The Korea Herald


[Digital Simplicity] Is ‘metaverse’ another come-and-go digital meme?

By Yang Sung-jin

Published : Sept. 11, 2021 - 16:00

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Truck drivers are often blamed for the surging number of people who get transported to another virtual world filled with magicians, knights and demons.

I mean, not real truck drivers, but those in fantasy web novels. A typical storyline goes like this: A protagonist is killed by a speeding truck on the road and for some mysterious reason comes to life in a new world that is drastically different from Earth. In the transition period, a mythical god gives superhuman abilities to the characters so they can become heroes by easily beating up the baddies.

That fictional framework is so frequently used and abused that some readers question the usefulness of the setup that unnecessarily undermines the reputation of many hardworking truck drivers.

Nonetheless, a number of online novels and animated features exploit the formula that brings a sense of liberation and empowerment to those who feel frustrated by a slew of intractable problems in the real world on this planet.

One variation of the template is that a central character gets to live in a virtual game that she plays in the real world. Not exactly a mirror world, the virtual game setting is a sort of trap where players have to overcome a myriad of obstacles and crush countless enemies to wake up from a 3D virtual game machine and return to reality.

The blurred lines between real and virtual worlds in such online novels are similar to what is now being touted as the next big thing: the “metaverse.” There are a host of different definitions of the metaverse, but in most cases the term encompasses virtual worlds, augmented reality, lifelogging and mirror worlds.

This year, metaverse, a term coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” has come to be widely used in South Korea. More specifically, many bidding documents for state-run projects or private business deals include the trending phrase, as if it would open up the secret gateway to a truly magical world.

The metaverse, coupled with the adoption of blockchain-based online trade, is favored as a key mantra for a promising future by a growing number of Korean politicians, businesspeople, stock investors and self-styled experts.

What the term is going through is not so different from its predecessors: convergence, platform, artificial intelligence and the “fourth industrial revolution,” among many other buzzwords. As these phrases come and go, central and local governments earmark funds for a series of big-budget projects bearing the popular terms, which are allocated to companies big and small. In that time, brokerages also quickly come up with a new list of supposedly related companies that are forecast to take off in the coming years.

But as soon as another term gains traction, the existing kingpin phrase slowly disappears from bidding documents, news articles and YouTube videos.

As I kept reading articles and watching videos about the metaverse, I discovered it is a concept that can be easily distorted and intentionally misinterpreted, since it covers a wide array of elements ranging from augmented reality and digital transformation to nonfungible tokens and extended reality.

Strangely enough, those “experts” in phrases quickly made obsolete are quick to rebrand themselves and raise their voices that something (such as signing up for their pricey consultation sessions) should be done to avoid falling behind in the rapidly evolving digital economy -- a trite tactic to trigger FOMO, or fear of missing out.

There is no question that futuristic concepts deserve attention as they refer to newly emerging technologies that can reshape the way people live either offline or online.

But it appears strange that some people claim we have to hurry to buy virtual land in a mirror world or pricey NFT works of art to catch up with the latest trend. In all fairness, the metaverse is in its infancy, and there are a lot of issues to be resolved before something commercially viable and sustainable in the long term can be done.

For instance, the online trade of NFTs in a metaverse environment is cited as an investment tool for tech-savvy people, but regulators scrutinizing the sector may soon reconfigure the underlying rules, which could potentially wipe out the digital assets accumulated by early players.

A professor in Seoul said in a YouTube video that it might take a decade before the metaverse achieves meaningful mass adoption. Of course, those who raced to buy a piece of virtual land in the equivalent to the posh Gangnam district in Seoul may hit it big 10 years later, but nobody knows what will happen in the future.

I just hope that web novel writers, who know exactly what will happen to their characters in the metaverse, ditch the truck driver cliche and come up with something less violent.

Yang Sung-jin is a senior writer at The Korea Herald. -- Ed.