a/internet-maps)

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.

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

Image from: Dali, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory. 1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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”

Timeless Time

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

Image from: Schweitzer, Frank, et al. “Economic networks: The new challenges.” science 325.5939 (2009): 422–425.

The Network Society and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Broadband availability in the US (https://www.vox.com/a/internet-maps)
Household broadband adoption by state (https://www.vox.com/a/internet-maps)

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