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.

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.

WebSci’23: Call for Papers

Call for Papers

About the Web Science Conference

Web Science is an interdisciplinary field dedicated to understanding the complex and multiple impacts of the Web on society and vice versa. The discipline is well situated to address pressing issues of our time by incorporating various scientific approaches. We welcome quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods research, including techniques from the social sciences and computer science. In addition, we are interested in work exploring Web-based data collection and research ethics. We also encourage studies that combine analyses of Web data and other types of data (e.g., from surveys or interviews) and help better understand user behaviour online and offline.

2023 Emphasis: Inequalities in the Face of Concurrent Crises

Web-based technologies promise to lower the entry barrier for geographically-dispersed individuals to participate in everyday life. Especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and growing international tensions, such technologies have become critical to our lives. Yet, disparities between groups exist across digital spaces, including digital news, social media, and peer production. Research documenting inequities in representation, engagement, visibility, and success is essential to understand how, for example, various racial, ethnic, and gender groups rebound from multiple concurrent crises. This year’s conference especially encourages contributions documenting differential uses of online spaces and discussing ways to address emerging differences. Additionally, we welcome papers on a wide range of topics at the heart of Web Science.

Possible topics across methodological approaches and digital contexts include but are not limited to:

Understanding the Web

Trends in globalisation, fragmentation, rejoining, and Balkanisation of the Web

The architecture and philosophy of the Web

Automation and AI in all its manifestations relevant to the Web

Critical analyses of the Web and Web technologies

Making the Web Inclusive

Issues of discrimination and fairness

Intersectionality and design justice in questions of marginalisation and inequality

Ethical challenges of technologies, data, algorithms, platforms, and people on the Web

Safeguarding and governance of the Web, including anonymity, security and trust

Inclusion, literacy and the digital divide

The Web and Everyday Life

Social machines, crowd computing and collective intelligence

Web economics, social entrepreneurship, and innovation

Legal issues, including rights and accountability for AI actors

Humanities, arts, and culture on the Web

Politics and social activism on the Web

Online education and remote learning

Health and well-being online

Social presence in online professional event spaces

The Web as a source of news and information

Doing Web Science

Data curation, Web archives and stewardship in Web Science

Temporal and spatial dimensions of the Web as a repository of information

Analysis and modelling of human vs automatic behavior (e.g., bots)

Analysis of online social and information networks

Detecting, preventing and predicting anomalies in Web data (e.g., fake content, spam)

Format of the submissions
Please upload your submissions via EasyChair: https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=websci23

There are two submission formats.
* Full paper should be between 6 and 10 pages (inclusive of references, appendices, etc.). Full papers typically report on mature and completed projects.
* Short papers should be up to 5 pages (inclusive of references, appendices, etc.). Short papers will primarily report on high-quality ongoing work not mature enough for a full-length publication.

All accepted submissions will be assigned an oral presentation (of two different lengths).

All papers should adopt the current ACM SIG Conference proceedings template (acmart.cls). Please submit papers as PDF files using the ACM template, either in Microsoft Word format (available athttps://www.acm.org/publications/proceedings-template under “Word Authors”) or with the ACM LaTeX template on the Overleaf platform which is available https://www.overleaf.com/latex/templates/association-for-computing-machinery-acm-sig-proceedings-template/bmvfhcdnxfty. In particular, please ensure that you are using the two-column version of the appropriate template.

All contributions will be judged by the Program Committee upon rigorous peer review standards for quality and fit for the conference, by at least three referees. Additionally, each paper will be assigned to a Senior Program Committee member to ensure review quality.

WebSci-2023 review is double-blind. Therefore, please anonymize your submission: do not put the author(s) names or affiliation(s) at the start of the paper, and do not include funding or other acknowledgments in papers submitted for review. References to authors’ own prior relevant work should be included, but should not specify that this is the authors’ own work. It is up to the authors’ discretion how much to further modify the body of the paper to preserve anonymity. The requirement for anonymity does not extend outside of the review process, e.g. the authors can decide how widely to distribute their papers over the Internet. Even in cases where the author’s identity is known to a reviewer, the double-blind process will serve as a symbolic reminder of the importance of evaluating the submitted work on its own merits without regard to the authors’ reputation.

For authors who wish to opt-out of publication proceedings, this option will be made available upon acceptance. This will encourage the participation of researchers from the social sciences that prefer to publish their work as journal articles. All authors of accepted papers (including those who opt out of proceedings) are expected to present their work at the conference.

Programme Committee Chairs:

Katherine Ognyanova (Rutgers University)
Harsh Taneja (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign)
Ingmar Weber (Saarland University)

For any questions and queries regarding the paper submission, please contact the chairs atwebsci23papers@easychair.org

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WebSci’23

15th ACM Web Science Conference (in person and online)
April 30 – May 1, 2023
Austin, Texas, USA (co-located with The Web Conference)
https://websci23.webscience.org/

 

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

Instagram receive GDPR fine from Irish data watchdog

Instagram have been accused of failing to safeguard the data of underage users by the Irish  data watchdog (DPC). Meta, Instagram’s parent company, have said they plan to appeal the fine which has been set at $400m and is centered around allowing minors (13-17) to set up and operate business accounts which revealed sensitive personal data incuding phone numbers and email addresses. Instagram points that the rules on the platform have been changed since the 2020 investigation and argues that the GDPR rules used to trigger the fine have been misapplied/misinterpreted.

Welcome to WSTNet : University of Stuttgart

In this interview we welcome a new lab team and an old friend of Web Science 

Ian: Steffen, thanks for joining us – it seems a little unusual to welcome you as a new Lab Director when you ran one of our other Labs at Koblenz for many years but your team are new so a very warm welcome to both you and your team.

Steffen: Many thanks – I’m really excited about the new Lab and re-joining the WSTNet.

Ian : How does the work at Stuttgart compare to Koblenz?

Steffen: I think the biggest difference is probably scale – there are several thousand researchers here in Stuttgart so the opportunities to engage in bigger projects across a wider area and multiple disciplines is very exciting.

Ian: What are the broad themes for your group and what are working on right now?

Steffen: Our broad theme is AI and Machine Learning within the Cyber Valley initiative of the Universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen and the Max-Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. Whilst this sounds highly technically focussed we have a strong digital humanities/interdisciplinary (i.e., Web Science) element to our research. I am co-director of the Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems (IRIS) which considers heterogeneous intelligent systems of people, machines, tools etc and is looking at diverse perspectives such as ethical and societal challenges, the risks and benefits of automated decision-making, bias and the transparency/fairness of automated decisions and responsible human-computer interactions. What makes this type of research possible is that it encompasses researchers across the whole university of Stuttgart and we have more than 30 professors and their teams at Stuttgart engaged in this particular collaboration.

Ian: It sounds like you are pretty convinced by the opportunities that come with inter-organisational and inter-disciplinary collaboration?

Steffen: We saw those opportunities at Koblenz as part of WSTNet: we hosted the 3rd annual Web Science conference in 2011 and also ran and took part in a number of Web Science Summer School events around the world taught by some world-class speakers with students from Singapore, US, Korea, UK and other labs which is a tremendous opportunity for the students. In 2015 I joined Southampton as a Professor in the Web Science Institute and had access to colleagues in Law and the Social Sciences which really transformed the type of research we could do. I later acted as chairman for WSTNet and then joined the WSTNet board.

Ian: Now you are on the board of Trustees for the WST has your perspective changed? Who would you encourage to join the WSTNet?

Steffen: I think the profile of people who are interested in Web Science has changed over the last decade. Traditionally the idea of networks carried a more technical focus on networks of machines but the Web has enabled and highlighted the importance of global interactions between networks of human/machine actors, networks of people/locations, networks of tools/systems, networks of cultures, networks of political and legal system and the list goes on, so the original technical focus has been joined by a vital social science perspective without which it is impossible to understand the complexity of these systems. For example, this week I co-organize a Dagstuhl workshop on “Challenges and Opportunities of Democracy in the Digital Society” with researchers from political science, communication studies, sociology, law and computer science.

There are several ”heavy-hitters” in the current WSTNet network, some who helped define and develop the whole Web Science field and we’ve certainly seen those types of organisation with a solid track record in Web Science and (related approaches) apply and join but as the influence of the Web and the effects of network/machine interaction at scale continues to increase I would also think that groups with strong research credentials in their own (non-technical) disciplines may want to *develop* new digital skills and fold socio-technical, Web Science approaches, into their research arsenal could consider WSTNet a route into Web Science. Its a huge potential resource of technical, cultural and interdisciplinary experience.

As the number of machines and intelligent agents continues to grow (and I think we are only at the very beginning of vast growth) we will see the impact of machines and intelligent agents on every aspect of society and so the need to understand, predict and effectively steward that impact has never been more important. Even for those groups who don’t use the term Web Science we will see the Web Science approach as we have defined and developed it reflected everywhere.

Ian: Steffen – thanks for taking the time to chat with me and once again welcome back to network.