Metaverse redraws geopolitical map

By YU NANPING and LUAN XINWEI / 12-22-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The first “Bird’s Nest Digital Experience and Metaverse Festival” opened at the National Stadium on Dec. 18. The week-long event will present the most cutting-edge digital technology, the trendiest cultural IP, and the most interesting entertainment and interactive experiences currently popular in the metaverse. Photo: CNSphoto

In international political studies, a metaverse empowered by digital transformation is anticipated to trigger significant shifts in power dynamics and geopolitical landscapes. However, there is limited macro-level understanding of these upcoming changes. In particular, in the current historical phase where technological revolutions intersect with a resurgence in geopolitical dynamics, how will the metaverse restructure the virtual world? How will it shape new realms of international politics and the contest for global power? What profound implications will the metaverse bring to the world’s geopolitical future?

Metaverse and our world

The term “metaverse” is composed of “meta,” meaning “after” or “beyond,” and “verse,” representing “universe.” In other words, the metaverse aims to create a fully immersive, transcendent, self-sustaining virtual shared continuum, a triadic intersection of the physical world, human society, and the digital realm. This ambitious construction requires the integration of several technologies: network communication, artificial intelligence, blockchain, digital twinning, edge computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, among other advancements, as the foundational infrastructure. Using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), the metaverse aims to achieve seamless and barrier-free human-computer interaction through a high degree of fusion between technology and physical infrastructure.

The metaverse is shaing the future of the next generation of the internet, while its operating principles are being established. It is extremely complex, highly digitized, and possesses a comprehensive closed-loop economic system embedded within a highly independent value structure. It also hosts self-sustaining social systems and norms within a regulated digital ecosystem.

In the early stages of the internet’s rise, scholars provided forward-thinking insights into the inherent political logic of the metaverse. The metaverse uncritically assumes a mature frontier, demonstrating a strong desire to reconstruct the internet. Cyber-libertarians envision the early internet and the future metaverse as a new existence beyond the control of any single company or the intrusion of any national entity or government.

Building from the metaverse’s inherent political logic, the pure ideal of technological libertarianism is unlikely to resurface within the metaverse, and the future development paradigm of Balkanization will not gain universal acceptance. The development of the metaverse involves universally profound forms of exercising power, challenging future imaginations while shaping national technological strategies and future geopolitical competition. At the same time, interactions between technology and politics will generate new relationships within the dynamic, creative, and complex metaverse.

Asymmetric technological power

The generation of technological political power within the metaverse is worth deeper analysis. Power has always been a focal point in international politics, with various theories offering different perspectives on power. Although technology’s driving force is currently controlled by sovereign states, tech companies also enhance their political influence through lobbying and similar political activities, exercising powers that extend beyond mere commercial realms.

The metaverse enhances asymmetric power through highly integrated technology. Although considerable research has been conducted on the topic of power within digital platforms, the transformative potential stemming from the integration of technological capabilities, innovation, and breakthroughs within the metaverse differs significantly from past industrial revolutions and any technological advancements seen in the internet era. 

The metaverse’s success primarily depends on the grounding support of a series of cutting-edge technological integrations, which come with high entry barriers and stringent standards. To meet these requirements, tech giants first manufacture the hardware entry points, application software, and relevant procedural standards for the metaverse, and then they design mandatory interfaces that connect all interactive activities between the physical and digital worlds.

The metaverse shapes technical proprietary spaces through sociotechnical imagination. As the metaverse relies on a highly forward-thinking, pioneering, and exploratory aggregation of advanced technologies, it is currently a narrative of future technology. The physical integration and technological amalgamation, including institutional logic, governance relationships, and organizational methods, are not yet formed and fixed. Instead, they remain in a perpetual state of dynamic generation.

Within the politics of technology, the most crucial aspect lies in future imaginative creations. Sociotechnical imagination connects the past and the future through a complex dialectic. Thus, under different political contexts the outcomes of sociotechnical development can vary widely.

The metaverse achieves power consolidation through “data enclosure.” The extensive development of digitization has propelled the rise of large tech companies and spawned a new logic of capitalist accumulation aimed at data extraction and behavioral manipulation. The control and operation of data production, as well as opaque algorithms, lie in the hands of technological platforms. The rapid elevation of asymmetric power through data capture is an undeniable fact. 

However, due to higher thresholds for technology, data, and the algorithmic capabilities required by the metaverse versus conventional data production processes, a certain screening and selection process has emerged. This process enhances the foundational capacities of technological platforms. This means that the metaverse is not an open-source and public service-oriented platform. Fundamentally, it’s an isolated or alliance-oriented closed technological platform built by major tech companies.

Beyond geopolitical shaping

Great power struggles and transformation of power under the “disruption” of the metaverse must be examined. The construction of the metaverse involves both a chaotic combination and a thoughtful integration of new technologies such as blockchain, simulated interactions, cloud computing, the IoT, and new communication methods. These technological interactions will lead to a comprehensive reconstruction of the technological and industrial complex, from technology to content and from hardware to software, setting off a chain reaction which will ultimately lead to the development of a new generation of digital technologies and infrastructure. 

Although the elements empowering the metaverse are at least one generation’s technological maturity away from large-scale implementation of this new paradigm, countries which lack the technological capability or socioeconomic factors to support the use of these technologies will be excluded from this international technological evolution. Such exclusion will further exacerbate inequality in international political and economic power.

First, the metaverse will strengthen interstate competition and gaming through enhanced network communication technology. Second, the metaverse’s digital economic system will restructure financial power within international politics. Finally, the metaverse will accelerate the transformation of global power.

The metaverse is likely to create a new terrain for geopolitical competition. Its emergence coincides with the development of cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies, which rely on encrypted blockchains as foundational technology, have been significantly affected by major geopolitical events since their inception.

The metaverse brings new applications and enormous potential market value to cryptocurrencies. In particular, the emergence of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) digital collections using cryptocurrencies as a means of payment stimulates new demand and supply patterns in the market, propelling encrypted assets to move from the periphery to the core of the financial system.

The metaverse gives rise to new geopolitical military interests. War and peace are fundamental to international politics. Over the past two decades, rapid advancements in distributed and interactive simulation technologies have promoted the integration of various military branches and combinations of equipment in military training simulations, detaching modern warfare from a purely “realistic” level. The technological iteration driven by the metaverse holds immeasurable military potential as it integrates technologies like artificial intelligence, the IoT, and network communication into a new virtual space, creating a new strategic arena and intensifying hybrid warfare. 

Beyond ushering in new military transformations, the metaverse itself becomes an extension of new military geopolitical interests. This is already being seen in the Russia-Ukraine conflict through digital warfare over data and technological control rights.

It is crucial to recognize that while technological aggregation within the metaverse transforms the nature of warfare, it also shapes new military interests and fosters new military cooperation between tech companies and sovereign states. In geopolitical competitions over military metaverse applications, tech companies can form substantial alliances with sovereign states, collaboratively managing cyberattacks and sharing information, thereby cementing professional support and organic connections within a new technological-political context. 

As a result, the dominant technological position of tech companies will further translate into geopolitical advantages for sovereign states. The potential generated from the collaboration between sovereign state governments and tech companies will empower technologically advantaged sovereign states with greater resilience and recovery in modern hybrid warfare such as cyber and information warfare. When such capabilities are wielded by the aggressors in geopolitical maneuvers, the resultant threats could further intensify asymmetries in global power.

The metaverse is triggering “re-territorialization’” beyond geopolitical virtual space. The metaverse’s unique form exemplifies “de-territorialization” and downplays geographical territoriality and sovereignty. However, the process of de-territorialization itself is indeed a process of “re-territorialization.” This can also be understood as the metaverse driving postmodern technological amalgamations, leading to changes in the status, power, and significance of various global political economic actors, resulting in the dual process of deconstruction and reconstruction. 

As the metaverse develops, our understanding of “territory” as an explanatory factor in international politics has not vanished. Instead, “re-territorialization” is a new trend spreading in the metaverse, projecting a new pattern for contemporary international relations and geopolitics.

Primarily, the metaverse’s groundbreaking technological integration, alongside ensuing industry and technological competition, will provoke new conflicts and competition, further expanding the asymmetry of technological political power. After this, the new dynamics of geopolitics will lead to a reorganization and new equilibrium in the power of public and private sectors, presenting new aggregation trends against the backdrop of dispersed sovereign state power. Finally, the combined modern intelligent technological integration achieved in the fourth industrial revolution, sparked by the metaverse, is strengthening the geopolitical influence of “technological hub centers,” amalgamating technology and industry clusters.

Yu Nanping (professor) and Luan Xinwei are from the School of Politics and International Relations at East China Normal University.

Edited by YANG XUE