In Conversation with: George Metakides

In this interview we sit down with Prof. George Metakides, one of our esteemed WST trustees, to talk about democracy in the digital space and why you should be  concerned.

Ian: George, thanks very much for taking the time to chat with me today.

George: Always pleased to take the opportunity to talk about Web Science and Digital Enlightenment.

Ian: George, you’ve been linked to both Web Science and Digital Enlightenment perhaps we could start by contrasting the two.

George: Well we founded an organisation we called the Digital Enlightenment forum 12 years ago around the same time as WST was founded (the Web Science Research Institute WSRI back then) and we had a great deal in common: both groups  have been  looking at the digital space to move beyond the idea of what CAN be done to focus more on the notion of what SHOULD be done. Modern global networked technologies like the Web have a tremendous capacity to help and improve the quality of our lives but at the same time there is the capacity for them to be mis-used to exploit, control and undermine our privacy , freedoms and democracy itself.

Ian: Wasn’t it Kranzberg that said that “technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral”: do you see it that way?

George: Indeed. I should note that it is no accident that historically, new technologies had the military as their first and major users. Many types of technology can be turned to  negative uses whilst retaining their potential for good and so we must understand that technology needs to walk hand-in-hand with regulation so as to promote the good while minimizing the bad

Ian: So its not enough to ask HOW we do something – we must also ask WHY we should do it – in effect IF its a good idea at all? In some sense moving from what is possible to what is socially desirable?

George:  We have both OVERestimated the inherent goodness of technology and UNDERestimated the potential for exploitation and so we must remain very cautious about the types of technology that we encourage to flourish unchecked in the digital ecosystem.

Ian: Can you give some examples?

George: We need only look at the way in which the (reasonable) pursuit of profit by businesses has generated an (unreasonable) reduction in personal privacy through what has been called  “Surveillance Capitalism”.   For example, the big tech platforms did not start out explicitly wanting to invade our privacy *per se* – they merely wanted to make better quality recommendations about things we might want, based on things we had already purchased. In the drive to know more and more about customers, companies have started to track and identify us across multiple apps, systems, identities and locations and have built chillingly accurate profiles from which they deduce/predict a great deal more about our behaviour than we know ourselves and without our knowledge about what those predictions are.  This can be benign or threatening depending on how, when and by whom it is used

Ian: Given we can vote, can we not rely on the democratic process to restrain and control this sort of snooping by corporates and governments?

George: We have recently run a summer school in Vienna  coorganized by the Digital Humanism and Digital enlightenment organizations looking at democracy in the digital age and the conclusions are quite disturbing. 

There has been a level of optimism (or even euphoria) around liberal democracy ever since the end of the cold war – the assumption that the ideological war for democracy, free-speech, capitalism and freedom had been “won” and would eventually universally (and irrevocably) accepted as the de facto way to live.

The euphoria of the 90s (overoptimistically considered as the “end of history”)  was primarily caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union as analyzed by many . What few realized at the time was that there was another factor generating optimism which was the blossoming of the web into a vision of an “e-agora” (in the tradition of the public marketplace) where well –informed citizens would engage in democratic processes enabled by the Web. Alas, this was not to be.

Today, practically all surveys ( EIU, Freedom house and others) document a “backsliding of democracy worldwide with young people, in particular, participating less and less in democratic processes and more and more people expressing support for “anti-systemic” political parties and/or so-called “strong leaders”.

Younger people (though not only younger people)  surveyed  express little patience for the  four- or five-year cycles of government which seem unresponsive to their needs/goals and they become increasingly drawn to charismatic, go-getting and even aggressive “rule-breakers” and self-styled “strong men” (Trump, Putin et al) in what has been called the “Age of the strong man”. They are frustrated that politicians no longer seem to represent their constituents but are instead driven to act along party political lines and those of party backers (corporates, unions and other interest groups that run outside (or even counter to) the communities that politicians are supposed to represent. The growth of Anti Political Establishment Parties (APEp’s) seems a good indication that people are looking for alternatives that they are not seeing in mainstream politics.

Ian: You are painting a fairly dark picture of where this is all heading – is there anything we can/should be doing to combat this trend?

George: Democracy requires ”participation”, engagement and discussion – but there are issues  with the way this is carried out in social media which can leaves us vulnerable to being provoked, nudged and even radicalised if we have no broader framework of social groups and peers with whom to engage . Filter bubbles can and do simply re-inforce extreme views.  As those with extreme views are more predictable customers when it comes to the tech platform choosing the ads they are most likely to click.

Besides the “standard” tools of democracy such as elections and referenda  there has been a rise in the last few years of other forms of participation such as “citizen assemblies” and  other “deliberative democracy”  processes. that encourage multiple viewpoints and sources of reliable information which feature respectful debate, compromise and sharing (Win:Win mindset) rather than aggressive posturing and brinkmanship (Win:Lose mindset). We should definitely be encouraging these forms of engagement.

Ian: What would your summary message be to those reading this interview?

George: Well whilst it is clear that there is plenty of inequality and dissent around the world that has little/nothing to do with the Web, I would say that keeping a firm hold of how Web-enabled technologies develop is important as the Web reflects and reinforces so many aspects of modern society:

  1. Don’t take democracy for granted –  it is fragile, has only “lived” for a relatively short period and always carries the seeds of its own destruction. Democracy will not live or die by digital alone. Issues like economic inequalities need to be addressed alongside with regulation that limits the most deleterious effects of “socialmediocracy”
  2. Don’t over- or underestimate the power of  digital technology to both nurture and destroy  cherished values. Don’t think governments are immune to the lure of more and more surveillance  of their citizens or that big tech is going to put protection  of democratcy over its profits  Both regulation and an alert, educated cirtizenry are needed.
  3. Complacency is the enemy here – the biggest danger for democracy is to believe there is no danger. 

Ian: Thanks for a fascinating discussion George.


In addition to being a WST Trustee, George is a well-known academic, author and was the director of the EU ESPRIT progam from 1993-1998.

Autumn 2022 Newsletter

Autumn Issue: 2022

In this issue …

ACM Web Science Conference 2023
New WSTNet Labs: Welcome Stuttgart & Rutgers
Digital Democracy – In Conversation with George Metakides
Publications of Interest
Outreach Events

ACM Web Science Conference 2023 (WebSci’23)

Following this year’s conference in Barcelona, we are delighted to announce that WebSci’23 will take place in Austin, Texas and will be co-located with The ACM 2023 Web Conference.

The WebSci’23 Call for Papers (CfP) is now available on the conference website and we invite you to take note of the important dates for this year’s event.

Important Dates
Wed, November 30, 2022 Paper submission deadline
Tue, January 31, 2023 Notification
Tue, February 28, 2023 Camera-ready versions due
Sun-Mon, April 30 – May 1, 2023 Conference dates

Visit the 2023 Conference website

The Proceedings of the Barcelona conference are now available online here.

2022 also saw the first WST Test of Time award going to a team from the US.

Read about the winning article

Two new WSTNet Labs: Stuttgart & Rutgers

We are delighted to welcome not one, but two new WSTNet labs this time: University of Stuttgart and Rutgers University.
Stuttgart and Rutgers may be our newest members but Lab Directors Steffen Staab and Matt Weber are old friends of Web Science.

In this interview we catch up with Steffen Staab to hear about
the new Stuttgart Lab and how being a part of WSTNet will help.

In the next edition of the newsletter we’ll be talking to Matt Weber about Rutgers’ Lab.

Read the full interview

The Future of Democracy: In Conversation with George Metakides

In conversation this time is George Metakides, WST Trustee and Co-Founder of the Digital Enlightenment Forum. Ian Brown sat down to find out a little more about democracy in the digital age and why we should be concerned.

Read full interview


We recommend some notable books… click on the images to find out more.

Featuring WSTNet Lab Director Fabien Gandon and WST Trustee Jim Hendler, this 3rd edition adds new material and modern examples to an already classic textbook.

This book by Reid Blackman attempts to distill more than 20 years of work on
Ethics/Philosophy into an accessible framework that moves the ethics of AI
from being “squishy” (as Blackman calls it) to a more structured set of decisions for non-experts.

As mentioned in the George Metakides interview above, Zuboff’s book is a detailed examination of the unprecedented power of surveillance capitalism and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control human behaviour. Zuboff identifies the practice as:

“a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.”

Whilst progress in machine- and deep learning have opened the doors to both new opportunities, and some dark possibilities, Ben Shneiderman sees a bright future for those who employ HCAI strategies for design and testing. As many technology companies and thought leaders have argued, the goal is not to replace people, but to empower them by making design choices that give humans control over technology.

In Human-Centered AI, Professor Ben Shneiderman offers an optimistic (realist’s) guide to how artificial intelligence can be used to augment and enhance humans’ lives.

Our interview with George Metakides above refers to The Age of the Strongman, where Rachman examines archetypal strong figures including Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump and Bolsonaro. They are portrayed as both formidable yet deeply flawed leaders in a series of essays about the global rise of authoritarian, nationalist-populist leaders and its obviously corrosive impact on the liberal democratic ideal.

Outreach Events

Brave Conversations ran an event in Barcelona and also its first UAE event recently in Sharjah so if you’d like to know more about this or any upcoming BC events, head over to

Find out about Brave Conversations


Thank you as always for subscribing to the WST Newsletter. We look forward to seeing you in the next edition. If you have any events, courses and news that you would like to share across the WST network please do get in touch via email using:

Subscribe to our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. Visit our WST homepagefor more news and updates on upcoming events.

Check out our new-look website!!

Best wishes,
Web Science Trust Team

You are receiving this mail as a member of an opt-in mailing list. Please click below if you wish to unsubscribe.

Copyright (C) 2023 Web Science Trust. All rights reserved.

You are receiving this email because of your interest in Web Science


Web Science Trust

c/o University of Southampton

Southampton, Hampshire SO17 1BJ

United Kingdom

Add us to your address book


Update Preferences | Unsubscribe

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp

Rutgers: Welcome to WSTNet

Please join me in welcoming Matt Weber as the new WSTNet Lab Director part of the NetSci group in the School of Information and Communication at Rutgers.

We’ll be interviewing Matt in the upcoming weeks to talk about his group, his research interests and how how he plans to work with/through WSTNet as our latest member.