Bronte Munro | Cyber & Technology Fellow
The dynamic between nation-states, large cooperation’s and civil society has become increasingly complex throughout the 21st century with the advent of internet technologies. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, offers an insight into a plausible reality where the metaverse challenges this dynamic further. Despite being science fiction, governments around the world are increasingly heeding the concept of the metaverse, which builds on the current issues faced in cyberspace where governments are limited in their ability to regulate social, political and economic behaviours. The metaverse takes these issues one step further, and offers a possibility where its creators share the same level of influence as governments.
What is the Metaverse?
The word ‘meta’ comes from ancient Greek and is used as a prefix to describe something that is ‘transcending’ or ‘going beyond’ its original form – think metaphysics, or meta definitions. The metaverse can therefore be understood as an augmentation of reality, that is continuous and permanent. It is not the Internet, which we use as a tool and can disengage with. Instead, it is a second part of life where people can socialise, create, trade and exist.
Discussion surrounding the metaverse has risen dramatically throughout the COVID-19 pandemic due to the global increase in the reliance on technology and virtual spaces. Despite this, a consistent definition of the metaverse does not exist. This is in part because a fully formed version of the metaverse does not yet exist, but also because the metaverse by nature, is not a single entity. Many different iterations of the metaverse will emerge, and will be controlled and frequented by different people and communities. Preliminary iterations of the metaverse already exist, such as SimCity, Fortnite, and Cryptovoxels, where technology and culture intersect to create a user owned world.
The metaverse will continue to develop regardless of government support, and the social media giant Facebook’s recent name change to Meta signals as much. Whilst Facebook’s attempt to monopolise the concept is likely an attempt to distract from the failure of their cryptocurrency, Libra, it has brought the metaverse to the forefront of general public discussion.
A Vision for the Digital Economy
Blockchain technology is the early infrastructure of the metaverse. It provides a decentralised way for people to facilitate trust in the digital economy where traditional law enforcement is both ineffective and arguably not welcome. Digital art in the form of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are an example of how this technology enables the exchange of value between creators and customers that is recognised and validated by the wider community.
The development of haptic technologies, which creates a sensory experience for users through the use of pressure, vibration and motion to simulate touch, is what will enable tactile experiences in the metaverse. Instead of driving to a shop to try on clothes, you could hold them, feel them and try them on as your avatar in the metaverse, and have the physical version of the item delivered to your home.
As the digital economy continues to grow, it will increasingly integrate with the traditional economy and likely absorb a large portion of its trade. This will impact financial institutions, government and business alike.
The Metaverse vs the Nation-State
Whilst the technology to support the metaverse in its entirety has not yet been created, the concept is gaining traction outside of popular culture. The Chinese Communists Party (CCP) has recognised the potential impact of the metaverse on the economy and its governance through its establishment of the Metaverse Industry Committee on 11 November. The committee is overseen by the China Mobile and Communications Association, and signals the CCP’s offensive attempts to control the emergence of metaverse-enabling technologies and experiences within their jurisdiction – similar to their alternatives to Amazon with Alibaba, and Facebook with WeChat. Major Chinese technology firms, such as Baidu, have similarly begun trademarking names containing ‘meta’, in further attempts to dictate the commercial direction of the metaverse and its infrastructure.
China is not alone in its foresight. In 2017, Venezuela announced that they were creating their own national cryptocurrency, the Petro. Similarly, in the private sector, Australia’s own Commonwealth Bank announced on 3 November that they will begin allowing customers to buy, hold and sell crypto assets through their platforms.
These behaviours have raised concerns among metaverse enthusiasts, who question the ability for the metaverse to succeed if commercial interests are placed over creative ones throughout its development. The underlying argument being that a user has to be able to ‘lose themselves’ within the metaverse, before any genuine value can be gained from the experience.
Going forward, governments are likely to continue analysing and preparing for the changes the metaverse poses, due to the ongoing challenges experienced through the emergence of internet technologies. However, it is ultimately how the users engage with the metaverse that will determine the nuances of its impact on international relations, and until then, we can only speculate.
Bronte Munro is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.