ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia
The next digital revolution carries great promise for the country and its people, but also great peril.
The concept of the “metaverse,” broadly defined as the use of advanced technology to create a boundless virtual reality, is nothing new, but has recently attracted worldwide attention. Following Facebook’s ambitious announcement that it would change its name to “Meta” and build its own “metaverse,” tech and entertainment firms around the world have jumped on the metaverse bandwagon. Although the metaverse is still in its infancy, it will grow overnight as a result of the race for technological supremacy. This then raises a simple yet intriguing question: Are nation states ready for this next digital revolution?
Needless to say, countries with technological prowess have the first-mover advantage. South Korea’s capital Seoul has taken the lead and announced a five-year plan to transform itself into “Metaverse Seoul.” Through the metaverse platform, users will be able to virtually file administrative complaints, attend cultural events, and visit tourist sites including remodellings of destroyed landmarks. Seoul’s success would boost South Korea’s already impressive reserves of soft power.
Meanwhile, in China, tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba are advancing their “digital collectibles” feature – an equivalent to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – to pave the way for a fully-fledged metaverse. The Chinese government has maintained a cautious stance on the metaverse. Nevertheless, as a telecommunications service provider in many countries, China has the potential to command global metaverse applications and alter the geopolitical landscape.
The metaverse wave is eagerly welcomed by both the public and private sectors in Thailand. After all, Thailand is one of the front-runners in Southeast Asia when it comes to e-commerce and 5G technology. Besides, the metaverse is compatible with the Thailand 4.0 initiative, which seeks to transform the country into a value-based economy driven by technology, innovation, and creativity.
Substantive metaverse developments can already be seen in Thailand. For instance, “Metaverse Thailand,”a project run by the A-PLUS fintech company in Singapore, has launched a land buying platform (beta version) enabling users to purchase and develop virtual pieces of real estate. In the retail realm, Siam Piwat, which is best known for managing Bangkok’s iconic shopping malls, has unveiled its “parallel world strategy” and established a partnership with a digital asset advisory firm XSpring Digital to enhance online shopping experiences.
At the national level, Thailand’s acknowledgement of the metaverse is highlighted in the recent creation of a Thai term for “metaverse” – the word literally translates as “newly constructed universe” – by the Royal Society, which has long been a government agency in charge of monitoring the country’s official language use.
Despite these promising signs, Thailand still has a long way to go. Both the public and private organizations in Thailand remain highly vulnerable to cyberattacks. There have been several high-profile cases over the past two years, ranging from the leakage of 106 million international visitors’ data to attacks on state hospitals, banks, Bangkok Airways, and AXA Insurance.
Recognizing the expanding cyber threat, Thailand’s military-backed government has devoted energy and resources to strengthening its cyber defense posture. The 2019 Cybersecurity Act, which grants the government the unchecked authority to deal with perceived security threats, and the Anti-Fake News Centre have been established. While these regulations have helped the government track down cyber criminals, they have also fueled digital authoritarianism. Against the backdrop of growing intolerance and political contestation, as well as youth resistance, the Thai government’s rigid online monitoring is widely seen as a covert attempt to silence opposition.
Thailand’s cyberspace has emerged as a fierce domain of political contestation and, in the metaverse where people will most likely interact using avatars and modified voices, the spread of disinformation, ideological extremism, and malicious content, is likely to proliferate. All sides – the state, opposition factions, reformists, and extremist groups – will capitalize the new platform for their own gains which could seriously disrupt the social order. Anticipating this challenge, the conservative Thai government will toughen online monitoring efforts which, in turn, will provoke tech-savvy youth who prioritize privacy and freedom of expression. Consequently, this could push Thailand towards an ever more Orwellian future dominated by mass surveillance.
Beyond cybersecurity, there are already large disparities in access to the internet and digital infrastructures between Bangkok and the rest of the country. And, with the new business merger between two of Thailand’s big three telecoms operators Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group’s True and Norwegian Telenor Group’s DTAC, the public has become increasingly concerned about harmful monopolies. The metaverse could exacerbate these problems and leave many people further behind.
The metaverse offers many exciting new opportunities. However, at this point in time, the Thai state appears unequipped to deal with its dark disruptions. To better prepare for the unavoidable metaverse future, it is imperative for Thailand to address lingering structural issues such as technology inequality and loopholes in cyber laws. This will not be an easy task.