Networks of Outrage and Hope

This is the first of a number of posts I plan to write as I prep for my viva*. If you prefer my less academic stuff then look away now! The prep involves re-reading the thesis and noting all the bits I would now like to have done differently (eurgh) as well catching up on the reading that would have been in the literature review if it had been published before I finished writing up. I have been gathering this reading in what I have affectionally been calling ‘the box of dangerous ideas’ as I may well come across something that I will be kicking myself for not including. Eek. Keep calm and carry on. This first post is a good example of this – its really a write up of my notes rather than a ‘proper’ review hence the huge number of quotes.

Manuel Castells, in many ways the principle writer on the network society, published “Networks of outrage and hope: Social Movements in the Internet age” in 2012. He wrote the book quickly and in response to mass mobilisation events from the Middle East, Iceland, Spain and the USA. Ranging from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement Castells, in discussing these recent social upheavals, talks about these being ‘networked social movements’. He outlines how these movements create ‘counter power’ to oppose the power embodied by the institutions of state (p5) (the discussion of counter power etc is from his grounded theory of power presented in his book ‘Communication Power’ in 2009). In Networks of outrage and hope he adds to this with a discussion of the different holders of power in the network society; programmers (of technology and institutions) and switchers (connectors)(of networks and groups). The creation of counter power is therefore in opposition to these holders of power:

“Social movements exercise counter power by constructing themselves in the first place through a process of autonomous communication, free from the control of those holding institutional power” (p.9).

He describes how these movements start with the transformation of emotion into action:

“But is was primarily the humiliation provoked by the cynicism and arrogance of those in power, be it financial, political or cultural, that brought together those who turned fear into outrage, and outrage into hope for a better humanity” (p.2)

The book describes the interplay between online and offline networks and online and offline space with the two intersecting to create what he describes as ‘spaces of autonomy’ (see below).He ascribes a number of qualities to these movements

  1. They are networked in multiple forms (p.221)
  2. they become a movement by occupying the urban space and “This hybrid of cyberspace and urban space constitutes a third space that I call the space of autonomy” (p.222)
  3. “The space of autonomy is the new spatial form of networked social movements.” (p.222)
  4. The movements are local and global at the same time
  5. They create a ‘Timeless time’: living day by day but discussing a limitless future
  6. “They are largely spontaneous in their origin, usually triggered by a spark of indignation” (p.224)
  7. The movements are viral
  8. “The transition from outrage to hope is accomplished by deliberation in the space of autonomy.” (p.224)
  9. “The horizontality of networks supports cooperation and solidarity while undermining the need for formal leadership”> (P.225)
  10. They are highly self reflective and largely non-violent
  11. They are non-programmatic unless they are fixed on a single clear issue of regime change – they are aimed at changing the values of society and are political in a fundamental sense
  12. “They share a specific culture, the culture of autonomy, the fundamental cultural matrix of contemporary societies.” (p.230)

One further feature is also discussed – the lack of leadership or desire for leadership within these movements.

While it is a moment of emotional outrage which he proposes creates an emotional instigation for these movements this is then complemented by highly abstract debate:

“They project a new utopia of networked democracy based on local communities and virtual communities in interaction. But utopias are not mere fantasy. Most modern political ideologies at the roots of political systems (liberalism, socialism, communism) originated from utopias. Because utopias become material force by incarnating in people’s minds, by inspiring their dreams, by guiding their actions and including their reactions. What these networked social movements are proposing in their practice is a new utopia at the heart of the culture of the network society: the utopia of autonomy of the subject vis-a-vis the institutions of society.” (P228)

Public space
A fundamental aspect of these movements was the occupation of public space, and more than this the interplay between online and offline space. The whole book discusses the relationship between the space of autonomy created by the Internet and the the use of public space by these movements:

“In our society, the public space of the social movements is constructed as a hybrid space between the Internet social networks and the occupied urban space: connecting cyberspace and urban space in relentless interaction, constituting technologically and culturally, instant communicates of transformative practice” (p.11)

“The critical matter us that thus new public space, the networked space between the digital space and the urban space, is a space of autonomous communication. (p.11)

These spaces were used not only to communicate and organise but “both as a tool for self-reflection and as a statement of people’s power.(P.45)” As described by Castells these spaces are to some extent transient as they require the offline tethering provided by the occupation of public space and as such differ from my description of digital civic space which has persistence as one of its qualities. However to a great extent the two ideas are very similar:

“This, the Occupy movement built a new form of space, a mixture of space of places, in a given territory, and space of flows, on the internet. One could not function without the other other; it is this hybrid space that characterised the movement. Places made possible face to face interaction, sharing the experience, the danger and difficulties as well as facing together the police and enduring together rain, cold, and the loss of comfort in their daily lives. But social networks on the Internet allowed the experience to communicated and amplified, bringing the entire world into the movement and creating a permanent forum of solidarity, debate and strategic planning.” (P.169)

The critical similarity is in the state of autonomy which is emphasised by Castells:

“Because only by being autonomous could they overcome multiple forms of ideological and political control and find, individually and collectively, new ways of life.” (p.168)

Offline networks
Throughout the book Castells emphasises the vital role of pre-existing offline networks:

“The role of pre-existing offline social networks was also important, as they helped facilitate the canvassing of pamphlets in the digital excluded slums, and the traditional formals of social and political gatherings in the mosques after friday prayers. It was this multi modality of autonomous communication that broke the barriers of isolation and made it possible to overcome fear by the act of joining and sharing.” (P.59)

He talks about the internet extending revolution from the space of places to the space of flows (p.61) and how the Internet creates the conditions for these kinds of movements to survive, coordinate and expand (P.229). Put more succiently:

“The internet provided the safe space where networks of outrage and hope connected.”(P.81)

He directly addresses the this interdependency by looking at why turning the Internet off didn’t work as a tool of suppression for governments in the arab spring (P.61) and he outlines two main reasons; i) Internet access is the new normal and its restoration was necessary to any attempt to restore normality. ii) shutting it down was ineffective in stopping the dissent owing to offline networks plus tech workarounds from other part of the network.

The new economy?
One of the things which is striking in the book is the tentative correlation between educated younger people and dissent. While not making a firm link Castells is, I think, suggesting that we should be making a connection between the lack of jobs and purpose emerging from what is arguably the end of an industrial economy and the emergence of a replacement which is fit for purpose in a network society. Are these people who have been educated for jobs within an industrial economy which is slowing down and with no place currently in the networked economy (whatever it might be)? Its early to say but chimes with other analysis that are around (have a look at this RSA Animate by Sir Ken Robinson which addresses what he perceives as fundamental flaws in our education system).

Story telling
I am not sure if this was a strong message from the book or something that strongly resonated with me but there are many implicit references to the power of story telling throughout the book. He specifically references “Artistic political creativity” as defined by Maya Alhassan(P.107), and this connects with the description of these movements as being highly self-reflexive. The sheer volume of content created by these movements is notable, however it is content created from the point of view of individuals rather than a single shared narrative. In fact this lack of a hero or single narrator created huge challenge to the media and this manifestation of the absence of leadership (p.128) is arguably another expression of counter power against the formal institutions of the global media.  These movements are represent multiple voices but importantly multiple autonomous voices

“They share a specific culture, the culture of autonomy, the fundamental cultural matrix of contemporary societies.” (p.230)

There is no sense of the movements overwhelming the individual and this is one of the distinct features of these movements (will discuss this more when I write up Wellman and Raine’s book on the network individual). Castells outlines how meaning is interpreted by the individual but that this interpretation is influenced by the communication medium – therefore the transformation of the communication medium by digital and networked technologies (what he calls mass communication) has also constructed more autonomous social actors and transforms communication networks into ‘decisive sources of power-making’ (p7).

“In our society, which I have conceptualised as a network society, power is multidimensional and is organised around networks programmed in each domain of human activity according to the interests and values of empowered actors” (P.7)

Long term
At no point is he offering these movements as an alternative to our current institutions of power and he describes their potential legacy in terms of cultural rather than political or policy change and when I heard him speak about the book he described how their role might simply be in creating unavoidable pressure to change on our institutions of power. He is very clear about the difficulties of these movements in permenently overcoming the current networks of power embedded in our institutions – and there is a question as to how much this is needed if more switchers between the two are created.

“The most positive influence of the movement on politics may happen indirectly through the assumption by some political parties or leaders of some of the themes and demands of the movement, particularly when they reach popularity among large sectors of the public.” (p.236)

He starts to make some claims beyond this immediate influencing of mainstream politicians and discusses how occupy movement, for example, is shaping public opinion of what Castells is tentatively calling the ‘class struggle’ (p.94) and it is in this cultural shaping that he seems to see the long term impact, even in places where the movement has succeeded in its immediate single goal of regime or leadership change.

However his final conclusion returns to the utopia described in the opening section:

“These networked social movements are new forms of democratic movements, movements that are reconstructing the public sphere in the space of autonomy built around the interactions between local places and Internet networks, movements that are experimenting with assembly-based decision-making and reconstructing trust as a foundation for human interaction. They acknowledge the principles that ushered in the freedom revolution of the Enlightenment, while pinpointing the continuous betrayal of these principles, starting with original the denial of full citizenship to women, minorities and colonised people. They emphasis the contradiction between citizen-based democracy and a city for sale to the highest bidder. They assert their right to start all over again. To begin the beginning, after reaching the threshold of self-destruction by our current institutions. Or so they belie the actors of these movements, whose words I have just borrowed. The legacy of networked social movements will have been to raise the possibility of relearning how to live together. In real democracy.” P.246)

I remain dazzled by the scope of this kind of thinking but realistic about the fact that change of these nature is usually a long time in coming and diluted when it arrives. However the book picks up on the facets of these networked social movements which can be argued indicate ongoing social change and further support the idea that we are seeing the emergence of a network society which will require different kinds of economic and political institutions. In connecting online and offline space and networks Castells shows how we are creating new kinds of spaces and integrating the Internet not only into our lives but into our social structures.

If you found this useful I can throughly recommend the book – or as a halfway house you can see him talking about it at an RSA Lecture earlier this year you can probably see me sitting at the front like the Castells fan girl I am!!

* Internal examiner now sorted, waiting for confirmation on the external and a date. I promise to try not to go on about this too much but it may be a struggle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *