The Seoul Metropolitan Government expressed its ambitions to become one of the first governments to delve into the metaverse realm. As a leading city into the Metaverse, Seoul must be careful in its city-wise implementations for democratic practices, otherwise it may become dangerous for democratic integrity.
Metaverse, which is a portmanteau of the words Meta and Universe, was first coined by sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, and it can simply be explained as a virtual 3D network that provides opportunities for universal social connection. With the advancement of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), many cities have expressed interest in carrying their practices into the Metaverse, with Seoul carrying as the lead. The City of Seoul aims to build spaces for avatar government officials to meet with citizens and listen to their complaints; organizations for public investment; spaces for the business sector and many more. Implementation of political life into the metaverse is inevitable at this point, and it may provide many benefits for the public, yet it also possesses many risks for democratic integrity, especially in the long run. Therefore, the risks must be addressed sooner than later, so that measures could be taken at least for the predictable issues, which would also provide confidence when institutions would have to deal with unpredictable problems.
The operationalization of the Metaverse is not thoroughly elaborated in the legislation, which is not abnormal considering that the transition is at initial stages at South Korea. However, this brings about many concerns regarding the checks and balances of such practices. Within the metaverse, what is published by the government should be carefully laid out, since the lack of oversight may lead to mass manipulation or the spread of false information by or through the parties that have more resources, usually the ruling party. Which also raises the question, is politics only for the elites? Most of the public will not have access to VR tools or have the proper education to use it carefully. The institutions embedded in the city’s history will now go through a massive paradigm shift, and yet the rules and regulations are widely unclear. There are massive technologies that may back the spread of incorrect information, deepfakes is a massive industry and these risks require the states to have the upper hand in technological advances in order to protect both the integrity of its institutions, the access to correct information and the personal information of its citizens. Data has become the most essential asset since it can be utilized to influence decisions.
Of course, the metaverse will provide access to a globalized network, so it may present beneficial tools to access resources regarding democratic values and institutions as well, and yet, the non-advanced network that we have is already corrupted. And South Korea, given its history on democratic backsliding and recovery, is not immune to corruption. Hence, the concerns should be addressed early on to ensure the benefits of this transition outweigh the costs. The South Korean Ministry of Science and ICT initiated the Metaverse Alliance, which features 500 firms as partners towards this journey. The Metaverse Alliance, thus completely shows that the companies will also have the power of decision-making, and they will likely support political causes that benefits them here as well, causing a potential widening of the gap between the rich and poor. Similarly, it is hoped to provide new learning opportunities, and yet this may lead to biased education practices towards the population, both in terms of content and in terms of student accessibility.
“At its best, the digital revolution will empower, connect, inform and save lives. At its worst, it will disempower, disconnect, misinform, and cost lives.” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2019. So, just as we protect and preserve the human rights in the physical realm, extensive measures should be taken in the virtual realm as well. Overall, a comprehensive legislation that would be deemed exemplary to the globe should be in question, and security should also be ensured within this highly globalized network, again with measures taken on a global scope, and unbiased expert opinions should be publicized. The Metaverse will provide many benefits, as long as the states provide equal accessibility to its citizens, as it is responsible to do so. However, doing that would mean massive spending on resources, more than the spending on building the space at the moment, so there is a high probability that this will benefit the rich again, and not the poor. Thus, this may reduce the access to information even more since most of the public will not have the tools for it. It is incredibly essential to ensure that this new opportunity will not be used for the purpose of extending influence over democratic integrity. In the end, we may live in 2022, but for the wealthy companies, the future was here so long ago.
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Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos, courtesy of Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero License