The Pacific nation of Tuvalu plans to create a version of itself in the metaverse in response to the existential threat of rising sea levels.
Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe made the announcement about a chilling digital address to COP27 leaders.
He said the plan, which takes into account the “worst-case scenario,” involves creating a digital twin of Tuvalu in the metaverse to replicate its beautiful islands and preserve its rich culture:
The tragedy of this result cannot be overstated […] Tuvalu might be the first country in the world to exist solely in cyberspace — but if global warming continues unabated, it won’t be the last.
The idea is that the metaverse could allow Tuvalu to “function fully as a sovereign state” as its population is forced to live elsewhere.
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There are two stories here. One is a small Pacific island nation facing an existential threat and trying to preserve its nation through technology.
The other is that by far the preferred future for Tuvalu would be to avoid the worst effects of climate change and preserve itself as a terrestrial nation. If so, this could be his way of getting the world’s attention.
What is a Metaverse Nation?
The Metaverse represents a burgeoning future where augmented and virtual reality become part of everyday life. There are many visions of what the Metaverse might look like, with the most well-known coming from Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta (formerly Facebook).
What most of these visions have in common is the idea that the metaverse is about interoperable and immersive 3D worlds. A persistent avatar moves from one virtual world to another as easily as moving from one room to another in the physical world.
The goal is to obfuscate, for better or for worse, the human ability to differentiate between the real and the virtual.
Kofe implies that three aspects of Tuvalu’s nationality could be replicated in the metaverse:
- Territory – the recreation of Tuvalu’s natural beauty that can be interacted with in different ways
- Culture – the ability of Tuvaluans to interact with each other in a way that preserves their common language, norms and customs wherever they are
- Sovereignty – if there were to be a loss of terrestrial land over which the Tuvalu government has sovereignty (a tragedy beyond imagination but which they are beginning to envision), could they have sovereignty over virtual land instead?
Could it be done?
If Tuvalu’s proposal is indeed meant to be literal and not just symbolic of the dangers of climate change, what might it look like?
Technologically, creating beautiful, immersive, and richly rendered recreations of Tuvalu’s territory is already easy enough.
In addition, thousands of different online communities and 3D worlds (like Second Life) demonstrate that it is possible to have fully virtual interactive spaces that can preserve their own culture.
The idea of combining these technological capabilities with governance capabilities for a “digital twin” of Tuvalu is viable.
There have been previous experiments by governments that took location-based features and created virtual analogues of them. For example, Estonia’s e-residence is an online-only form of residence that non-Estonians can obtain to access services such as business registration.
Another example are countries that set up virtual embassies on the online platform Second Life.
However, there are significant technological and social challenges in merging and digitizing the elements that make up an entire nation.
Tuvalu only has a population of around 12,000, but getting even that many people to interact in real-time in an immersive virtual world is a technical challenge. There are issues with bandwidth, processing power, and the fact that many users dislike headsets or experience nausea.
No one has yet shown that nation states can be successfully translated into the virtual world. Even if they could, others argue that the digital world is making nation-states obsolete.
Tuvalu’s proposal to create its digital twin in the metaverse is a message in a bottle – a desperate response to a tragic situation. But here, too, there is a coded message for others who might consider retreating to the virtual in response to climate change losses.
The metaverse is not a sanctuary
The Metaverse is based on the physical infrastructure of servers, data centers, network routers, appliances and head-mounted displays. All of these technologies have a hidden carbon footprint and require physical maintenance and energy.
Research published in Nature predicts that by 2025 the internet will consume about 20 percent of the world’s electricity consumption.
The idea of metaverse nation in response to climate change is the very mindset that got us here. The language that’s spreading around emerging technologies—like “cloud computing,” “virtual reality,” and “metaverse”—looks clean and green.
Such terms are laden with “technological solution thinking” and “greenwashing”. They obscure the fact that technological responses to climate change often exacerbate the problem because they are very energy and resource intensive.
So where is Tuvalu?
Kofe is aware that the Metaverse is not an answer to Tuvalu’s problems. He explicitly states that we must focus on reducing the impact of climate change through initiatives such as a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
His video about moving from Tuvalu to the Metaverse is very successful as a provocation. It reached press worldwide – as did his moving speech during COP26 while standing knee-deep in the rising water.
But Kofe suggests:
Without a global conscience and commitment to our common well-being, we might find the rest of the world joining us online as their country disappears.
It is dangerous to even implicitly believe that moving to the metaverse is a viable response to climate change. The Metaverse can certainly help keep heritage and culture alive as a virtual museum and digital community. But it seems unlikely to function as a surrogate nation-state.
And either way, without all the land, infrastructure, and energy that keeps the internet going, it certainly won’t work.
It would be far better for us to draw international attention to Tuvalu’s other initiatives, detailed in the same report:
The project’s first initiative promotes diplomacy based on the Tuvaluan values of olaga fakafenua (communal living systems), kaitasi (shared responsibility), and fale-pili (being a good neighbor), with the hope that these values will motivate other nations to embrace their Understand shared responsibility to address climate change and sea level rise to achieve global well-being.
The message in a bottle that Tuvalu sends out is not at all about the possibilities of metaverse nations. The message is clear: promote communal living, take responsibility together and be a good neighbor.
The first of these does not translate to the virtual world. The second requires that we consume less and the third requires that we take care of ourselves.
Nick KellyLecturer in Interaction Design, Queensland University of Technology and Marcus Foth, Professor of Urban Computing, Queensland University of Technology
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.