Beijing Eyes the Metaverse
On Monday Chinese internet giant Baidu launched its own version of a ‘Metaverse’ — a virtual reality social world — to compete with that of Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook. Baidu CEO Robin Li duly gave a (virtual) speech declaring that a “Golden era” of artificial intelligence and “man-computer symbiosis” was at hand. His version of the Metaverse, called XiRang (“Land of Hope”), got off to a bit of a rough start, however, with even China’s own CGTN news panning the still-crude software as a “terrible experience.”
Still, Chinese investors, like their Western counterparts, have lately gone wild for all things virtual, despite the fact that the seamless virtual world promised by the concept remains practically non-existent.
But Baidu’s Metaverse is likely to face a yet more challenging reviewer in the years ahead: the Chinese government.
We know this in part because CICIR, a state-run think tank which serves as the research arm of China’s foreign intelligence apparatus, recently released a fascinating whitepaper analysing the risks and opportunities the Metaverse may pose for China. What emerges is a Chinese state that seems fundamentally conflicted about how to approach virtual reality.
This is an excerpt from a short piece I wrote over at UnHerd today on how Beijing has been thinking about the Metaverse. You can read the rest in full for free here.
Once you’ve had a chance to do so, a couple interesting things (in my view) that were left out in the interest of length may also be worth noting in more detail here.
The first is that the think tank mentioned above explicitly identifies an ongoing “integration of the real world and the virtual world” that has been “significantly accelerated” by the pandemic, but then predicts this digital revolution may soon split between “two main directions in the future” – towards “an overall digital transformation of the real world,” in the form of the “Internet of Things,” or towards the prioritization of the virtual world over the real in the form of the Metaverse. While these paths aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, it implies this will very likely be a source of significant argument between technologists, and states, moving forward.
This is actually already a source of argument, as far as I can tell, between the internet-happy technologists and the Elon Musk types, who would prefer we focus on building things in the real world. In any case I think this is all fascinating, especially given what I wrote about in The Reality War.
It’s also all rather horrifying, given the role technology already seems to be playing in our social and economic upheavals. Paul Kingsnorth’s series on “the Machine” and Mary Harrington’s on “fully automated luxury Gnosticism,” as well as those of Antonio García Martínez on how we’re kind of already in the Metaverse, are all obviously very relevant here, for those interested in some fun further reading.
The second is that the Chinese whitepaper predicts that, due to what may be “huge differences in the views, positions, and supervision methods of the Metaverse between countries,” those countries could end up forming “mutually isolated systems” in virtual space. As in, if you think people live in their own ideological silos now, just wait until they can set their own rules of reality! Amusingly, the paper notes that this could “make cyber-attacks more dangerous,” in that interruption of such worlds could potentially produce the kind of “social shocks” that “may exceed expectations.”
Finally, it’s worth expanding a little more on Xi Jinping’s interesting personal antipathy to what he calls the “fictitious economy” – by which he means internet companies that don’t actually produce anything, along with financial speculators, and other decadent late capitalist innovations – and his strong affection for the contrasting “real economy” of industries like manufacturing and agriculture. In an April 2020 speech he warned that while China should “accelerate construction of the digital economy,” strategically it “must recognize the fundamental importance of the real economy” and absolutely “never deindustrialize.” To those in the West arguing about digitization, the loss of manufacturing, national decay, and the rise of populism, this may all sound strikingly familiar.
Anyway, I figured I’d try to break down some of this for you all; let me know what you think about it, and about our rapidly approaching brave new world.
Oh and Happy New Year!