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Defining the Metaverse and Web3: Implications for Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
September 2, 2022

I recently attended a conference devoted to the latest advances in training and development. Among the sessions were several that addressed the metaverse and Web3. In each session, the speakers presented different definitions of the metaverse and Web3. I was confused, and so was the rest of the audience.

One presenter claimed they trained in the metaverse through static 3-D virtual models. Another presenter stated that their blockchain-based learning management system was part of the metaverse. The many interpretations of the metaverse reminded me of a recent article I read on the RAND Corporation’s blog: “The metaverse is quickly expanding, but its meaning remains unclear. Until an agreement on a definition of “metaverse” is reached, efforts to manage the technology development and related public policy could be muddled at best.

The authors of the post argue that the metaverse concept is a “catch-all” term involving anything that deals with augmented reality, virtual reality, online 3-D objects and worlds and blockchain technologies. Without a clear definition describing the guiding and supporting metaverse technologies, public policymakers will have difficulty creating adequate regulatory policies while encouraging innovation in the metaverse. The first step is to distinguish between Web3 and the metaverse.

What is Web3?

Web3 is the third generation of the commercial Internet, according to Bernard Marr, writing in Forbes magazine. The first generation of the commercial Internet was the world wide web, consisting of static websites with little interactivity. The second generation of the commercial Internet had much more interactivity, culminating in social media sites controlled by massive companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon. The defining feature of the first two generations is that the Internet is centralized on servers that can control the flow of information.

Web3 is built on decentralized technologies. Web3 sites exist in the cloud and don’t rely on servers for hosting. The backbone of Web3 is blockchains which democratize trust and allows for the rise of smart contracts and decentralized autonomous organizations. The technologies of Web3 have led to the rise of cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFT). Web3 technologies can support aspects of the metaverse, and this close partnership is why many confuse the metaverse with Web3. However, there is a significant difference.

What is the Metaverse?

The metaverse concept is often traced back to Neal Stephenson’s novel, Snow Crash (1992). I first read about the metaverse concept in Dr. David Gelernter’s Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean (1991). Both books describe the metaverse as a collection of virtual reality worlds where users interact with the digital worlds and each other through online representations (“avatars”). I’ve played with virtual reality simulators since Microsoft’s Flight Simulator in the late 1980s. The technology has advanced significantly in the 40 years since (as this short video demonstrates).

Both Web3 and the metaverse can exist independently of each other. However, combining the technologies gives you richly detailed virtual worlds that can support real-world commerce and social interactions. Decentraland.org is one such example of the combination of Web3 and metaverse technologies. Decentraland is administered by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that manages the smart contracts that govern the selling and use of virtual land and assets. Users vote on policies that Decentraland’s DAO then implements.

Karl Popper’s Three Worlds

How can policymakers and legislators approach the new challenges of Web3 and the metaverse relating to “democratic ideals, human rights, self-determination and the very real consequences of industrialization?” I suggest that we use philosopher Karl Popper’s three worlds concept. First introduced in 1967, Dr. Popper suggested viewing reality through three interacting worlds. World 1 is the material world composed of physical objects. World 2 is our thoughts or mental realm. World 3 is also a mental realm comprising knowledge constructed to exist independently of World 1 and World 2. For example, software exists in World 3 because our cognitive processes build it but can run independently of an individual or group’s thoughts.

Much of our current laws and regulations deal with World 1 objects such as protecting the environment, regulating land use, and governing the use of physical possessions. Things in World 2 also have many statutes and regulations that govern concerns such as patents, trademarks and copyrights. World 3 objects don’t have as much legal oversight, but as World 3 objects increase their impact on World 1 and World 2, expect to see more regulation of World 3 objects that exist in the metaverse and Web3. 

But how do policymakers determine the rights and responsibilities of an algorithm embedded in a decentralized autonomous organization? When virtual land is essentially infinite, what new land rights and nuisance laws are needed to protect privacy and enjoyment of use for avatars (including avatars that are artificial intelligence agents)? Before determining this new frontier’s rules, public administrators must clearly define the new frontier’s borders.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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