Manuel Castells in my research of cyberactivism

On: October 13, 2009
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About Yu-Fen Chen
A newbie in Amsterdam since summer 2009, Yu-Fen Chen is a current student at the New Media M.A. program. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Public Administration from National Chengchi University, and previously worked for Ogilvy Public Relations in Taiwan. Yu-Fen is interested in social media and environmental activism. Outside the classroom, she enjoys travelling in developing countries and loves Malaysian foods the most.


For the past decade, cybersphere has played an important role for activism(as cyberactivism). The 30 November (N30) protesters against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 denoted the significant use of the Web to organize, publicise and mobilize[1]. As a social media addict, I have been following environmental protection groups (EPGs) on my Facebook and Twitter which made me ‘a virtual environmentalist’. More than a passive news feed receiver, I hope to understand the cyber activism of radical EPGs, such as Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth, which mainly aim for donations and volunteerism for their operations.

I know the contemporary thinker Manuel Castells via Graham Meikle’s book, Future Active: Media activism and the Internet. Meikle refers to Castells in several occasions when mentioning of political movements in the cyberspace, as social movements in social transformations have been a long-term focus in Castells’s work since the 70s. As a sociologist, Castells studied the dynamics transforming the fabric of our everyday life around the globe. His theory of the network society provides a framework to connect the very diverse phenomena from the globalization of production to the renewal of democracy at a local scale. Social movement is one of the central arguments in Castells’s The Information Age[2]. In the tension between the Net and the self, people attempt to redefine social values and create meaning, and the state’s intervention in the processes are also issues that present in Castells’s work. 

The role of technology in the constitution of society, in Castells’s perspective, is much closer to that of McLuhan[3]. However, I am overwhelmed by Castells’s profound and comprehensive structure of work which can be applied to explain most of the current activities in our nowadays network society. The advent of informationalism[4] forced Castells to adopt a more general concept rather than analysis from economic activities—under industrialism, the dominant social form has been the hierarchy; under informationalism, it is the network. McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is rendered by Castells into “the network is the message.” Under the paradigm of informationalism, networks are the superior (dominant) way of organizing social action, independent of the purpose of action. In other words, while McLuhan helps me see the nodes and edges in a network society, Castells guides me to understand the signifiers and (trans)formations within.

It is therefore in my interested topic—environmental activism in the cyberspace—Castells’s work aids me to see the flow holistically. On the one hand, most books written exclusively for cyber activism, in my opinion, lack critical and philosophical basis. Say, Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community is generally techno-utopian. And although Graham Meikle’s Future Action indeed criticizes the commercialized/closed Internet version 2.0, most of the examples Meikle related are political activism, and he didn’t provide a well-round ground for further critical discussions. On the other hand, environmental activism involves empirical studies which need to observe examples either from actual or cyber worlds. It is literally what Castells’s theory of the network society based on—a major analytical achievement in its own right, and a highly flexible framework able to be adapted to reflect new empirical findings. For Castells, theory is an intermediate step rather than the ultimate goal of research. In a dynamic network society like today’s world, I believe it is his openness of theory building that makes his works valuable.

(Castells explains his methodology in this clip at 10’32”)

In the field of social movements, when people, capital, and the states are all intertwined in the networked information age, Castells has provided me some insightful thoughts:

  1. Social movements are autonomous. The subjects [of social transformations] are not individuals, even if they are made by and in individuals. They are the collective actors through which individuals reach holistic meaning in their experience[5].  
  2. Technologies have shaped the social reality of space and time. Castells claims that the organizational logic is placesless, being fundamentally dependent on the space of flows that characterizes information networks. But such flow is structured, not undetermined. They possess directionality, conferred both by the hierarchical logic of the organization as reflected in instructions given, and by the material characteristics of the information system infrastructure. – The Information City (1989)
  3. The electronic information environment brings a “culture of real virtuality.” While individual experience may exist outside the hypertext, collective experiences and shared messages—that is culture as a social medium—are by and large captured in this hypertext. It constitutes the sources of real virtuality as the semantic framework of our lives. – Informationalism and the Network Society (2000)
  4. Global civil society now has the technological means to exist independently from political institutions and from the mass media. However, the capacity of social movements to change the public mind still depends, to a large extent, on their ability to shape the debate in the public sphere…This multimodal communication space is what constitutes the new global public sphere.—  “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance” (2009) 


To understand an influential thinker like Castells, it is never easy just by reading couple of books. Castells’s academic interests have shifted from time[6], and holism and multiculturalism are two of the assumptions that shape his entire perspective. For me, a great contemporary thinker should be open-minded and flexible enough to observe the change of our society, applying existing theories and philosophy to his/her observation, and creating new interpretation to make intellectual progress. With no doubt, Castells is one paradigm of this model.



[1] Graham Meikle, Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet. Australia:2002, p. 7

[2] A trilogy work includes Castells’s The Rise of the Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1997), and End of Millennium (1998)

[3] Felix Stalder, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society, UK:2006, p. 20

[4] Informationalism is a technological paradigm which organizes the material base of society across the full range of social contexts, not just the economy. According to Castelle, informationalism is based on the augmented of the human capacity in information processing around the twin revolutions in microelectronics and genetic engineering.

[5] Felix Stalder, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society, UK:2006, p. 78

[6] Over the course of the 1980s, his perspective shifted from place-based conflicts to flow-based forms

*Main Reference: Felix Stalder, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society, UK:2006.

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