How should governments prepare for the metaverse?
Updated: Aug 12
The following piece was published on Medium, under Digital Diplomacy on July 29, 2021.
A metaverse is a persistent virtual reality space. Neal Stephenson was the first to coin the term metaverse in his 1992 science fiction novel Snowcrash. Consider it a combination of virtual reality and a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). A metaverse can be defined as a virtual world where multiple users can exist simultaneously and interact in infinite ways. People can play games, work, meet, collaborate, shop, stroll, watch movies and concerts, and do almost anything else they could do in the real world.
The metaverse is the next step in the evolution of the Internet from a two-dimensional interactive to a three-dimensional immersive experience.
Zuckerberg considers metaverse to be Facebook’s future! He told the Verge in a recent interview, “I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Futurists try to anticipate the future by picking up signals and determining drivers of change. We have signs all around us pointing to the metaverse being a big deal. Republic Realm, a ‘digital real estate firm,” paid nearly a million dollars to buy 259 parcels of a virtual estate in Decentraland’s metaverse. Epic now presents Fortnite as not just a game but a metaverse. A digital Gucci bag recently fetched more than $4,100 on Roblox. A Singaporean buyer purchased an NFT of Mike Winkelmann’s digital art at $69 million to exhibit it in a metaverse.
Indeed, the metaverse is not ready for prime time yet as it will take a few years for it to become a reality. Thousands of people engaging in a shared, simultaneous experience is not possible at present due to technological limitations.
The metaverse will require many new technologies, protocols, enterprises, breakthroughs, and discoveries to function. For instance, several companies are developing hardware for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. This includes headsets. Much of computing power needs to be embedded in a frame of glasses to make the technology convenient to use. Computer and networking chips, holographic waveguides, sensors, batteries, and speakers have all to be crammed in a tiny space.
Governments should take the future opportunity represented by the metaverse seriously. The metaverse will present entirely new ways, for example, to create employment, impart education, deliver healthcare, and plan urban spaces. It will be the next major labor organizing platform. New organizations, products, and services will handle everything from payment processing to identity verification, hiring, ad delivery, content generation, and security.
The challenges posed by the metaverse will be equally daunting. Some illustrative questions that will need to be addressed are: How will governments deal with the sale of national monuments using NFTs when both the buyer and the seller are not its nationals? How will intellectual property rights be protected in the metaverse? Such protection could be problematic when those accessing the metaverse can be from anywhere in the world.
How will the homicide of a digital twin of a person in the metaverse be treated? How will virtual companies headquartered in the metaverse be taxed? How will digital personas in the metaverse be connected to natural persons in the analog world? How will governments grapple with misinformation and disinformation? How will online radicalization in the metaverse be prevented? How will governments ensure regulatory compliance and tax reporting?
There are also international regulatory considerations as the metaverse is thought to be the next step in the internet’s evolution. Because of the international structure of governance and standards in place, the internet is truly global. What will the metaverse’s governance structure be? The splinternet is a result of geopolitical rivalry, particularly with China. In terms of a splinterverse, how will this play out?
In addition, the metaverse will have implications for physical infrastructure. The amount of data that a metaverse may generate is likely to be many orders of magnitude of two-dimensional data of the internet. What infrastructure will have to be in place to both transmit and store this data? How will data localization work in a metaverse?
Governments may have to consider the following actions to prepare for the disruption that the metaverse may bring in its wake:
Strategic futures group
Governments may consider setting up a strategic futures group to systematically track the risks and opportunities that emerging immersive technologies represent in the near, medium, and long term. Singapore, for example, has established a Center for Strategic Futures that is anchored in the office of the Prime Minister.
Virtual department of tech horizons
Given the wide-ranging implications of a metaverse, governments may need to take a whole-of-government approach to prepare for the disruption that it would entail. A virtual, department of technology horizons with representatives from the government, academia, and the private sector could be considered. The United Arab Emirates has, for example, established a virtual Ministry of Possibilities to bring agility and cut across governmental silos.
National digital twins strategy
Preparing for the metaverse also presents an opportunity to future-proof the skills of the workforce. A national digital twins strategy that engages millions of individual content creators to map the real world would develop skills and make it easier to prepare for emerging immersive technologies.
Given the complex regulatory issues that a metaverse would present, governments could consider establishing a cross-cutting group on anticipatory regulation. This group could commission research on the regulation that would become necessary and collaborate with the private sector (e.g., the XR Consortium) to explore regulatory approaches for a metaverse.