Notes on Power


Stanley Milgram's study of Obedience is the most famous social science study of power and authority. Like the later Zimbardo prison experiment, it shows that ordinary people are capable of brutality in social contexts where such behavior is expected and appears legitimate. Milgram's finding that distance from the victim is an important variable in people's willingness to torture others has implications for computerized social interactions. As computer-mediated communications distances people from direct contact with one another, we may expect higher levels of oppressive behavior using computerized forms of coercion.

On the other hand, the collective power of bloggers, p2p file sharers, and other online people may produce some as yet unobserved forms of collective behavior, such as the world transforming non-violent protest movement pioneered by charismatic leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Image of Ghandi.

Jobs and Freedom March button, 1963

King's I Have a Dream speech:
text transcript
Image of King at the March on
Washington in 1963.

Ordinary people can also start social movements. In 1960 four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and started the sit-ins of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement.

It is popular to consider the internet as a contributor to social movements and democracy as in the Middle East's Jasmine Revolution of 2011. But it can also facilitate the coercive forces of repressive governments, as analyzed by Evgeny Morozov in How the Net Aids Dictatorships. While the Solidarity movement is credited with bringing down the former Soviet Union, the spiritual Falun Gong movement is being repressed by Chinese authorities who consider it dangerous to the status quo. The whistle-blower site wikileaks is currently the subject of economic and coercive forces trying to remove it from the internet. Ironically these same forces promote democratic free speech elsewhere in the world.