The Metaverse: A New Domain of Warfare?
By Aaron Bazin
“The metaverse is here, and it’s not only transforming how we see the world but how we participate in it – from the factory floor to the meeting room.”
Today, one can quickly see how the virtual and physical worlds are becoming increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and indistinguishable from one another. The idea of the metaverse has emerged to describe this convergence and the concept continues to gain the attention in the public consciousness. In March 2022, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated the growth of the metaverse economy could exceed $8 Trillion in coming years. Much like the airplane gave birth to the air domain, and the Internet resulted in the cyberspace domain, this article explores the idea that the metaverse may result in a new domain of warfare over time.
The Domain of Domains
In 2013, I had the opportunity to lead a team from the U.S., Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. Our task was to look at how each nation viewed the domains of warfare and reconcile any differences. A heated argument erupted after an officer from one country (that shall remain nameless) insisted that if cyberspace was a domain, then so too was the cognitive domain. I looked at Webster’s dictionary definition of “domain,” which confirmed my suspicions. I remembered the other officer had presented a definition as well, and I went back and looked at his. I realized he pulled it from a different dictionary. By the letter of that definition, his argument was sound. We were both right; we had become two countries separated by a common language!
I mention this staff officer war story because, without a doubt, any discussion on the domains of warfare can quickly find itself deep down a lexical rabbit hole. Moreover, any article that seeks to discuss a new domain of warfare will undoubtedly see more than its share of critics. In an attempt to avoid this, I will use the conceptual definition of a domain for this article as “an area of knowledge or activity; especially one that someone is responsible for.”
Joint Doctrine Recognized Domains
Other Domain-Like Areas
Here, I also feel there is the need to differentiate between the “recognized domains” of warfare per U.S. Joint Doctrine and all others whether they are called environments, areas, or any other synonym that is domain-like. As a baseline for this discussion, the chart above depicts the recognized domains of warfare according to current Joint doctrine and other areas commonly discussed as domain-like. Given our conceptual definition of a domain, a baseline of the current state of play, and clarification as to what is currently a recognized domain, we can begin to unpack if the metaverse could be a new domain. However, first we should explore the metaverse and its emerging characteristics.
What is the Metaverse?
The word metaverse contains meta- (meaning beyond) and -verse (short for the universe), or a universe beyond the physical. According to Mystakidis, the metaverse is “the post-reality universe, a perpetual and persistent multiuser environment merging physical reality with digital virtuality.” Given this basic conceptual definition, we will investigate briefly how it developed and what technologies are driving its continued advancement.
One can find the literary roots of the metaverse in books such as Lord of the Rings, True Names, and Neuromancer, with the word metaverse itself emerging in Stevenson’s Snow Crash in 1992. The concept evolved through the 1970s and 1980s with role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, and computer games, such as Habitat for the Commodore 64. As the Internet became more mainstream in the 1990s, open-ended virtual worlds with user-created content evolved, such as WebWorld, Active Worlds, and Online! Traveler. In the 2000s, the development of worlds became more user-driven and increasingly monetized through platforms like Second Life, Solipisis, and Open Simulator. Popular culture reflected the advancement of metaverse ideas in movies such as The Matrix, Her, Inception, and Ready Player One, and television shows such as Black Mirror and West World. Without question, the idea of a convergence of physical and virtual worlds is in the public consciousness and persists today.
The metaverse results from the convergence of numerous technological advances. The first worth noting are Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR), and Extended / Cross Reality (XR). VR is a virtual world that a person in the physical world can enter through various means. AR is an overlay of the virtual on top of the material. MR is the idea that the physical environment interacts with the virtual in real-time. Finally, extended Reality or Cross Reality (XR) is simply an umbrella term for VR, AR, and MR technologies.
The next family of technologies that is critical to understand if one wants to know where the metaverse is going is the Internet of Things. Using a variety of sensors and intelligent devices, the IoT allows the physical and virtual to interact with one another. Here devices can sense aspects of the physical world and communicate to other devices. IoT technology continues to couple with new advanced areas such as Big Data, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence and resulting the compounded growth in capability, complexity, and scope.
The final group of technologies relates to the blockchain. Blockchain technology can help build virtual trust, decentralize verification of information transactions, and create self-organizing communities through smart contracts (e.g., decentralized autonomous organizations). As Web2, the current centralized Internet, evolves into Web3, blockchain provides the underlying framework for people to organize and even own virtual space. Pseudonymous identities that people create on the blockchain may have an increased impact on the real world, and the communities they make will increasingly affect all aspects of physical life, making the distinction between physical and virtual increasingly difficult over time. That brings us to our final question.
Is the Metaverse a New Domain of Warfare?
One logical assertion about domains of warfare that one can make is that as humans have made technological developments, they have employed these developments in new ways on the battlefield. Although one cannot go back in time to see how the domains of warfare evolved with their own eyes, it is reasonable to assert that skirmishes and wars first occurred on land until humans possessed the ability to build ships. Next, the air and space domains took shape once humans gained the technology for controlled flight and spaceflight. Of course, then came cyberspace as a domain of warfare to get us to where we are at today. Interestingly, the later domains (air, space, and cyberspace) have progressed parallel to (and often following) the commercial sector. Simply put, if technology has driven the evolution of domains, and the metaverse is the next big thing, is a metaverse domain next? If current technology continues to emerge on its current trajectory and people live their lives in the metaverse, arguably, warfare could extend int the metaverse as a new domain.
The current doctrine defining the cyberspace domain is necessary but insufficient to describe the metaverse accurately. The current JP 3-13 definition of the cyberspace domain is “within the information environment consisting of the interdependent networks of information technology infrastructures and resident data, including the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.” While this definition is adequate to address purely virtual worlds, the question arises as the virtual and physical domains become indistinguishable from one another, is a new domain or definition needed?
Another interesting aspect is that new military concepts, such as cross-domain, multi-domain, or all-domain operations, seek to capture military advantage by synchronization and integration across domains. So, the idea is that a more significant combined advantage is possible by leveraging all domains with one another. This begs the question, how is this different than a meta-domain than what the services already propose? Perhaps, it is not too different at all.
This article may have raised more questions than it has offered concrete answers. Today, the best solution to the question is that is the metaverse has the potential to become a new domain of warfare. If the idea of the metaverse continues to mature in society and popular culture, there may be an increasing amount of unique military implications. And, if these military implications run counter to established Joint doctrine and dogmas, it may be wise for the Joint Force to explore the idea of the metaverse as a domain further.
It is always tricky to explore the future, but as Michael Howard said, the idea purpose of looking at the future of war is not to get it right, but to avoid getting it terribly wrong. Where the metaverse is going next is anyone’s guess. However, if adversaries can use the metaverse to erode U.S. military advantage, it is reasonable to expect that they will exploit any opportunity to do so.