The Metaverse may sound like a novel idea from a science fiction novel. But as it edges closer to becoming a reality, could this borderless Metaverse impact how we view freedom of movement in the physical realm?
If you’re interested in technology, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the term “metaverse.” But defining the metaverse is another story. Is it a virtual reality (VR) version of the internet? A 3D social network? A layer of augmented reality (AR) in the physical world? A constellation of many highly immersive virtual worlds? It will likely be all of the above.
In a nutshell, the metaverse ambitions to be a digital universe with limitless possibilities. Imagine your avatar (a 3D representation of you) could explore digital landscapes, play games with people around the world, visit with family worldwide, attend a concert, exercise in new ways, and choose what to wear from a virtual wardrobe. Instead of looking at a screen, the metaverse would enable you to feel present – like you’re physically inside cyberspaces – to foster deeper connections with people, facilitate a robust digital economy, and express yourself via your personal spaces and avatars.
“The most important meaning of ‘metaverse’ is the mission to make the internet a live experience with other people always there, as opposed to the largely individual experience it is today,” High Fidelity CEO and co-founder Philip Rosedale told the World Economic Forum earlier this year.
Some experts contend that it’s improbable we will experience one single metaverse since it would require immense computing power and collaboration between competitors. Instead, we may see many interconnected metaverses, comprising everything from immersive VR games to concerts, professional meetings, exclusive digital products, virtual homes and offices, family reunions, and more.
Much of the above already exists on distinct, isolated platforms with various levels of sophistication. And though we’re still a ways away from creating a virtual world where you can seamlessly teleport from one experience to the next, that has not stopped governments, business leaders and everyday people from dreaming about the possibilities and potential impact.
Meta (formerly Facebook) is one of the key players driving momentum. As a testament to its optimism about the metaverses, the tech giant rebranded as “Meta” last year, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared his vision for the metaverse during the company’s Connect 2021 virtual conference in October 2021. Since then, some real-world – and virtual – countries have already started devising how they advance digital diplomacy in cyberspace. Last year, for instance, Barbados announced that its next embassy would open in Decentraland, an online world accessible with a VR headset and computer where you can buy land, art, and attend music festivals.
“This is going to change the way the world works,” Gabriel Abed, Barbados’ real-world ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, told Bloomberg. “The embassy is a small thing. The big thing is what governments can do together when land is no longer physical land, and limitations are no longer part of the equation.”
“This is about diplomatic parity. We simply cannot support 197 diplomatic missions around the world. We recognize that we’re a 166-square mile island – we’re tiny – but in the metaverse, we’re as large as America or Germany.”
The Caribbean nation isn’t the only one experimenting with new technology to overcome barriers in the physical world and bring people closer together. With the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, South Korea’s unification ministry launched “DMZ Metaverse”, where visitors can explore digital museums, a cross-border observatory and Panmunjom village, the site of several historic diplomatic meetings. Although this virtual experience is rudimentary at best, it provides a peek into what’s possible – how the metaverse could potentially transcend borders and facilitate richer online experiences.
That’s precisely the vision shared by Meta – a metaverse that will “transcend national borders”. The company invites us to imagine a virtual world where you can “teleport to anywhere you want,” says Zuckerberg. “Teleporting around the metaverse is going to be like clicking a link on the internet.”
It won’t matter where you were born in the physical world because the whole universe is at your doorstep in the metaverse. Meta emphasizes “interoperability”, or what the company describes as “the interconnectedness of standards, systems and applications that enable people to travel seamlessly between one part of the metaverse and another.” Without interoperability, Meta argues, the metaverse will become “fragmented and broken into silos, each impenetrable from the other.”
If Meta or other companies can fulfill this lofty vision of vast, interconnected and borderless virtual domains, perhaps such a digital reality could inspire society to contemplate borders in the physical world, too.
“An open digital world free of outdated conventions like borders and single-country citizenship could demonstrate the power of freedom of movement and mobility,” says Armand Arton, Founder of Passport Index. “Millions of people are born in a place with a passport that limits their mobility and restricts access to opportunities, personal safety and essential services. If we had an open, interconnected world, anyone would feel empowered to elevate their circumstances regardless of where they were born.”
If the metaverse takes shape and provides freedom of movement between worlds, it has the potential to bring people together online and challenge traditions and perceptions in the physical world. But such a borderless vision of the world isn’t without its hang-ups. Without a regulating body, the metaverses could lack rules and norms, as well as privacy and human rights standards. Will it feel safe? What data can tech companies and governments collect? How can we assure the architects of the metaverse build it responsibly?
“Important questions remain, but the metaverse has the potential to enhance the human experience in many ways,” says Arton. “It is an opportunity to experiment with the status quo and do things differently.”
As this next frontier takes shape, our vision for what constitutes freedom of movement can and should evolve. If we can navigate a digital world freely and share ideas, culture, commerce and more, then the concept of physical borders might also begin to evolve.