Need to guard against 'metaverse' craze
China Daily

Editor's note: Social and cultural changes in 2021 continued to influence people's lives while improved social governance and rising public interest and participation in cultural events contributed significantly to social stability. Yet some changes have created new challenges for the country. Three experts share their views on what these changes and challenges mean to the country with China Daily:

Visitors are pictured in front of an immersive art installation titled "Machine Hallucinations — Space: Metaverse". (Photo: Agencies)

The term "metaverse" has been a hot topic of discussion since the summer, and is also among the hottest new words of the year. Although Facebook renaming itself Meta adds a whole new dimension to metaverse, Facebook and Microsoft both have staked claim to the term.

All of a sudden, all kinds of metaverse-related research programs, institutions and applications have sprung up. But what exactly is metaverse?

Neal Stephenson is credited with coining the term metaverse. He used it in his 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, in which he envisioned lifelike avatars meeting in 3D surroundings and other virtual reality environments. Metaverse, therefore, is a combination of multiple high-tech elements, including mobile internet, the internet of things, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and videos, which makes users feel like they are "living" in a digital universe.

As a new capital market darling, the concept has been so overhyped that it could now spawn many equities bubbles.

Social media have long passed the honeymoon period with governments. For example, Facebook has been grappling with US regulators on allegations of monopoly, invasion of privacy, misuse of users' data, spread of misinformation, and other serious issues.

Also, government supervision against social media and apps has extended to the virtual space. And the United States administration has been strictly monitoring Facebook-issued cryptocurrency Libra.

In fact, even before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, Facebook's growth had slowed down worldwide. So Facebook started acquiring companies, and focusing on virtual reality, augmented reality and cloud gaming. But these emerging technologies are far from being used on a mass scale by the people in the foreseeable future.

That's why social media companies decided to create a "new story" and sell it to the capital market. And perhaps that's why Facebook changed its name to Meta. But rather than a leap forward in high-tech, the change in name is more of a business tactic aimed at increasing its value at a time when the internet giant seems to have run out of tricks to boost its growth.

But metaverse is nothing but a term borrowed from Stephenson's sci-fi novel Snow Crash and inspired by cyberpunk works such as Vernon Vinge's True Names (1981) and William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). Apart from the novel Snow Crash, metaverse has also appeared on screen, including as the name of an "oasis" in the 2018 film Ready Player One.

As a matter of fact, scientists started developing the technologies that have gone into creating metaverse since World War II. By hyping up the concept in recent days, internet and social media companies are trying to create a new story for making more money.

This shows how bubbly contemporary capitalism is. Especially, despite its financial market performing strongly over the past years, the US doesn't have enough industries within its borders to sustain its economy, and to create new jobs-while the administration has kept raising its debt limit, pushing the country toward credit default.

This is a bad omen. Because some capitalists are trying to milk profit out of the metaverse concept years ahead of its time, which could lead to another serious global financial crisis after the dotcom crash in 2000 and the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

China needs to remain on high alert against financial speculators trying to cash in on the metaverse craze, not least because such actions could disrupt the efficient allocation of resources, hinder the cultivation of talents, and harm industries. This is all the more important as China is taking strict measures to curb monopolies.

Since the real reason why capitalists are hyping up metaverse has been exposed, the Chinese authorities should maintain calm and prepare to effectively deal with a potential metaverse bubble.

Also, rather than blindly following the economic growth models of North America and Western Europe, China must have absolute control of the digital economy. And by expediting the construction of digital infrastructure and improving its governance system, China should make sure that the digital economy-along with the national economy-develops in a healthy manner.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily. The author is a researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Arts.