Wikileaks analysis part 2: Power in a networked society

*This is the second post about Wikileaks and the implications it has on the current political, media and technological landscape. The first one can be found here.*

Michael Trice from Leeds University's Centre for Digital Citizenship wrote an interesting post recently evaluating Wikileaks' impact on the distribution of power in our contemporary, networked society.

Michael suggested that, in the terminology of academic Manual Castells, Wikileaks has used the media as a 'switcher' network – that is, it re-directs or reorients the goals of other networks to ensure it achieves a greater audience for itself and information.

I responded to Michael's blog post with a comment that opposed this perspective and suggested an alternative reading which I've re-posted below.

But before I re-post my [slightly updated and edited] comment here's a quick recap of what Castell's means by 'switching' and 'programming' power within networks:

Castells argues that power within a networked society fundamentally concerns actors' (both individuals and groups) ability to establish and control particular networks.

This control can be achieved in one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.
Contrasting Michael's argument that Wikileaks uses the global media to 'switch' power within networks, I suggest that if global media traditionally set the goals of our communication networks, it’s fair to argue that these goals tend to create coverage that a) minimises criticism of government activities b) is increasingly reliant of ‘soft’, entertainment stories and c) increasingly linked to official sources of information through proactive and reactive news management/PR (see point a))

So, if Wikileaks can provide source material for the media to cover issues that are traditionally the preserve of niche and, arguably, radical media then surely Wikileaks is the network switcher, working strategically to ensure the “cooperation of different networks” of traditional media and using it to publicise Wikileaks and its material and achieve its goals (presenting confidential material to a wider audience).

But perhaps more interesting is not the effect Wikileaks is having on media networks, but rather its role as a case study proving Castells’ theory of ‘Networking power’.

Castells believes this abstraction of power in a network society is about the power of those actors that are included in a network over those that are not.

For example, all the benefits of being connected to the Internet are available to those with Internet access. Those without access, lose out.

With this in mind, it would certainly seem that the US government (and no doubt other governments) along with corporate actors are doing their best to exclude Wikileaks [and also Assange] from dominant networks that most of us rely on for participation in our networked society.

If we continue to use the Internet as an example, cutting off Wikileaks from its servers (e.g. Amazon) is about excluding the organisation. From a financial perspective Mastercard, Visa and Paypal are examples of pulling the plug and excluding the organisation from financial networks. From a media perspective counter-briefing & pressuring media to report critically, etc, etc.

A further test of Castell’s hypotheses on power in networks will be the outcome of all this wrangllng between Wikileaks and established power networks.

On the subject of ultimate power, Castell’s is either vague or evasive. He believes that such a question is either easy or impossible to answer.

Easy, because we can say – for example – the US government can pull enough strings with actors within networks to shut down Wikileaks and silence Assange for good.

But also impossible to answer if we accept that even though Wikileaks might be shut down and Assange silenced, the leaked material will still have residual presence on other nodes within numerous networks – plus the Wikileaks model is replicable and will no doubt be imitated by other network actors.

So, while Wikileaks adds to discussion and analysis of Castells' notion of ‘Switching’ and 'Programming' power it also has a lot to offer for empirical validation of Castell’s wider theories of power in a networked society.

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