The Metaverse. How did it start? The term metaverse is coined from Neal Stephenson’s novel ‘Snow Crash’ 1992 (XR Today, 2021). Within his novel, Stephenson used the term metaverse to describe the virtual reality-based successor to the internet. Years following its release, the term metaverse has been referenced in multiple pop culture settings such as in the popular film, ‘The Matrix’ (Ghlionn, 2021).
(Snow Crash Book Cover, 1992, copyright belongs to publisher, Bantam Books (USA))
Despite the regular use of the term, we have still not yet defined exactly what the metaverse is going to be. Scholars have referred to it as an “embodied internet” (Dwivedi et al., 2022) or the next evolution of Web 2.0. However, how can we ensure that the metaverse won’t be a repetition of what was seen in the 2006 internet transformation, with grandiose claims? Some scholars predict it to be a virtual environment that is ruled by platforms, while others claim it will be Web 3.0 or open virtual platforms (Gaudamuz et al., 2022).
So when it comes to discussions surrounding the governance of this new space we need to define the type of metaverse we want to explore and consider in our discussion. Ultimately, the metaverse aspires to be an ‘omni-experience’ encompassing different aspects of the human experience (Truog, 2022). But how can we ensure responsible design within this model? We must begin by asking who will control the metaverse.
A key action as we begin our transition to the metaverse is that we must employ a controlled conversion by entities to very specifically mandate APIs that they can then copyright and control (Gaudamuz et al., 2022). This model could take us away from the current internet paradigm and divert us from the promise of Web 3.0. It is essentially the employment of legal interoperability that would allow users to take digital goods from once virtual space to another (Weber, 2014).
The transition to the metaverse also introduces the potential re-centralisation of the internet. We have seen our internet today move towards centralization, but with that we have observed problems in having single points of controls and single points of failure (Swati Goyal, 2018). To combat this, an introduction of a walled garden might be attractive to some designers as it can provide additional security and more reliability, but it removes the choice for users. Governing and controlling one space would not allow for free movement within the metaverse and remove choice (Swati Goyal, 2018).
But ultimately before posing any recommendations as to how Web 3.0 should be governed, we should consider whether it should be centralised or decentralised.
Advantages of Centralisation
- Centralised networks are pre-planned, the costs associated with it do not cross budgets until and unless it is absolutely required to expand the network.
- There is a defined command chain.
- They enable quick decision implementation as there are fewer people involved in authorisation. (Swati Goyal, 2018)
Disadvantages of Centralisation
- Single point of failure allowing for the possibility of a complete network shut-down.
- Security issues due to single point of failure, especially for mission-critical services.
- Scalability due to the single server.
Advantages of decentralisation
- Full control is given to users. There is no verification process dependent on third parties.
- It allows for open development leading to amazing services, tools, and products to be built on top of the network, leading to unlimited scalability.
- Less prone to censorship, as there is no central authority that controls the data. Peers can therefore interact directly. (Swati Goyal, 2018)
Disadvantages of Decentralisation
- If not well maintained, it can lead to conflict due to the organisational structure.
- Crime can be more apparent as things can be done anonymously and therefore little to no censorship can be inflicted.
- There is an immense cost involved in the set up of a decentralised space as it requires setting up of systems that can make communication more automatic.
After considering the advantages and disadvantages of centralisation and decentralisation we can come to a conclusion that decentralising would arguably be a better option, where the web 3.0 space is interoperable and locked open. Therefore, it is best we resist attempts to centralise its architecture, its services, and its protocols (Dwivedi et al., 2022). Decentralisation design would make it more resilient against censorship, surveillance, and other forms of centralised control (CB Insights, 2022). Ultimately the first internet was designed to be decentralised for robustness and for freedom, but as people favour this structure what they really are calling for is democratisation.
In order to ensure democracy and avoid plutocracy we need systems within web 3.0 that continually re-democratise (Dwivedi et al., 2022). We can take learnings from years of mistakes made in corporate governance, where the decisions have been made by those who ultimately hold the most wealth, shares, within high powered entities. This poses a threat with the current DAOs which employ a plutocracy model.
So the debate on whether the metaverse should be centralised or decentralised is crucial to predicting the role of governance on this new form of technology. Because if the environment becomes centralised due to the various causes discussed, we can optimise that a central point can be used to govern and a team of security engineers can ensure it is up to date and can put out patches. Whereas if we opt for a decentralised location, we must also ensure that users have their rights intact, part of which is ensuring that they have a secure and private experience.
Decentralisation is optimal for the lifespan of the metaverse as it provides options and freedom for users.
It goes without saying that the Web 3.0, despite it not being fully formed, poses numerous challenges in regards to legal and ethical government. With the promise of a virtual reality space in which users enter as themselves there is the need for a great deal of information to be gathered about the user before this is possible. From simply the use of someone’s voice, to a virtual copy of their entire being, there is – in both scenarios – data that must be digitised and transmitted (Jia, 2022). This transaction calls for digital inferences to be made about the user (Gaudamuz et al., 2022).
As their unique virtual reality space is created, each user is exposed to their information falling in the hands of third parties. The transmitted information can then, in the most powerful way we know, make an impression on a user and leave them with a set of desires that fit other people’s interests and not the user’s own. This can be achieved by modern marketing using data to create a virtual environment that influences the thoughts of any internet user (Mosaic Staff, 2021).
In order to combat this, research engineer Dylan Urquidi believes that there should be ‘zero trust given to corporate and government entities at the implementation stage of the metaverse.’ He believes ‘It could be actioned by zero knowledge proofs and the implementation of homomorphic encryption’ (Gaudamuz et al., 2022).
We can see foreshadows of this theory in action today by looking at the example of face id. We could, in fact, be currently using private biometric technology to protect users in face-id interfaces. Biometrics are a specific technology within homomorphic encryption that ensures no storage can be made of the original image. Companies today who claim that they have implemented privacy measures without private biometrics are an example of what could go wrong if this approach is not codified into law.
Essentially when we reach a point in which hmd transitions to something eventually implanted, we must make sure that computation occurs without decryption. Why is there a need for that data to be stored? We do not need to open up the possibility of external users influencing and shifting another’s consciousness.
Instead, in these early stages of Web 3.0 design, let’s explore computation that occurs on encrypted data that is never decrypted. That way we can set ourselves up with an ethical foundation that can be sustained as the internet progresses over time.
CB Insights. (2022, August 29). What is Web3? How a decentralized internet could upend the digital economy. CB Insights Research. https://www.cbinsights.com/research/web3-decentralized-internet/
Dwivedi, Y. K., Hughes, L., Baabdullah, A. M., Ribeiro-Navarrete, S., Giannakis, M., Al-Debei, M. M., Dennehy, D., Metri, B., Buhalis, D., Cheung, C. M. K., Conboy, K., Doyle, R., Dubey, R., Dutot, V., Felix, R., Goyal, D. P., Gustafsson, A., Hinsch, C., Jebabli, I., & Janssen, M. (2022). Metaverse beyond the hype: Multidisciplinary perspectives on emerging challenges, opportunities, and agenda for research, practice and policy. International Journal of Information Management, 66, 102542. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2022.102542
Gaudamuz, A., Bar Zeev, A., Urquidi, D., Opsahl, K., & Mantagna, M. (2022, May 26). A Brave New (Virtual) World: Ethics and Governance of XR and the Metaverse. Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v6IC-0Gi3o&ab_channel=GDC
Ghlionn, J. M. (2021, December 21). What “The Matrix” reveals about our grim Metaverse future. Inverse. https://www.inverse.com/entertainment/matrix-metaverse-red-pill-blue-pill
Jia, D. W. (2022, August 5). Web 3.0 and IoT For Digital Transformation. Medium. https://medium.com/@davidwjia/web-3-0-and-iot-for-digital-transformation-51a0160b5ebb
Mosaic Staff. (2021, February 8). What is Web 3.0 & Why It’s A Threat to the Status Quo. MOSAIC ADVERTISING & MARKETING. https://choosemosaic.com/what-is-web-3-0-why-its-a-threat-to-the-status-quo/
Swati Goyal. (2018, August 15). Centralized vs. Decentralized? The New Decentralized Internet Networks. 101 Blockchains; 101 Blockchains. https://101blockchains.com/centralized-vs-decentralized-internet-networks/
Truog, D. (2022, June 7). The Metaverse Must Be Deeply Human-Centric. Forrester. https://www.forrester.com/blogs/the-metaverse-must-be-deeply-human-centric/
Weber, R. (2014, December 18). Legal Interoperability as a Tool for Combatting Fragmentation. Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://www.cigionline.org/publications/legal-interoperability-tool-combatting-fragmentation/
XR Today. (2021, December 1). Unpacking Meta: Where Did the Word Metaverse Come From? XR Today. https://www.xrtoday.com/virtual-reality/unpacking-meta-where-did-the-word-metaverse-come-from/