Owning the Metaverse: Blockchain Democracy in a Virtual World

The internet is democratizing. Less than a few decades ago, people relied on libraries for research, printing houses for news, and public forums for communication. Now, we have the autonomy of a simple Google search or Zoom call. The internet empowers us all, intertwining a landscape of expressionists and institutionalists, revolutionaries and contemporaries, producers and consumers alike. 

Still, for many aspects of our lives, we rely heavily on pre-established centralized frameworks. The ever branching arms of technology have yet to comprehensively bundle governance, economics, and society, as people vest legitimacy in Westphalian States—rudimentary chains of trust that date back centuries. 

Enter the metaverse—a digital convergence of virtual and augmented reality with our everyday lives. Imagine “Ready Player One” meets cyberpunk 90’s techno-thriller dystopia. This embodied internet is the future for billions across the globe: all commerce displaced by immersive retailers, all communication performed via VR headsets, and all Travis Scott concerts raging on 3D arenas. 

As we build an entirely new society pixel by pixel, the norms we once adhered are fundamentally reimagined. How can blockchain empower individuals within these virtual communities? What are the socio-political implications of embracing this decentralization? And is this the final frontier for a global democracy? 

The hype train burst into the spotlight with Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of Facebook’s transition into a metaverse company. Combining its Oculus technology with an active social media user base, Facebook plans to build the next-gen social media platform, blurring the lines between our two realities.

This cohesion has long been recognized as the necessary evolution of the internet. Major companies, including Nvidia, Fastly, and Disney, have all been hard at work to lead the charge. Each has claimed their own express goals, from creating cloud-native workflows to online theme parks. But so far, none have been able to replicate the truly dystopian experience developed in the sector of gaming. 

Popular games such as Roblox, Fortnite, and Animal Crossing are all, at their core, individual metaverses. Players of these games are dropping into immersive virtual meta-environments and can interact with user-created content in robust realms. Everything from in-game currency and character customization to player emote and communication protocols organize upon the principles of non-linear, life-like gameplay.

Nonetheless, these communities still represent virtual fantasy. The final step in bridging our real world to a metaphysical existence is enforcing ownership. That is where blockchain comes into play.

Earlier this year, crypto entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan, also known as MetaKovan, famously bought Beeple’s $69 million NFT. This historic artwork solidified the merit of NFTs, but more importantly, it aspires to serve as the foundation of a new virtual world environment. Sundaresan and his colleague Anand Venkateswaran are currently in the race to build their own metaverse: a virtual gallery to showcase their amassed collections of digital artifacts. 

And NFTs are only the surface. Blockchain and decentralized financial systems make up the backbone of the many establishing first-generation metaverses.

The Sandbox, an Ethereum-based metaverse, allows users to create and monetize in-game assets such as people, animals, and tools. On Decentraland, another growingly popular digital world, users can buy and sell virtual land and real estate in an evolving, playable environment. In each of these realities, virtual pioneers enjoy the prerogative of self-determination. 

As a digital asset, blockchain establishes ownership and governance, a uniquely democratic power structure. In a society where all facets of media, entertainment, commerce, and governance converge digitally, it is up to decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) to lay down the law and maintain order.

DAOs, by nature, cryptographically allocate power to all. This government of the future allows for a trickle-up power structure where users take direct stake in internet-native organizations. Moreover, the administrative capabilities are bound to immutable smart contracts that establish transparency and equity.

Harnessing this technology, an embryonic promise awaits for populists and anarchists alike. Already, with as little as a few spare dollars, blockchain allows everyday citizens to partake in a global peer-to-peer exchange. In a similar fashion, Metaverses provide a unified structure of global governance. This revolution is the first step toward disassembling artificial borders, releasing the constraints of our federated physical world.

Metaverses can enfranchise those previously bound to geographical limits or state-governed administrations. Perhaps, people from around the world will adopt a common stablecoin currency, carrying through the long-held utopian dream for international finance. Most importantly, digital identity can be amassed from self-governed user data and traceable histories. 

The promise of a digital double is massive. Nonetheless, there is still a long road ahead until the ambitions of the metaverse are realized, and far more regulatory hurdles that are yet to be overcome. How can we secure DAO smart contracts from hacks? Which protocols allow for the most efficiency and transparency? What are the roles of private and public institutions in developing such projects? 

Democracy takes time, and in building a meta-society we must be precautious and patient. Metaverses promise radical transparency, profitability, and autonomy. For those who gain access to these solutions, a bounty awaits. We are chasing the truest republic, devolving power from traditional institutions to individuals. Suitably, it will be the public, not corporations, who decide its fate. Mass adoption and further use case development—the bet on a metaverse future is in our hands. 

About The Author

2022-23 Co-President | Harvard Technology Review.

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