Manuel Castells on The Great Disconnect

manuel castells

Manuel Castells

In the Spanish publication La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells takes stock of the role of information and communication technologies as used by social movements against authoritarian regimes. In the context of the network society, Castells notes the great disconnect (pun probably intended) between the global connectedness of the global civil society and the protest movements on the one hand, and the futile attempts at controlling messengers and message by governments on the other hand. As Castells puts it, this is the “new specter haunting the hall power around the world: free communication across Internet networks”. It is a justice globalist imaginary versus old and tired nationalism.

As the recent protest movements have exposed, governments may try to censor, shut off networks, arrest or even kill but this is a wasted effort because whoever controls communication has power. Shooting the messengers (sometimes literally) did not stop the message. And even though democracies have free speech protections, they are not immune to trying to control what goes on on the Internet. In China, such control may take the form of blocking social networking websites but that does not stop blogs and chatrooms. So, governments are beginning to design systems to shut down the Internet and mobile networks when they fear a crisis. Ahmadinejad tried that in 2009 and Mubarak as well more recently.

There is no big button allowing a head of state to shut down the Internet (although the US Congress is considering such a technology, FSM protect us if they seriously get to it, keeping in mind the moonbats current in the House of Representatives). What Mubarak did, though, was simpler: to order ISPs to shut down. It was not a complete shutdown and it did not work because the global civil society then kicked into gear to provide substitute access and networks. So, there was no Twitter revolution but there certainly was a global solidarity network, composed of hacker networks, networks of volunteer computers, use of proxies, smartphones used as modems, connections routed via phone numbers and use of old-fashioned fax machines.

Castells notes the role of entities like Telecomix in keeping communication open with Egypt. Telecomix created a program that searched Google automatically to find all the possible phone and fax numbers that could be used to send information in and out of Egypt. In addition, Google and Twitter made available speak-to-tweets applications.

What mattered, for Castells, was the combination of a variety of media, including graffitis, printed materials and occupation of urban space, and face-to-face networks along with all the virtual activity and the central role of Al Jazeera despite the black-outs the network suffered. Ultimately, attempts at blocking the Internet proved costly and futile. Castells cites the OECD estimates of $90 million. The additional economic costs were estimated at $3 million per day. And, of course, it did not work. Information still circulated between urban space and cyberspace with no disconnect.

However, Castells notes that this is not what was decisive at the local level. What made the difference is that the protestors had lost their fear. The usual violence and intimidation did not work. He argues that, as with Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia, the governments “have already lost the battle of/for the minds.” And the global networks made that disconnect very visible. And governments around the world should take note.

Noot van de redactie: Hier vindt u nog een interessante podcast van het Stanford Center for Internet and Society waarin Davide Levine een interview houdt met Manuel Castells over waar macht zich concentreert in de informatiemaatschappij.