Cities' metaverse ideas may create privacy problems

Seoul is entering the metaverse. That's what the South Korean capital's government...
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You'll soon be able to breeze through the DMV in the metaverse. All it will cost is your privacy.

By Drew Austin

Seoul is entering the metaverse. That's what the South Korean capital's government announced in November, declaring that the city would "create a metaverse ecosystem for all areas of its municipal administration."

The news came a month after Facebook announced it would change its name to Meta, a rebrand that matched a new stated focus for the company: "bringing the metaverse to life." Following that move, many companies announced their own flashy-sounding metaverse investments, including Microsoft, Nike, and Shopify.

Despite the significant money and effort behind the flood of metaverse news, the companies involved fail to answer a key question about the metaverse: Does anyone need it?

From Microsoft's virtual conference rooms to Nike's sneakers that you can't physically wear to Facebook's immersive social network, each metaverse vision seems to simply replace a set of offline activities with online versions, offering tone-deaf solutions to problems that no one really has — attempts to grab market share disguised as consumer benefits.

Seoul's $3.3 million metaverse project, on the other hand, presents a more utilitarian vision for the metaverse that would facilitate the administration of public services, such as civil-complaint filings and city-services requests. The city also plans to use the platform for hosting virtual versions of the city's cultural events and tourist attractions, making them accessible to a global audience. Seoul's metaverse would be a partial simulacrum of the real city, highlighting and streamlining certain functions to make them more expedient and usable. Similar efforts have been announced since, with Barbados proposing a metaverse embassy and Santa Monica, California, gamifying its downtown area using augmented reality.

But even Seoul's more practical use for the metaverse is a continuation of another fraught technological tradition. The "metaverse city" is the logical extension of the smart city — a popular approach to urban administration that has emerged over the past two decades via newfound abilities to gather and analyze data. While metaverse cities are likely to capture many of the same benefits that smart cities have yielded, they are equally likely to reproduce and even amplify many of their substantial flaws, exposing urban citizens to the same problems created by digital platforms, such as surveillance and corporate control.

If the practical ambitions of metaverse cities like Seoul's fail, it will call attention to the shortcomings of the metaverse itself, once again raising the question of what its purpose is.

Cities of the future

The smart city, simply defined, is the data-driven city. It is a method of collecting real-time information using sensors and other data sources about activities like traffic patterns or electrical-grid usage and then synthesizing that information to streamline city operations. A prominent early example was IBM's Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which opened ahead of the 2016 Olympics. The center was a citywide system that combined data from roughly 30 agencies, including those of transportation, the police, and sewers, all housed within a sleek central command facility wallpapered with screens.

The theoretical benefit of these types of initiatives, for residents, is an operational efficiency that improves the quality of municipal services and increases the speed at which cities can clean up downed trees after a storm or restore power after an outage. Smart cities frequently crowdsource their data by providing a user-friendly method for reporting issues like defective streetlights, clogged sewers, or missing trash cans. By streamlining this process, the reasoning goes, a smart city would be able to identify problems and fix them more quickly.

The metaverse city that Seoul has proposed is, in some ways, a direct extension of the smart-city vision. In one sense, the metaverse city is the smart city free of physical cities' limitations, like road congestion or failing infrastructure. Instead of sitting in traffic on the way to file documents at the courthouse, residents can file documents without making a trip at all. For people with limited ability to physically travel, such as older people or those with disabilities, access to such direct digital communication is an even greater benefit. The metaverse also makes these interactions more trackable. Instead of paperwork accumulating in dusty filing cabinets (and having to be digitized later), every administrative interaction in the metaverse city automatically leaves a data trail.

The first feature of Seoul's metaverse city, scheduled to launch next year, will be the "Metaverse 120 Center," which Quartz describes as a "place for virtual public services where avatars will handle citizen concerns that could previously only be addressed by physically going to city hall." People who live in Seoul will be able to obtain business-operating permits or file complaints about public-maintenance issues — tasks that are best addressed digitally, made more user-friendly by the metaverse's virtual environment — while continuing to conduct other activities in their traditional, nondigital manner (at least for now).

Eventually, Seoul's metaverse city will incorporate more robust features, such as virtual tours of popular historic sites and other local attractions. The city also plans to hold major festivals, such as the Seoul Lantern Festival, in the metaverse.

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These plans suggest that the benefits of metaverse cities and smart cities overlap significantly. Both help to market a city to newcomers, serving as shiny objects that attract investment, business, and positive attention. The metaverse city, as envisioned by Seoul's government, also promises to help streamline the city's operations and centralize its data, while enhancing the safety and convenience enjoyed by its residents.

While Seoul's metaverse-city ambitions may look fine on paper, the history of smart cities shows what could be a dark side to the project. Too often, the needs of local citizens have been superseded by corporate interests, which have co-opted otherwise useful technology in the interest of profit.

Appealing to investment capital

Like smart cities, metaverse cities seem poised to capitalize on their underlying concept's corporate-world buzz. The usage of the term "smart city" has often been vague — more like a marketing gimmick to entice technology firms than a substantial approach to running a city. In a 2019 essay for Real Life, the technology researcher Jathan Sadowski wrote: "The 'smart city' is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It's better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future."

As tech companies demonstrated last year when they rushed to outline their metaverse plans, the idea of "metaverse cities" runs the risk of becoming similarly incoherent, deployed glibly to drum up positive local sentiment or to attract investment to a city.

The more coherent versions of these concepts have their own drawbacks. A 2012 New York Times article about IBM's smart-city project in Rio de Janeiro listed several such concerns: "Some wonder if it is all for show, to reassure Olympic officials and foreign investors. Some worry that it will benefit well-off neighborhoods more than the favelas. Others fear that all this surveillance has the potential to curb freedoms or invade privacy. Still, others view the center as a stopgap that does not address underlying infrastructure problems."

More recent evidence has indicated that many of these concerns were well-founded: Rio's smart city failed to spread its benefits equally across socioeconomic groups, suffered from a lack of transparency, and prioritized short-term solutions over long-term improvements.

Christopher Gaffney, a researcher who studied Rio's smart city, told The Atlantic: "When you enter into these places, everything feels like a movie set … It gives the impression of being sophisticated and technologically advanced, but it's all part of a performance." Despite being mentioned frequently in the former Brazilian president's 2014 campaign, and generating positive press related to the Olympics, the smart city project resulted in a "smart Rio" and a "not-so smart Rio," divided along socioeconomic lines.

In terms of security, Gaffney told The Atlantic that wealthier areas were monitored more closely. "The system is supposed to function to increase participation in the community, not punish people for it." These problems could run just as deep in metaverse cities.

One key assumption about Seoul's metaverse city is that it will benefit the city's residents first and foremost. Even if Seoul's effort achieves this noble goal — building a streamlined version of the city that deploys technology to improve those residents' lives — that does not ensure other metaverse cities will use the technology as benevolently, or that they will be disciplined stewards of the data they collect.

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In fact, there is good reason to be skeptical of the metaverse's ability to function as any kind of digital public square. Smart cities and internet giants like Meta that are launching these metaverse initiatives have already demonstrated that the welfare of citizens and users are not their top concern, despite professing their alignment with the public interest. Meta in particular has a history of such violations, like making user data available for election manipulation and allowing misinformation to spread in order to maximize engagement.

Sadowski calls the smart city "the captured city," a system that frequently is "not used by the general public but on it." Social networks like Facebook have notoriously reframed the user as the product itself — an object from which to harvest data to sell to third parties or target with personalized advertising. By making the urban subject's data footprint even more visible, metaverse cities might align with the most nefarious objectives of smart cities and corporate platforms, producing an increasingly privatized urban surveillance state that extracts maximum value from its citizenry. Eventually, those cities' objectives might even converge upon the ad-targeting and data-harvesting practices of digital platforms.

The worst-case scenario, as Sadowski points out, is something like smart-city policing. Instead of making the police more responsive to the needs of their communities, those police end up serving the ultimate goal of making cities more appealing to investment capital, at the expense of many residents themselves. Such police forces might quell protests and demonstrations more decisively, aided by smart-city surveillance, while disregarding serious crime in less affluent areas or enforcing the law there in more draconian ways. Policing can also benefit city dwellers, of course, but when data collection supersedes their well-being as the priority — when it is used on the public rather than for the public — this reflects poorly on the smart-city approach.

All about the incentives

The possibility of corporate entities like Meta commercializing the metaverse city of the future is not far-fetched. In a 2018 Atlantic essay, Bruce Sterling argued that the real smart city — the version we've largely ended up with — was merely the haphazard amalgamation of consumer-facing digital technology like personal smartphones and fiber-optic internet connectivity: "These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations." Sterling added: "The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital."

With the wrong incentives in place, that paste-on gadgetry risks being worse than what it has replaced, even as the corporation responsible reaps the profits from the contract.

The metaverse city is likely to function similarly, with a corporate juggernaut like Meta or Microsoft winning a lucrative contract to deliver some slight upgrade (or downgrade) to the city's services, while harvesting data that the company can use profitably elsewhere. And this returns us to our original question: What is the metaverse useful for?

Though we will not have any concrete evidence until Seoul's experiment launches next year, many of the risks are visible in the smart city's history. At worst, the metaverse city will be a support system for police surveillance and corporate extraction, if not an incoherent marketing phrase dangled in front of prospective investors. At best, it will be a way to streamline city services and host new types of communal experiences. While the evidence offers plenty of reasons to be cynical, the implementation of the technology will make all the difference.

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