Theory and Media

Philip N. Howard, Castells and the Media

Paul A. Taylor, Žižek and the Media

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the Media




Copyright © Philip N. Howard 2011

The right of Philip N. Howard to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2011 by Polity Press

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For Professor Castells, an inspiring social scientist



List of Figures





A Network Perspective on the Media

Outline of the Book


Castells and the Theory of the Network Society

Intellectual Biography

Publications and Impact

Basic Statements on Network Theory


Media Economics and Life Online

The Permanently Beta, Network Enterprise

From Bricks and Mortar to Bandwidth and Servers

The Changing Nature of Media Work

The Death of Distance and Long Tails

The Network Perspective on Economic Life


Networks of Power and Politics

Network Campaigns

Media Networks

The Politics of Code and Cultural Production

Privacy and Data Mining

The Network Perspective on Political Life


Cultural Industries in a Digital Century

Transforming Cultural Industries

Cultures of Digital Media

Social Networking and Cultural Production

Mediated and Multiple Identities

The Network Perspective on Cultural Life


Mobile and Social Media

Networked and Mobile

The Space of Flows and Timeless Time

Cosmopolitan Culture and Cultural Identity

Mobile Politics

The Mobile is the Social


Conclusion—Media Rules and the Rules of Media

The Personal and Global Contexts of Networks

Scientific Inquiry in the Network Society

Critical Responses and Alternative Approaches

Remaining Questions and Future Directions of Research

The New Power of Digital Media



An Exercise in Visualizing Your Own Digital Networks

An Exercise in Tracking Your Media and Cultural Consumption

An Exercise in Surveillance and Sousveillance—Tracking the Trackers








Figure I.1: Global Information Infrastructure, Glowing as Server Locations

Figure I.2: Global Information Infrastructure, Glowing as Traffic between Servers

Figure 3.1: The Power of Digital Networks in Modern P olitical Campaigns

Figure 3.2: Network Relations between Media Firms, through Links between Board Members

Figure 4.1: Network Relations between Media Firms, through Links of Ownership and Content Distribution

Figure 5.1: Two Babies Play with Baby Apps on the Latest iPhone


This book was inspired by a series of lectures given by Professor Manuel Castells at the University of Washington in 2010. As a visiting Walker Ames lecturer, Castells also met with students, and joined my graduate seminar for several long conversations. The grace with which he encouraged students to pursue their own lines of inquiry inspired me to find ways of making his ideas and work accessible to a broad audience. And I believe he would say that the participants in the graduate seminar, a well-read group from across the social sciences and humanities, offered constructive critiques and comments on his latest research. I am very grateful to the Simpson Center, directed by Dr Kathleen Woodward, for initiating and supporting the graduate seminar.

Even as a book, this work is a result of digital media networks. First, this book was written and edited in the cloud. It did not appear in material form, and will not appear as such, unless you buy it in material form. The file didn’t even really reside on my hard drive while I was working on it; it was located on a server somewhere in the network. When software crashes or network disconnects necessitated, I used a backup file that did reside on my hard drive, but for the most part I was saving the file to the network. The research for this book was done online; the journals consulted were electronic. I have copies of Castells’ books, but used digital versions of them for searching within the text and interrogating the ideas in non-linear ways.

Second, Castells’ ideas need to be situated in the wider network of media researchers. This book is dedicated to Castells and is about his ideas (though I may put my interpretive spin on some things). It would make for rough reading to offer citations at every sentence, so this book is not an annotated bibliography. I provide direct citation to entry points for important themes and sources of criticism, but the goal is to interest readers in moving on to the original ideas and primary texts. Sometimes this may mean moving on to other scholars and their texts.

Figures I.1 and I.2 appear courtesy of Chris Harrison from Figure 3.1 appears courtesy of Gene Keo from Figure 3.2 was made using the graphing tool at Figure 4.1 is from Manuel Castells and Amelia Arsenault, “The Structure and Dynamics of Global Multi-Media Business Networks” in the International Journal of Communication 2 (2008), 707– 748, and appears courtesy of the authors. Figure 5.1 appears courtesy of me.

For problems with this book I blame Rebecca Fahrig, Werner Colangelo, Carson Fahrig-Colangelo, Josh, Helen, Oscar and Angus Whitkin, Sandy Oh, Tracy Cassavant, Nathalie Oh-Cassavant, Gino Segre, Kate Gordon, and Julia Segre, and the other “friends” who interrupted and complicated my work. Some of the insights in this book have come through teaching, which is itself an important part of the research process. So I must gratefully acknowledge the good and bad questions that came from undergraduate students who have been part of “Basic Concepts of New Media” and the graduate students in the “Communication and Power” seminar. Muzammil Hussain assisted with the compilation of Castells’ articles and book chapters, and Aiden Duffy designed the procedures for extracting Facebook data for the exercise on visualizing social networks. I am grateful for Andrea Drugan’s vision as a Polity editor. I did this book for Hammer and Gordon Howard, and I mean that literally. Not in the sense that I expect them to read it, but in the sense that they are the main reason I look for additional work.

Penang, Malaysia


Manuel Castells is one of the most important contemporary social scientists. His nicely crafted research questions have captivated many students and his findings have both inspired and provoked other scholars. His ideas about media networks and power are simultaneously among the most widely accepted and most often critiqued. Today, conversations about media, networks, and power begin with Castells’ ideas.

At an intuitive level, many of us have seen significant changes in our economic, political, and cultural lives, and explaining these changes often seems to include stories about digital media. To help make sense of these distinctions that we can intuit, Manuel Castells advances a network perspective on the media, and this introductory chapter serves to outline the kinds of things that a network perspective reveals, and the kinds of things it obscures. In the final pages of this chapter I will introduce the conceptual approach of the book and outline the rest of the chapters. Throughout the book, key terms—and the definitions for these terms—are italicized in the text and repeated in a glossary at the end of the book.


There are many analytical frames through which we can study the media, and I will argue that Castells has done much to develop one of the most prominent frames: that of the network perspective. Competing analytical frames might reveal how inequities in gender, race, ethnicity, or other forms of social inequality explain how media shape information skills, content production, or political knowledge. Other analytical frames privilege particular units of analysis, and could reveal how political actors such as nation-states or large corporations build and manipulate the power of the media. But a network perspective on the media has three fundamental assumptions.

The first assumption of a network perspective on the media is that we should do more than look at large groups and organizations as our unit of analysis. Sometimes media conglomerates, state regulators, and major political parties exert an enormous influence on and through the media. But the digital era is replete with examples of how individuals used cheap consumer electronics to have a significant impact on our political, economic, and cultural lives. Moreover, digital media artifacts themselves, such as websites and social networking applications, can be meaningful units of analysis and offer good evidence about the structure of social interaction. In this way, studying the media must involve studying large organizations that build and manage media infrastructure, the individuals who produce and consume content over media, and the content that is produced and consumed over media.

Figure I.1: Global Information Infrastructure, Glowing as Server Locations

Figure I.2: Global Information Infrastructure, Glowing as Traffic between Servers

The second assumption of a network perspective on the media is that the links between units of analysis—whether organizations, individuals, or content—are more revealing than the units on their own. Understanding the media cannot come from simply cataloging the major players in a media system. It comes from understanding how governments, firms, consumers, and content relate to one another. Not all networks are equivalent, and networks are made up of other networks. These ties, transactions, and linkages between organizations, individuals, and content reveal a lot about structure. People may think they are individuals who join groups, but actually they are the nodes in networks.

The third assumption of a network perspective on the media is that the structure of a network provides both capacities and constraints on social action. The many kinds of connections between owners, regulators, and users of media can be used by members of a network, but the pattern of ties may also limit the opportunities for members of a network. This web of social relations and digital linkages can bond together similar kinds of organizations, individuals, and content. It can also provide bridges between different kinds of organizations, individuals, and content. But regardless of the unit of analysis, a network perspective on studying the media reveals the ways in which linkages provide structure.

The network perspective reveals much about the global media infrastructure. For example, Figure I.1 is a visualization of the world based on the physical location of internet servers. The wealthy cities of North America, Europe, and Japan have most of the world’s internet infrastructure, so these areas glow hot in the figure. The contours of the rest of the social world are just barely there, with the coastal cities of Latin America, Africa, India and Asia visible. The media infrastructure has developed, for sensible reasons, in place with urban spaces.

Yet visualizing this information infrastructure as network linkages makes for a different kind of image. Figure I.2 takes the more meaningful network perspective, because it is based on the ties between servers. What makes the digital media of the internet important, after all, is the fact that devices are linked. The network perspective in this figure reveals several additional things about global media infrastructure. Most important, imaging the flow of traffic reveals that the digital network is not randomly distributed. The internet is not really a decentralized network. Instead, there is a clear core and periphery to global digital media. Figure I.2 tells us not just which parts of the planet have most of the server infrastructure, but tells us which places are part of a core and which are part of a periphery. Centrality in a network society is not just about being a node or being densely packed together with other important nodes, but about the distribution of links between the core and periphery. In other words, the countries of Africa and Latin America certainly have information infrastructure, but the connection between them is not as important as their connection to North America and Europe.

First, the prominence of network ties between North America and Europe becomes much more salient through a network perspective. It is not just that cities in these continents have a significant digital media infrastructure, but that the social linkages of digital traffic are most vibrant.

Second, when the global digital infrastructure is viewed by physical location of servers, the African coastline is well defined. But when viewed in terms of traffic, the contours of the continent disappear. Indeed, Africa’s ties to the digital network seem tenuous; only Cape Town, Durban, and Accra are prominently linked to the global flow of information. Much of Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia disappears when their importance is weighed by traffic and network connectivity.

It is exciting to study the media, whether or not you use a network perspective such as Castells’. The media has an impact on almost all domains of social life. Moreover, it is through the media that we as individuals gain some understanding of how the rest of society lives political, economic, and cultural lives. In many modern democracies, media infrastructure makes politics, economics, and culture possible. For many people, it is the media that provides the information we need to make decisions about political candidates on Election Day, it allows us to learn about products and services available in the market place, and it brings us the creative content produced by artists. This means that the media is also an important source of political bias and misinformation, it manipulates consumers and is cluttered with advertising, and that it produces cultural content with nasty gender and racial stereotypes, poor production values, or vapid messages.

But what counts as digital media? We might immediately think of mobile phones and Facebook pages, but what are the shared properties of these different examples? There have been several attempts to define what it is about the new media that makes them so special, or at least different from old media. Manovich, through historical comparison to other media that appeared new at one time, arrives at five important features (Manovich 2002). First, digital media are composed of code, and therefore consist of numerical representations of material things. Second, digital media are modular, in the sense that component symbols and sounds can be creatively assembled into larger, meaningful, cultural products. Third, digital media consist of and support many automated processes. Fourth, digital media are variable, in that copies can proliferate with slight variations and result in different versions. Finally, digital media involve some cultural transcoding, whereby offline cultural symbols retain their meaning online, and technologies themselves become meaningful cultural symbols, perhaps indicating the wealth, sophistication, or cosmopolitanness of their users. This is certainly one of the most abstracted definitions of the new media that seem to transform the way we communicate. For Castells’ purposes, it may suffice to say that the technologies that seem most transformative have two properties: they are digital and networked.

Still, when we investigate “the media” we can refer to many things: the small number of large firms that own broadcast radio and television stations, the journalists and editors who make decisions about how to present the news, the big Hollywood studios, or the information infrastructure that actually delivers content. A network perspective allows us to make important connections between who the media is and what the media is. The media can be defined in three parts, consisting of (a) the information infrastructure and tools used to produce and distribute content, (b) the content that takes the form of personal messages, news, ideas, and cultural products, and (c) the people, organizations, and industries that produce and consume content. Using a network perspective, researching the media refers to studying the linkages and relationships between tools, content, producers, and consumers. Castells’ network perspective has allowed him to expose how digital media technologies serve power, whether for the benefit of social elites or average citizens.


Castells is an important thinker because of the care he has taken to document and analyze the impact of new media technologies on social life. Not everyone agrees with his findings and conclusions. But almost everyone would agree that digital media, such as mobile phones and the internet, have had an enormous social impact. This impact has been mostly strongly felt since the mid-1990s, so the evidence presented in the chapters ahead is deliberately selected to help contrast the organization of political, economic, and cultural life before and after the diffusion of digital media. Wherever possible, a network perspective will be used to analyze the role of digital media in changing patterns in these three domains of social interaction. Other researchers contribute to the network perspective—they build on Castells’ work and he builds on theirs. Since Castells is an important node in the scholarly network, I will reference some of those scholars in the chapters ahead.

The first chapter offers an intellectual biography by telling the story of his progress through the academy. This will not be exhaustive, and readers are encouraged to review Felix Stalder’s excellent book Manuel Castells: the Theory of the Network Society for more information on Castells’ intellectual development (Stalder 2006). In addition, Martin Ince leads a good intellectual conversation in Conversations with Manuel Castells and Ida Susser offers annotations on excerpts from Castells’ writings on the informational city in The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory (Castells and Ince 2003; Susser 2002). In the opening of Communication Power (2009), Castells himself offers a compelling story of the journey from student radical to social scientist. The first chapter of this book proceeds from intellectual biography to a brief meta-analysis of the impact of Castells’ writings on other scholars. The first chapter then concludes with a discussion of the theory of the network society as it relates to the study of media tools, content, producers, and consumers. There are other important scholars who use a network perspective to analyze social transformation. These scholars have done important work, but this is a book about Castells and his network perspective on media.

The second chapter discusses Castells’ research on the economics of media, the third chapter discusses his research on networks of power and politics, and the fourth chapter discusses his research on cultural production. Chapter 5 is dedicated to using—and critiquing—Castells’ insights with reference to the latest trends in mobile and social media. Every analytical frame has its strengths and weakness. Or it might be more accurate to say that every analytical frame reveals some things but obscures others. The final chapter examines some of the critiques of Castells’ work on the media. The goal of this chapter will not be to discredit him or his contributions, but to identify the questions that still need to be answered. In part, this chapter is about identifying the questions that readers may be inspired to answer.

This book ends with an appendix containing three exercises that will help the reader understand the network perspective on media. These exercises will help the reader understand the personal and global contexts of their own networks—the structures that provide you with capacities and constraints on your future. Throughout, footnotes will be used to (1) offer citations to particular articles or book sections on particular topics that might interest the reader, or (2) offer examples of multimedia content that provides a good punch line.



This first chapter serves to introduce Manuel Castells and the research path he has taken. While the book as a whole is titled Castells, most of the biographical information appears in this chapter. Since he has advanced research in multiple disciplines, this chapter will also explain the domains in which he has worked and the labels he has been given. He has taken—or been given—several kinds of monikers during a career path from as a Marxist sociologist in France, an urban geographer at UC-Berkeley, to a professor of communication with multiple institutional affiliations. Thus, this chapter will chart his course—and his contribution—to the study of media.


Manuel Castells was born in Hellín, Spain, in 1942. He was raised in Barcelona and lived there until his student activism drew the wrath of the dictator Francisco Franco. Castells moved to France and earned a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Paris. His personal interest in resisting cultural power continued, and his participation in the 1968 public protests cost him his instructor’s job at the Paris X University Nanterre. Subsequently, he taught at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and in 1979 he moved to the University of California at Berkeley. There he was appointed to a joint professorship in the Department of Sociology and the Department of City and Regional Planning. In 2001 he formally joined the Open University of Catalonia as a research professor and in 2003 he accepted a position as Chair of Communication and Technology at the University of Southern California. In recent years he has split his time between researching and mentoring in Los Angeles and Barcelona. Indeed, he mentors a large network of people who study the media, technology, and power.