Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog - Manuel Castells, "The Space of Autonomy: Cyberspace and Urban Space in Networked Social Movements"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Feb 18, '14 8:05 PM EST

    Hi Archinect,

    It's a packed house in (half) Piper tonight for Manuel Castells, Professor of Communication Technology and Society, USC Los Angeles. His talk responds to recent movements in Brazil and Turkey, drawing on themes from his book Networks of Outrage and Hope; Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press).

    6:41pm: Castells is author of 26 academic books, as well as editor of many more--and has been knighted, and is recipient of the 2012 Holberg Prize and the 2013 Balzan Prize. Diane Davis, who's giving the introduction, was Castell's graduate student "thirty years ago."

    6:43 pm: Castells takes the podium.

    What are the implications of today's social movement for spatial forms and practices? 

    Social movements are emotional movements that become collective through communication between different subjects. The forms of communication depend on the cultural and technological context.

    Starting in July 2009 in Iran, then Iceland, Tunisia, Greece in 2010. Social movements, many small in size, affecting thousands of cities in over 100 countries, which nobody expected. In spite of the lack of attention of the media, many of these received widespread social support. We are witnessing the birth of a new form of social movement enabled by new modes of communication. 

    The Arab Spring, starting in 2010. Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Moscow's massive demonstrations against Putin in 2012. Portugal, protests starting in 2011 on the economic situation. Protests in Brazil against corruption and against FIFA--"can you imagine Brazil protesting against the World Cup?" That's the extent of these changes. Protesters were asking for hospitals instead of stadia.

    One common theme--a common word that is repeated, translated in so many languages around the world--is "dignity." 

    What are the common threads, repeating themselves in all the movements? 

    First, there are networks in multiple forms. On the internet, on smartphones and cellphones. In 1991, the first survey of cellphones in the world counted 16 million subscribers. Now it's 7 billion. The projection three years from now is 5 billion smartphones, so the number of internet users will skyrocket from 2.5 billion today to around double that number.

    Communication has always been central to social movements--speeches at a mosque, radio, rumors, pamphlets. Networking is multi-modal and is not only online. It's offline and offline--social networks of civil society, family and religious networks. And all of these networks are now also connected on the internet. One of its decisive features is that the network connects without a center--not a single person to arrest. This protects individuals, and also protects the movement against itself--bureaucratization and "endless debates on the essence of the movement." If anyone gets very heavy on the semiotics of the movement, they just get disconnected. 

    Although these movements start online, they become a movement only by occupying urban space--this is where they become visible. Occupying symbolic squares, avenues, and buildings. These are often also practical occupations, which shut down part of the city. They're urban movements that never leave the internet--they always also exist on the internet, and they retreat to the internet at times. 

    These movements always start locally but are also quickly connected to global issues and movements. This globality/locality is marked with names: in Barcelona, there was a "Tahrir Square." 

    They are largely spontaneous, sparked by indignation over an image--often of violence or corruption. YouTube has been decisive for spreading images of brutality.

    The movements are also viral. Every message or image on the internet immediately expands, allowing for a constant platform for communication. 

    Not always--Chile is an exception--but often, these movements are leaderless. Many people try to be leaders, but the protesters don't want to delegate their power. In their collective imagination, delegation is the road to betrayal.

    Occupation creates togetherness. Not necessarily community, but togetherness. Societies are based on fear, which is only overwhelmed by togetherness--by sharing the fear. If you're alone and they're going to club you, you panic. If you're going to be clubbed and you're with all your friends--you still panic, but you don't run. 

    These movements are also self-reflective, constantly debating about who we want, what we are. Even debates about Heidegger! Yes, many of the protesters are unemployed college students and graduates. 

    The life and death of the movements depends on how they deal with the question of violence. Movements only continue if they have the support of the "99%," and most movements in democratic countries are largely non-violent. In Syria, there was no violence for 6 months, and 10 000 people died. When they responded with violence, with guns provided by [...] and the United States, it became a civil war. 

    This is a new project of a networked democracy, a utopia like other social movements (communism, anarchism, socialism, etc.) Social movements always die--so the question is not whether they'll die, but how they'll die, and what change they produce.

    There's a Spanish saying: "We are slow because we go far." People don't necessarily know what the deadline is--mostly, they can no longer tolerate the status quo and are looking for other directions. 

    Most of these movements have widespread support--more people support the movements than oppose them. In Iceland, they changed the government, nationalized the banks, and approved a new constitution. Iran saw extremely high turnout in its 2013 elections and is moving in a moderate direction. In Brazil, leaders quickly recognized that the protesters were "right."

    Urban, economic, and political crises are related: foreclosures and real estate crashes and economic crises have prompted unrest.

    The tradition of urban movements is to create a barricade. The barricade isn't defensive--on the contrary, it creates a target. It's symbolic and demonstrative, to create an "in" and an "out," to create a space of inclusion among protesters where otherwise there are spaces of exclusion. The protests create instant public space, which is key.

    "And you'll allow me to take five minutes of theory--sorry." What is space? Easy, right? And that's where you go crazy in Urbanism 101. Because space doesn't exist outside of us. There's space in nature, but that is not our space. Space in human terms is based on what humans do, and is defined in terms of social practices. The material theory of space. 

    In 1750, Leibniz proposed the following definition of space: "I hold space to be purely relative, like time. Space being an order of coexistences as time is an order of successions. ...An order of things that exist at the same time, insofar as they exist together, and is not concerned with the particular ways of existing." In other words, space is the material support of simultaneity. For most of history, simultaneity depended on contiguity, physical togetherness. But there's a new space emerging now, which doesn't depend on contiguity but on communication. There are spatial practices based on contiguity, and spatial flows that depend on communication. 

    To enact social change, by claiming public space for citizens, these movements create a spatial autonomy out of spatial flows and practices. 


    Questions: The first question is about Occupy Wall Street. MC mentions that income inequality in the USA turns out to be much more extreme than the movement was even claiming. The richest people in the world--attendees at Davos World Economic Forum--name income inequality as their main concern. There's an awareness that we're near a breaking point. MC predicts that the May 25 elections in Europe will be a major event, seriously shaking things up. Populist parties on the right, he predicts, will gain the most--it's an unstable situation. 

    Another question about the negative results of the trends MC is studying. Answer: Political parties on the fringe are also on the internet: the Ukrainian movement has fascist strains.

    Thanks for reading!


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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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