The Pacific nation of Tuvalu plans to make its appearance in the metaverse, in response to the current threat of rising sea levels.
Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice, Communications, and Foreign Affairs, Mr. Simon Kofe, made the announcement via an impressive digital address to leaders at COP27.
He said the plan, which involves “worst-case scenarios”, includes creating a digital twin of Tuvalu on the road to replicate its beautiful islands and preserve its rich culture:
The tragedy of this result cannot be overstated […] Tuvalu may be the first country in the world to go online – but if global warming continues, it won’t be the last.
The idea is that the change would allow Tuvalu to “function fully as a sovereign state” while its people are forced to live elsewhere.
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There are two issues here. One is about a small Pacific island nation facing an existential threat and looking to protect their country through technology.
Another is that Tuvalu’s best future would be to avoid the negative effects of climate change and maintain itself as a world nation. In that case, this could be his way of gaining national attention.
What is the world of the metaverse?
The Metaverse represents an ever-expanding future in which augmented and virtual reality becomes part of everyday life. There are many visions of what the metaverse could look like, the most famous of which comes from Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
What most of these visions have in common is the idea that the metaverse is about mixed 3D worlds. A persistent avatar moves from one world to another, as easily as moving from one room to another in the universe.
Its purpose is to obscure the human ability to distinguish between reality and reality, good or bad.
Kofe suggests that the three aspects of Tuvalu can be further described as follows:
- Territory – enjoyment of the natural beauty of Tuvalu, which can be associated with it in different ways
- Culture – the ability of Tuvaluans to communicate in ways that preserve their language, culture and traditions, wherever they may be.
- Jurisdiction – if there is to be a loss of land that the Tuvalu government has jurisdiction over (an unimaginable disaster, but one that they are beginning to consider) then will they have jurisdiction over the actual land instead?
Is it possible?
If Tuvalu’s views are real and not just a reflection of the dangers of climate change, what would it look like?
Technically, it is already easy to create a beautiful, detailed and well-photographed part of Tuvalu.
In addition, thousands of different types of online and 3D worlds (such as Second Life) show that it is possible to have a social environment that can preserve its culture.
The idea of combining technology with the leadership style of Tuvalu’s “digital twin” is possible.
There have been previous attempts by governments to take location-based services and create analogues of them. For example, e-residency in Estonia is an online-only process that non-Estonians can use to get jobs such as company registration.
Another example is countries setting up embassies virtually on the Internet platform Second Life.
Yet there are significant technical and cultural challenges in bringing together and digitizing the things that define the world.
Tuvalu has only about 12,000 citizens, but accommodating such a large population in real time in such a deep country is a technical challenge. There are issues with bandwidth, computing power, and the fact that many users hate headphones or feel nauseated.
No one has shown that internationalism can be successfully translated into the world. Even if they are, some argue that the digital world makes states redundant.
Tuvalu’s idea of creating its own digital twin in the metaverse is a message in a bottle – a complex response to a crisis. However there is a message written here as well, for some who may consider going back to things if the response is lost due to climate change.
The Metaverse has no escape
Metaverse is built on a foundation of servers, data centers, network routers, devices, and head-mounted displays. All this technology has a hidden carbon footprint and requires physical and energy maintenance.
Research published in Nature predicts that the Internet will consume about 20 percent of the world’s electricity by 2025.
The concept of the world of the metaverse just as the response to climate change is exactly the mindset that got us here. The language that begins to adopt new technologies – such as “cloud computing”, “virtual reality”, and “metaverse” – appears as clean and green.
Such words are full of “technological solutionism” and “greenwashing”. They hide the fact that technological solutions to climate change often exacerbate the problem because of the way they produce energy and power.
So where is this coming from in Tuvalu?
Kofe is well aware that the metaverse is not the answer to Tuvalu’s problems. He is clearly saying that we should focus on reducing the problems caused by climate change by using measures such as the treaty to limit the spread of fossil fuels.
His video about Tuvalu moving into the metaverse is very successful as a teaser. It had media around the world – like his moving plea during COP26 standing up to high water.
However Kofe offers:
Without a global conscience and a global commitment to our shared existence we may find the rest of the world connecting with us online while their nations are collapsing.
It is dangerous to believe, even implicitly, that migration to the metaverse is the right response to climate change. Metaverse can really help keep heritage and culture alive as an archive and digital community. But it seems unlikely to work as an ersatz world.
And, in any case, it can’t work without all the space, infrastructure, and energy that makes the Internet work.
It would be very good for us to show international interest to some of Tuvalu’s activities that are described in the same report:
The first goal of this project is to promote discussions based on the Tuvaluan values of olaga nafsnua (communal living systems), kaitasi (shared responsibility) and fale-pili (being a good neighbor), with the hope that these principles will encourage other countries to understand their shared responsibility. tackling climate change and sea level rise to achieve global sustainability.
The message in the bottle sent by Tuvalu is not really about the ability of states to be flexible at all. The message is clear: support social practices, get involved, and be a good neighbor.
The first of these may not translate to the real world. The second requires us to eat less, and the third requires us to be careful.
Nick KellySenior Lecturer in Interaction Design, Queensland University of Technology and Marcus Foth, Professor of Urban Informatics, Queensland University of Technology
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the first article.