Two weeks ago, ICR Research, held a panel discussion on the future of the Metaverse and its impact on international relations. Bringing together scholars from the fields of digital diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, international relations and strategic communications, the panel sought to begin a wider debate on the implications of the Metaverse on states, diplomats and the international system. This post summarizes this panel discussion. A recording may be viewed here.
What is the Metaverse?
Presently, the Metaverse is a vision. It is a roadmap that is guiding the activities of tech companies around the world. At the most basic level, the Metaverse will be a second plane of existence. Imagine living and existing simultaneously in two worlds- one physical and other virtual. While commuting to work in the physical plane, you may meet some friends for coffee in the virtual. Or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment in the physical plane, you may attend a conference in the virtual plane. These two planes will co-exist in real time and you will be able to move between them seamlessly thanks to a computer-brain interface.
The Metaverse will also serve a virtual layer that complements the physical world. Imagine that one can enter a store in the physical plane, and browse its items while at the same time visiting a second store, located in the same place yet in the virtual plane. This means that all the fashion streets in the world will be duplicated. You will physically enter H&M in London’s Regent street while at the same time entering a pop-up store in the virtual plane. The world will be doubled. That’s double the space, double the real estate and double the experiences.
Yet most importantly, the Metaverse will be a fully immersive experience. When you go to a coffee shop in the virtual plane you will smell freshly brewed coffee, you will hear the discussions in nearby tables, you will feel the fine oak table around which you are sitting. The Metaverse will constitute its own, fully functioning economy where individuals may buy or sell products and services. One could invest in Metaverse real estate, that virtual layer added to Regent Street.
The Metaverse will not be built on simple virtual reality, but it will be a fully simulated reality. The Metaverse will not exist in parallel to the physical world but it will intersect the physical world constantly. The Metaverse will not be like the Matrix where one enters a virtual environment while being unconscious in the physical world. No, the Metaverse will allow Trinity and Neo to shop for baby clothes while at the same time fighting agent Smith inside the Matrix.
The Metaverse will continue the process of annihilating time and space. People living in rural areas will be able to work virtually in a metropolis. And people working in major cities will be able to vacation virtually in rural areas. These individuals will be located in one place physically, and in a different place virtually. Yet their personality will not be split but rather they will act, and interact, with both environments. The Metaverse may thus bring about the end of work-based migration while small countries, with limited resources, may exist in the virtual plane doubling their size and their economy.
The vision of the Metaverse raises some central questions for those studying and practicing diplomacy or international relations. First, will governments join this vision or act against it? Will Governments strive to create their own Metaverse which they may control in terms of content, regulation, commerce and surveillance of users? Governments often lag behind the tech sector. Will the Metaverse prove different? Second, what international laws will the Metaverse require? New rules of censorship? New regulations of taxing virtual activities? Similarly, will virtual crimes be tried in the virtual plane, the physical plane or both? Third, will accords signed in the physical plane be applicable to the virtual realm? And vice versa? It is already hard to separate the virtual and physical planes of existence and to match legislation to each plane. Yet in the Metaverse this very distinction will collapse. How will these affect relations between states and the basic functions of the multilateral system?
Finally, will the Metaverse truly be global or will there be a global Metaverse, or a Chinese Metaverse walled off by a great firewall? If the vision of the Metaverse is truly realized, firewalls will become extinct. States will no longer be able to monitor their virtual borders. Will this lead certain states to try and sabotage the creation of the Metaverse? Or will these governments invest massively in developing the Metaverse outflanking tech companies and the company formerly known as Facebook?
The first discussant, Prof. Corneliu Bjola of the University of Oxford, suggested that we examine previous instances of digitalization. According to Bjola, governments in general, and foreign ministries in particular, adopt new technologies once these have attracted a sizable audience. Indeed, diplomats only migrated to social media once these became regular features of daily life, and political life. Bjola thus expects that governments will migrate to the Metaverse once it has reached a sizable scale in terms of numbers of users. Moreover, Bjola asserted that diplomats adopt technologies that enhance their capabilities and are weary of technologies that can threaten their capabilities. A digital plane of existence, which is global in nature, may prove a threatening vision to nation states and their diplomats.
Dr. Natalia Grincheva suggested that the forebear of the Metaverse already exists in the form of immersive, cultural environments. Museums and galleries have long since realized the benefits of adding a digital or virtual layer to their activities. Creating immersive cultural environments has become a more common feature in the wake of Covid19 and social isolation. Grincheva also stated that some nations have begun to create a national Metaverse. Such is the case with the government of South Korea that has teamed up with 17 local IT companies to create immersive digital environments where popular culture may be consumed.
Dr. Kat Hone, of the Diplo foundation identified several areas in which the Metaverse may prove impactful. The first is the realm of negotiations. In fully immersive environments diplomats from around the world may gather and negotiate face-to-digital-face. Global summits in the Metaverse will have an added benefit in terms of climate change as diplomats will not need to leave their capital to meet with peers. Second, the Metaverse could be used for crisis management in which diplomats may immediately collaborate with peers to halt the escalation of crises. Finally, the Metaverse may prove useful in training diplomats offering them the opportunity to study the customs and traditions of nations to which they shall be posted.
Prof. James Pamment suggested that we may first see a fragmented Metaverse owned by different actors. The merging of all these Metaverses into one global Metaverse will be a massive task as it will require collaborations and agreements between many tech companies, content producers and states. Pamment thus believes that tech companies will poach diplomats that will then head corporate negotiations. In other words, diplomats will take part in shaping the Metaverse yet not as civil servants but as tech employees.
Pamment states that regulation of the Metaverse will be essential given the date collected during immersive experiences including pupil dilation, heartbeat and biometric data. Who will own this new form of data? Could it be traded and sold by Metaverse companies? Or will there be national regulations that determine what data can and cannot be used? The lax regulation of social media suggests that the Metaverse will be a lawless plane at least in its early days.
Finally, Francesca Vaselli of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group stated that the Metaverse may help reduce digital inequalities between the global north and south. But only if it is developed by multilateral institutions that see beyond the narrow prism of national interests. International organizations such as the UN should thus strive to become integral to the vision of the Metaverse and not join it once it has come to life. In this instance, argues Vaselli, multilateral institutions should not lag behind the tech sector but put forth their own vision of the Multiverse and rally tech companies around an inclusive vision.
The main question raised in the panel discussion is at what stage should states enter the Metaverse? At the vision stage, the design stage or the final stage of regulation. The experts seem at agree that nations and diplomats should become part of the architects of the Metaverse to ensure that it too does not become plagued by digital ills such as misinformation and hate. The only problem is that in many countries, governments are experiencing a crisis of confidence and legitimacy. Can we trust governments to create a new digital world? Can we trust private companies to do so? Or should we put our trust in multilateral institutions thus revitalizing the multilateral system. The questions raised by the Metaverse are daunting, and the solutions must be found today.