Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in computer-mediated communication

This article examines how interaction by means of computer-mediated communication (CMC) affects the operation of both status differentials and power relations, and attempts to identify the social psychological processes mediating the social and behavioral effects of these factors.

The dominant assessment, particularly within social psychological analyses, is that CMC tends to equalize status, decentralize and democratize decision-making, and thus empower and liberate the individual user. This emphasis contrasts with certain sociological critiques that employ the Foucauldian metaphor of the panopticon to argue that power relations can actually be reinforced in CMC.

First we show how prevailing conceptualizations of both influence and power within social psychology have tended to prefigure the more optimistic “liberatory” account of the effects of this medium.We then provide a theoretical framework in which to analyse those processes and mechanisms operating and thus provide a more concrete social psychological foundation for “panoptic power”.

Finally, it is argued that any general verdict of whether CMC reduces or reinforces the effects of status and power is problematic and must be couched within a more specific analysis of the concrete social relations within which it is implemented, and which will frame its effects.

Spears, R. & Lea, M. (1994). Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 21, 427-459.


In common with other new technologies, computer-mediated communication has opened up new social and organizational horizons, such that individuals who use it are increasingly freed from the strictures of time and place in their dealings with others. As with earlier technological advances such as printing and the telephone, CMC introduces the possibility of revolutionary social and structural changes in the ways people communicate and relate to each other (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978/1992; Marvin, 1988; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).

This article explores how the medium of text-based electronic communication can affect the relations between people, and perhaps even more fundamentally, how CMC helps to constitute people in ways that affect such relations. Our basic point of departure is the emerging view that CMC facilitates forms of communication, interaction and organization which apparently undermine unequal status and power relations. This view can be characterized as the liberation or “equalization” model of CMC. It has been argued that CMC extends and equalizes information exchange, that it releases the individual from the proximal power of others and from the influence of the group, and that consequently it cultivates diversity and democracy in collective activities and decision-making.

In support of this view, a steadily accumulating body of empirical evidence from social psychological studies in particular, suggest that CMC can serve to reduce the social barriers to communication, and thus the impact of status differentials, resulting in turn in greater equality of participation (e.g., Dubrovsky, Kiesler & Sethna, 1991; Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991; Weisband, 1992). These results resonate with macro-sociological analyses of advances in telecommunications technology, which emphasize positive themes of decentralization and empowerment (e.g., Kaplan, 1990; Naisbitt, 1982; Perry, 1992a; Toffler, 1980).

Postmodernists have also optimistically interpreted the revolution in information technology as undermining traditional political categories and oppositions, opening up a site for resistance and renewal. If there is nothing but or beyond the text, then advances in text-based technology can be read as technologies for extending and reinventing the self (cf. Fiqueroa-Sarriera, 1993; Poster, 1990; Rosenberg, 1992). Little wonder perhaps that one author has referred to these developments as “technologies of freedom” (de Sola Pool, 1983).

The aim of the present contribution is to offer a corrective to this general current of idealism, while avoiding the paralyzing pitfalls of its opposite, technological pessimism (cf. Ellul, 1985; Gandy, 1993; Roszak, 1986; Zmud, 1990). Our approach is compatible with sociological analyses that acknowledge the potential of CMC to reinforce as well as ‘relieve’ power relations (e.g., Finlay, 1987; Zuboff, 1988). This work applies Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon to argue that relational and informational features of CMC can increase surveillance and control as well as democracy and equality.

We should be clear that we are not claiming that CMC is monolithic in this respect; it knows a multitude of different forms, implementations and cultures. However, we argue that the emphasis in the literature on anecdotal and field research of voluntary and recreational use, on co-operative work (CSCW), and on laboratory groups, has not been conducive to identifying the more deleterious effects of power relations in CMC (although we argue later that an experimental analysis of the effects of power is still possible). The current analysis and approach is thus most relevant to those organizational and institutional contexts were status hierarchies and power relations are important.

A central objective of the current project is to build a theoretical bridge between the earlier sociological critique and more concrete analyses of the social psychological processes involved in CMC. We therefore further develop and extend the panopticon metaphor in terms of social psychological processes and present our own resulting framework grounded in social identity theory: the SIDE model. We argue that this framework is able to account for both the liberatory and repressive potential within CMC systems, and predict when and why each will occur. We briefly review supportive research from our own program as well as using the model to account for previous research findings. Before this is possible however, it is necessary to briefly review the case for the ‘equalization’, and to provide a critique of this approach by way of introducing our own.

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Spears, R. & Lea, M. (1994). Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 21, 427-459.

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