Three Neoms: Mixed Reality and Political Discourse

The Gates of Neom

In the past three years, Saudi Arabia has promoted the development of a planned city in the northwest of its kingdom, Neom. Neom has not been completed, but its narrative is taking hold: Neom is “a new vision of what the future could be” that “will be home to the most forward thinking and visionary companies.” Neom seeks to be a haven of abundance, a center of innovation, and a “pioneering cognitive city.” Neom’s advertisements, run internationally, tout the planned city’s alignment with the future.

The designers of Neom seek to eliminate vestiges of industrialization. Rather than having car-inspired sprawl, the city is designed to be a 170 km line connected by sustainable, high-speed rail. More ambitiously, Neom aims to be an inclusive city that “will embody an international ethos and embrace a culture of exploration, risk-taking, and diversity — all supported by a progressive law compatible with international norms and conducive to economic growth.”

Saudi Arabia hails its futuristic city through a media campaign that walks the viewer through realistic models of renewable energy systems and desalinization procedures that serve as fixtures of this utopia. Realizing that it will take more than a website and commercials to motivate international talent to leave hospitable climes for the banks of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will create a replica of Neom in the metaverse. Neom’s facsimile will be a “cognitive digital twin metaverse” that enables people to access Neom as avatars.

Meta Neom will enable a “mixed reality world” in which residents or prospective residents can design homes in the metaverse that can take physical form. In its maturity, Meta Neom will have a digital asset exchange that permits residents to transact in purely digital form. The attraction of a Meta Neom comes at a time when zeal for the metaverse is high, and thoughts of the complications of metaverse representations of the physical world are low.

More Than a Commercial Project

Neom’s vision of a mixed reality polity demonstrates the reach that metaverse applications may have. The prospect of a governable world with a physical analogue escapes mention in most discussions in the West. In the United States, dialogue about the metaverse centers on the commercial implications of building digital worlds. “What is the metaverse? The metaverse is essentially about creating games,” Satya Nadella said in light of Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. Goldman Sachs’ recent analysis of the future size of the metaverse market is confined to the music, retail, education, and advertising sectors.

The commercial discussion about the future of the metaverse does touch on a key theme for broader debates. Will the metaverse be open, composable, and decentralized, or will it live on centralized servers? In commerce, the conflict is between web 2.0 oligopolists like Meta and web 3.0 platforms like Sandbox and Decentraland.

That a government-sponsored project is seeking to clone a polity to integrate physical and metaverse experiences should change the parameters of the debate. In an era of increasing distrust of governments worldwide, can we trust that governments will not use metaverse constructions to influence participants’ views of reality? Will governments with suspect human rights practices be able to pave over real world abuses by projecting unity in a virtual representation?

Government-created worlds raise the stakes of the debate as to whether the metaverse should be built in a centralized or decentralized manner. If a government owns (or has the ability to influence significantly) the means of projecting reality and monitoring the data transmitted on a digital platform, citizens are at a disadvantage to decipher truth or to evade the government’s increasingly omniscient gaze. On the other hand, a government can have a legitimate interest in being able to control information related to core services for reasons that are not authoritarian.

Fork in the Road

“Mixed reality” is an apt description of the integration of Neom and Meta Neom. While the media focuses on the commercial nature of the mixed reality, there are complex issues of governance and “reality” involved. Neom’s Tech & Digital arm focuses on the nobility of its platform by envisioning that Meta Neom’s participants will have ownership over their data and will be rewarded for sharing it. Assuming that is true, what other rules will apply in Meta Neom?

Can the mixed nature of reality lead to the criminalization of acts in Meta Neom that have corresponding punishments in Neom? If not, what rules will constrain the actions of Meta Neom visitors and residents? Neom may have slightly different laws than the rest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but at what point will flexibility on “international norms” give way to rigid enforcement of other customs? Will all women in Meta Neom be permitted to wear bikinis? What about men? If bikinis are permitted in Meta Neom, why not Neom?

Perhaps someone will suggest that Meta Neom will be governed by decentralized means. Neom will be crypto-friendly after all. If governance varies between Meta Neom and Neom, however, discrepancies will lead to divergent outcomes. People will compare the condition of their avatars to the condition of their real-world selves and demand change in the life (be it real or meta) that is lacking.

Self-governance of Meta Neom could lead to perverse incentives. Imagine a surge in rents in Neom; Neom renters could reduce demand by fomenting chaos in Meta Neom. Alternatively, residents could conspire to curate Meta Neom to perfection to conceal deep flaws in Neom, raising property values by attracting outsiders to seek residence based on false hope.

It is more likely that the core design of Meta Neom will be controlled by centralized servers. Saudi Arabia has invested $1 billion so far for the development of Neom’s mixed reality and technological capabilities. It would be hard to believe that the builders of Meta Neom would leave governance to meta citizens, whose views may diverge markedly from the designers’ intentions.

For the sake of experiment, suppose there is no variability between Neom and Meta Neom — that the two are identical other than their physical status. The introduction of Meta Neom is inherently political nevertheless. The designers will create Meta Neom with a view toward what capabilities will be prioritized and how residents should interact with the environment. Default rules shape tastes and views of possibility: they can reinforce norms of liberty or submission, and they may be subtle in doing so.

Apart from Neom generating political messaging in bringing Meta Neom into being, the concept of Meta Neom creates a tool for political counter-narratives. Dissidents and experimenters may “fork” Meta Neom to create a third representation, call it “Forked Neom.” Forked Neom could be used as a ground for protest where residents enact different rules to build a competing vision of Meta Neom (and thus Neom). Forked Neom would be a substantial threat to the hegemony of Neom, as Neom residents would be able to view an alternative narrative of their fate and weigh it against their realities. How the designers of Neom address politically-motivated copies of Meta Neom will be charged with political motives as well.

Outside interests can find their way into Meta Neom or Forked Neom. Enterprises may be threatened by the prospect of a scaled carbon-neutral urban center thriving. Metaverse representations of Neom will permit more seamless access to Neom residents for interest groups who are not residents. These interests may intentionally promulgate falsehoods or create Forked Neoms for the sake of creating unrest. What if a Bot Neom came into existence where bots feign complacency with fossil fuels or spread fear about the health consequences of desalinization? Will Meta Neom residents have a means of distinguishing between resident and non-resident (e.g. via NFT) as well as between human-operated avatars and computer-generated avatars?

Mixed reality increases the possibility of confusion in proportion to its ability to enable novel forms of interactions and tourism. The government and residents may find that a complete integration between reality and meta-reality requires some prior agreement as to what is permitted to be “real” and what is not. A failure to set forth default rules of belief and believability may end in discord.

Back at the Gates

Neom is not a singular instance of a metropolis seeking to create mixed reality. Shanghai’s Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology has announced that development of the metaverse is a pillar of its five-year technological plan. Seoul announced the birth of “Metaverse Seoul” on New Years Day, 2022. In technological centers beyond the United States, the idealized metaverse is revered not only for its commercial applications, but for its integration into government services.

The politics inherent in generating replicas of governed physical spaces has a potential for manipulation. Governments may create metaverse spaces that seek to emphasize one aspect of the nation’s agenda over another. For instance, the makers of Meta Neom may burnish the statues in the digital marketplace and fail to leave reference to the threatened eviction of members of the Huwaitat tribe that would clear land for Neom. Meta Hong Kong may be pristinely built without any residue from the structures honoring advocates of freedom that the Beijing government recently ordered removed. A European autocrat could revive the practice of building Potemkin villages in metaverse form.

States are not the only parties with an interest in political portrayals. US fringe groups could create a Meta DC with distorted depictions of who our heroes and villains are. Expatriates of Hong Kong could clone the state-sponsored metaverse and replace former symbols of freedom that could serve as a meeting place for dissidents. Belarussians could experiment with what Minsk would look like under different leadership.

When we build metaverse replicas, we have information about the real world that is translated through the prism of the creator’s mind. As we make systems composable, the “creator’s mind” becomes complex: from whom did the vision or thought that a metaverse resident experiences originate and what was that person’s motivation? Governments’ creation of metaverse representations propels us to consider the magnitude of the opportunity that the metaverse presents and the responsibilities it imposes.

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