What would the metaverse – an interconnected network of virtual spaces – look like in a geopolitically fragmented world? Andy Yee of the University College London Centre for Blockchain Technologies envisions a future of four metaverses – or more.
Real – or imagined: Heralded as the next chapter of cyberspace, the metaverse transforms the internet of information to one of experience through immersive, three-dimensional interactions (Credit: Duncan Rawlinson – Duncan.co)
Heralded as the next chapter of cyberspace, the metaverse transforms the internet of information to one of experience through immersive, three-dimensional interactions. While we are still in the early days of the metaverse, the blending of physical and virtual environments has the potential to revolutionize social interactions, business models, and politics, with significant impact for society and the economy. In the areas of education, healthcare and urban planning, the use of immersive technologies for international collaboration is also compelling. Economic consultancy Analysis Group estimated that the metaverse economy could be worth more than US$3 trillion in a decade.
Though described to be an interconnected network of immersive virtual worlds, the metaverse as we know it comprises multiple metaverses created by different platforms. Like the internet, the metaverse is not a monolithic technological creation, but a constellation of systems, protocols, hardware, applications and organizations, making it a complex sociotechnical ecosystem with a wide range of public and private actors.
Major global powers, including China, Europe and the US, see the metaverse as the next strategic battleground to shape the rules of a new technological domain. Major technology platforms such as Meta (previously Facebook) and Tencent are betting big on its economic opportunities. Cities such as Dubai, Shanghai and Seoul are unveiling metaverse development plans. And cypherpunks – people who advocate for the use of cryptography to bring social and political change – are pushing for a decentralized metaverse to escape a capitalist dystopia.
To make sense of this immensely complex ecosystem, it is best to understand the metaverse as a space subject to competing ideals and political pressures. If we can learn anything from the evolution of the internet, it is that the metaverse is subject to the same technical, governmental and commercial sources of fragmentation.
Internet scholars Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall discerned that at least four internets have emerged: the Silicon Valley open internet, the highly regulated European “bourgeois” internet, the Chinese authoritarian internet, and the US commercial internet. We can therefore equally envision a future of at least four metaverses, namely the open cypherpunk metaverse, the civil European metaverse, the authoritarian Chinese metaverse, and the commercial US metaverse.
The concept of the metaverse is rooted in the cypherpunk ideals of Silicon Valley. It originated in the 1992 Neal Stephenson science fiction novel Snow Crash, which features a character escaping reality into an immersive virtual world by night. Today, cypherpunks harbor a deep distrust of metaverses promoted and controlled by corporations and governments. They advocate for a decentralized alternative metaverse built on peer-to-peer and open-source technologies, eliminating surveillance and censorship and guaranteeing individual autonomy.
In an extreme scenario, such a highly aligned and autonomous digital community may even gain political power through collective action. Entrepreneur and essayist Balaji Srinivasan argued in his new book The Network State: How to Start a New Country, published this year, that technologies such as Bitcoin, Web3 and the metaverse allow people to exit legacy arrangements and form new groups more easily than ever before. This leads to the possibility of a network state, whereby a community originating in the cloud can crowdfund territory in the real world and negotiate for diplomatic recognition to become a true state.
In recent years, Europe’s political preference for a civilized bourgeois cyberspace has served as a counterbalance to the commercially driven view of the US. Through major frameworks such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and the Digital Services Act (DSA), the European Union has developed global regulatory influence for minimizing bad behavior, protecting privacy, and guarding against dominant platforms on the internet.
Being more intertwined with the real world, the metaverse is expected to accentuate the downsides of the internet, including privacy protection, online harassment, hate speech, cybersecurity, addiction and competition. We can therefore expect Europe to extend its internet regulatory approach to the metaverse. For example, a Council of the European Union paper recommended that Europe take the lead in tailor-made policy tools and innovative political thinking to safeguard the metaverse. Partly driven by Europe’s increasing scrutiny, Meta announced the creation of 10,000 jobs in Europe to showcase the metaverse’s benefits.
It is unrealistic to envision a completely interoperable and interconnected metaverse
Underpinned by its Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 strategies, China takes a long-term view in shaping technical standards of foundational technologies as a source of geopolitical influence. It has been promoting a vision of the internet that enables centralized and fine-grained controls to ensure that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideals are upheld.
China sees the metaverse as the next internet battleground, in particular guarding against the development of a decentralized economy that would remain outside of state control. Its strategy encompasses both the foundational and the application layers of the metaverse. At the foundation layer, it is aggressively developing its own central bank digital currency and Blockchain Services Network (BSN) to ensure that transactions in the metaverse are centralized. At the application layer, it is bringing together key metaverse companies via the state-backed Metaverse Industry Committee to shape standards and applications in the metaverse.
If this state-centric vision of the metaverse is realized, it has the potential to strengthen the rule of the CCP through the granular control of reality. Not only can it offer the possibility to create altered versions of the real world for its citizens, different levels of virtual reality with different levels of access for different groups can also be created, with tight control over how access is distributed.
While sharing similar ideological roots of the open metaverse, the commercial metaverse spearheaded by big US technology platforms is a sociopolitical force of its own, given the platforms’ reach and resources. A large portion of consumers will experience immersive virtual worlds through centralized technology platforms, which are making significant investments in the metaverse. In 2021, Meta alone invested US$10 billion to build metaverse hardware and software. In early 2022, Microsoft announced the acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard for US$69 billion as a key component of its metaverse strategy.
Accompanying this tremendous prowess is the role of these platforms in framing the socio-political debates pertaining to the governance of the metaverse. We can foresee the commercial metaverse sitting uneasily with the open, civil and authoritarian versions of the metaverse. On the one hand, these technology platforms will champion US liberal values in contrast to their Chinese counterparts, which are under the authoritarian state’s tacit control. On the other hand, commercial motivations may drive them towards developing capacity for surveillance, prediction and behavioral influence, putting them in direct conflict with the open and civil versions of the metaverse.
By now, it is clear that at least four metaverses are emerging. Of course, these four visions will not exist in pure forms and will share similarities. For example, the European civil metaverse will want to nurture its technology companies, and the Chinese authoritarian metaverse will care about data protection and privacy. It is also possible that newer and more niche versions will emerge. However, as these four visions are each underpinned by powerful ideological and institutional backing, it is likely that they will mature over time and coexist with each other in uneasy tension as the dominant categories.
In a world broken down along geopolitical lines, it is unrealistic to envision a completely interoperable and interconnected metaverse. Similar to the way we describe the internet as the splinternet, it will be more appropriate to describe the metaverse as the paraverse – parallel virtual worlds with different norms, rules and algorithms with only limited linkages. The fragmentation of the metaverse will deepen further in the coming decade. In the end, the dawning virtual environment will mirror many of humanity’s divisions and fault lines in the physical world.
Anderson, Janna; and Rainie, Lee. (June 30, 2022) “The Metaverse in 2040”, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, USA.
Elmasry, Tarek; Hazan, Eric; Khan, Hamza; Kelly, Greg; Srivastava, Shivam; Yee, Lareina; and Zemel, Rodney W. (June 2022) “Value creation in the metaverse: The real business of the virtual world”, McKinsey & Company, global.
Yee, Andy. (April 14, 2022) “The Geography of Digital Money”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
University College London Centre for Blockchain Technologies