Professor Fred Turner Stanford

The metaverse – the downfall of democracy?

For Fred Turner, professor at Stanford University, ”the metaverse” is the invention of a marketing department. Why thinking and consuming do not always go well together and why we would do good to take our freedom rights very seriously also in the digital sphere.

Fred, you once called the Metaverse ‘something closer to a mall than an Agora’: an overwhelmingly commercial environment. You even see it as foreshadowing ‘a new kind of authoritarianism’. Why?

Because the intentions of the people who are building the Metaverse are entirely commercial. Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of the Metaverse is that of a world where it will be harder and harder to distinguish between the real and the digital world. My research shows that kind of immersion does generally not cause people to be more rational and more engaged. Rather, it stimulates our reptilian sides.

Let’s use the analogy of a city. A city has different zones for different parts of our lives: working, leisure, shopping etc. The challenge with the Metaverse model is that these zones break down. Instead of separate zones for public and private life, you are going to have one zone where everything is everywhere all the time. It will be impossible to get distance, the distance that you need to think clearly. That’s where one of the threats for democracy comes from.

If the primary incentive of a place is to ultimately convince you to buy things, it is very difficult for that place to be built in a way that lets you forget commercial factors and have a rational debate. It bends the discussion.

My fear with the Metaverse is that if it is commercially developed, it will drive a hyper-stimulating anti-rational way of thinking and acting that is exactly the condition in which people are most likely to buy things. And it’s exactly not the condition where people can have a rational debate and make decisions on which a democracy depends.

But couldn’t we imagine squares – or zones – in the Metaverse where people could just meet and enjoy a coffee with their friend from the other side of the world? And then afterwards go back and shop or game in another zone?

I wish it were true. Imagine a political demonstration in one of the open areas inside a real-world shopping mall like a square or an atrium. Your protest will probably be shut down and you’ll be thrown out because the mall owner decides who can talk about what in their property. The person who controls the square in many terms controls the debate.

The person who controls the square in many terms controls the debate.

So is it not so much the technology you are afraid of, but rather the people who are in control of it?

It’s people first, but it’s also the technology. Technology that gives us new techniques for watching each other, tracking each other; at speeds we never had before. It’s not just that people want to control our thinking in ways that profits them – which is true but has been the truth for hundreds of years. It’s also true that digital devices allow for 24-hour surveillance in real time, and the technology exists to change conditions in real time based on what it has learned from the surveillance.

Look: if you and I go to a café and have a conversation, the walls of the café don’t move. The café just stays there, we have our discussion, exchange ideas then go home. Now imagine that you are in a digital world, where the walls of the café hear everything you’re saying, and they realize that you are a fan of Donald Trump, and slowly but surely the walls change colour. Maybe they become a little redder and heat-up the temperature of our discussion. And now other people come and listen because you’re excited, and they see the red walls and suddenly now we’re getting some broader excitement, and then on the walls perhaps there appears a little Maga hat. And the Maga hat only costs 5 dollars, you can pick it up on the way out.

I’m terrified by a vision of a world in which the wall of my house can suddenly turn into a Coke machine, where I can press a button and get me a Coke. For a rational debate you must have a neutral place. The Metaverse will never be neutral because the tracking technologies will allow for things to change so quickly that it’s always a place in flux.

Fred Turner holistic mindmap

There may be many people wishing for this Coke dream to come true…

No. I think that’s exactly the story we’ve been sold, that folks of my age, experience and civic orientation are somehow out of touch. And that there is a younger and different world filled with desire and flexibility and playfulness, and if we would just relax and let the technologists do their work, we would truly be given this world. That world is the construction of a marketing department. It does not exist.

So why do companies enter the metaverse? What is their motivation – is it purely financial?

I’ve talked to a lot of folks in these firms, and I think that many people who make technology of this kind are genuinely excited about technology, and genuinely hope for a world of enhanced intimacy, communication, and playfulness. For those folks, the giant profits that come with building these systems serve as a marker of the ethical rightness of what they are doing. It must be good if so many people want it. It’s based on the idea that God favours those who are doing the right thing by making them wealthy. The combination of imagining that you are a world shaping entrepreneur, and that the wealth you are making is evidence of the rightness of your mission, that’s what I see inside these firms.

I think we have to drop the name “The Metaverse”. That name is a marketing fantasy. Sold to us by companies like Meta. It’s designed to make us think about the integration of computing into every part of our life as the creation of the fantasy world we all dream of – a world we can live in like in a Disney cartoon. That fantasy is old and deep, especially here in California. But it’s a nonsense.

The illusion of being able to escape from my everyday life is probably as old as mankind. If we now believe it could become reality: What does that mean, also in political terms?

We call it the threat of hyper-personalization: a condition in which companies supply you with digital artefacts that you then arrange in a way you want to. It’s very powerful because it gives you the illusion of freedom – but it’s not a separate world, and this is really important: the Metaverse is pitched to us as a separate world, but what is really in place is a vision of deep integration in everyday life.

What I see in the digital world is a simultaneous process of individualization and centralization. At the individual level we have all individualized interfaces. But at the platform level, your interface and my interface are integrated into systems that are in fact centralized, controlled from above. This is where the authoritarianism comes in.

If you’re living in your world and I’m living in my world, who decides the terms of the world we share? In that case it stops being governments and starts being the companies that are building the spaces.

Again, the analogy is like a city: if a city is being built without any regulation, who decides what the houses look like? It’s not the people, it’s not the state, it’s the builders. And that is the world we are entering now: a world where there is a new kind of concrete, it is digital stuff, it is everywhere, and houses are being built for us that serve the interest of the builders.

The only people I see with the power to push back at this stage are governments, are states, supported by the people who elect them.

Sounds scary. But what would be the way out?

Let’s start from the question: what do people need to be healthy, happy people? One of the answers: you need a certain amount of privacy. So one solution is privacy legislation such as in Europe. The EU General Data Protection Regulation had a huge effect in America because it changes tech firms’ access to the German market, giving them a financial incentive to do the right thing.

The idea that Mark Zuckerberg is pushing is a life in which digital media are everywhere, and all is integrated. That “all is integrated” idea is the most dangerous one. GDPR is an example of how governments can push back and regulate in ways that have effects far beyond European shores. The EU privacy legislation has changed behaviour by tech firms in the US because it controls access to markets. You can’t access the European market without obeying those rules.

It’s the same in the Metaverse: elected representatives need to intervene just as they would if we were building cities out of concrete. There is nothing so special about technology that it should be outside the regulation of everyday life.

There is nothing so special about technology that it should be outside the regulation of everyday life.

Do we realize how transparent we already are?

Most people don’t realise that. People think they don’t care if other people see them not wearing a bathing suit at the beach, they think they don’t care for subsequent advertisement. But what they are sharing on social media is not only deeply commercial, it’s deeply political, it connects you as an individual to larger institutional systems which can in fact have great power on your life. So social media looks great until you find yourself in a moment of political controversy.

I think people are simply not aware that the individual data they generate is not just floating around. It’s being attached to and taken advantage of by institutions with substantial material interest in their lives and which will be quiet only as long as their interests will not be threatened. If the state decides that you’re a threat, all that data is suddenly very valuable and will be used very quickly to capture your body.

One example: not so many years ago, it was illegal for two men to sleep together. Imagine if the right-wing Christian Nationalists, an increasingly powerful party in the United States, succeed in taking over the federal government and outlaw homosexual behaviour again. Now we live in a world where sensors are ubiquitous and accessible. So, there are Ring doorbell systems that show pictures of who is at your door. Imagine one that only shows men coming by 23:00. That’s an algorithmic marker for a gay household which is now illegal, and this data can be used to generate a police raid.

You see this in the debates about abortion in the United States also. If a woman who lives in a state where abortion is illegal searches online for information about abortion, there is the fear that Google will turn over the details of who is searching for what. You see the pressure that is already there.

That’s why privacy matters. Privacy is not a matter of being naked at the beach, privacy is a matter of being vulnerable to states and corporations.

Privacy is not a matter of being naked at the beach, privacy is a matter of being vulnerable to states and corporations.

In the case of a state, I can hope that it is a democratically elected authority. But no one elected big corporations.

One of my biggest fears is that a rather democratic state – like European nations – go down the road like China, or potentially some parts of the United States, where tech firms and the nation states collaborate. You can see this already in the intelligence enterprise parts of the United States, where a company like Palantir which tracks political data very closely also has contracts with the state. There was a protest recently at a Google project that was shut down because Google has been asked to produce tools for the CIA.

It's all pretty bleak. Can you see any positive aspects in the Metaverse? Any benefits?

In general I’m hopeful but I’m scared to death of the Metaverse. Can I imagine ways of using computing to further flourish human life? Absolutely! Can I imagine a world governed by corporations in which I’m constantly immersed, from which I cannot escape, in which the material world and the digital world are so interpenetrated that people can do digital things to me as I walk through my life – is that a human benefit? Absolutely not! 

What we need to be doing now as we have democratic states is that we need to be looking out and saying I don’t agree to this. We can put in place regulations that say no, we can’t build Metaverse type platforms that way. Like privacy laws. We should not wait for this world to be built and then say “oops, sorry!”

We can intervene now, and one step is stop using the word “Metaverse”. What we really talk about is the massive integration of digital media into every part of our physical lives. Some elements are powerful and valuable. But others are not. We need to break those elements apart and think about them carefully.

The civic good should be the priority. Let’s fight for that.

Regulation alone can probably not be the cure all. Do we really want to delegate it all to the politicians?

Absolutely not! We must do it all: shout out to politicians, also to tech designers, to be conscious of what they are doing and to realise that building immersive dreams is not necessarily a way of building a better world.

The corporate sector needs to continue what Deutsche Bank and other companies are doing, which is trying to maintain a civic presence for the corporate world, saying we as corporations stand for what is good for everyone and be a good corporate citizen. The sense of corporate responsibility is much lower in the US. It’s shareholders first, maximizing profits. That ethics, coupled with the utopian idea of building a better world with tech, creates a scary place.

The civic good should be the priority. Let’s fight for that. Let’s celebrate that!

This interview was conducted by Maike Tippmann.

Fred Turner in his office

About Fred Turner

Fred Turner is Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University. His research and teaching focus on media technology and cultural change. He is especially interested in the ways that emerging media have helped shape American life since World War II.

Fred is Author of five books. Before becoming a professor, he worked as a journalist for ten years. He continues to write regularly for newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Maike Tippmann avatar

Maike Tippmann

… is responsible for digital communication projects in Deutsche Bank’s Newsroom.

A few years ago, she balanced with one of the first VR headsets on a narrow wooden plank lying on the ground over a deep canyon in the Brazilian rainforest and was really scared to death. Since then she has known how disturbing real virtual experiences can feel.

She feels completely at home in the real world and, despite all her curiosity about new opportunities and possibilities, strives for awake skepticism. Above all, she thinks her data belongs solely to her.

Recommended content

Digital Disruption | Opinion

Digital Disruption | Insights

Is the future of art in the metaverse? Is the future of art in the metaverse?

In the realm of contemporary art, Cao Fei and LuYang have emerged as pioneers when it comes to pushing the boundaries of creative exploration and engaging with the digital age.

Is the future of art in the metaverse? The future of art

Digital Disruption | Crisp & Short

Metaverse – is there anybody in there? Metaverse – is there anybody in there?

Everyone is talking about the metaverse. But what exactly is happening there, and what are the opportunities and risks?

Metaverse – is there anybody in there? Enter here


What Next: our topics

Link to Digital Disruption
Link to Responsible Growth
Link to Entrepreneurial Success