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Issue 234

As Tides Rise, Tuvalu Faces a Future on the Metaverse

The coral atoll nation makes bold moves to back up thousands of years of oral testimonies and history

BY Celeste Olalquiaga in Features , Opinion | 05 APR 23

While the lost continent of Atlantis was the 19th century’s submarine fantasy and the drowning city of Venice the 20th’s reality check, the tiny Pacific island-nation of Tuvalu is on its way to become the 21st century’s first digital nation. A coral atoll formed of nine islands, of which eight are inhabited by 12,000 people (Tuvalu means ‘eight standing together’), Tuvalu is literally going under as the sea level rises 3.9 mm per year – twice the global average – its cusp barely 4.5 metres above the ocean surface.

Simon Kofe gives a COP26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti, Tuvalu, 2021. Courtesy: Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

At last November’s United Nations Convention on Climate Change, COP27, Tuvalu’s prime minister, Kausea Natano, announced that the country would become fully virtual, transferred ‘piece by piece’ into the Metaverse. This announcement followed a previous presentation at COP26, where Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, stood knee-deep in water on the island’s rugged edge, the remnants of a World War II US airbase in the background. Tuvalu to the world: we’re sinking and so will you. It was a radical SOS for collective awareness and international cooperation in the age of global warming.

Tuvaluans are wise to technology. In an early internet quirk, the nation was assigned the domain name .tv (for Tuvalu, but also the abbreviation for television) in the 1990s. Tuvalu cashed in on this coincidence by 1998, leasing the domain address to company servers for US$5 million, a contract that was renegotiated this January for US$10 million.

Tuvalu’s islands are only disappearing from a human perspective: they will still exist, albeit submerged. Yet, Tuvaluans seek to retain their surface recollection and, above all, their millenary culture, through a digital replica. After thousands of years of oral testimonies and analogic records, memory, always fragile and subjective, will now be dependent on the intangibility of a technological simulation.

Minister Simon Kofe discusses the FutureNow project, Climate Change and Tuvaluan values and culture with Pasifika TV & Radio Mr Sulieni, 2023. Courtesy: Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

Digital systems like the Metaverse hinge on the material reality of functioning electrical systems and manual labour, as well as individual will and fallibility. Like the transience of a mental image, the virtual universe is fluid, code-intense and trauma prone. One strong power outage and virtual Tuvalu will be hanging on digital backups, themselves contingent on electricity. One devastating virus and Tuvaluans’ Metamemory will disintegrate right in front of their eyes. One malevolent hacker and their remembrances will be lost at sea, much as they were in the recent television series 1899 (2022), a thrilling update to Titanic (1997), which also presented the catastrophic limitations of modern engineering and technology.

The advantage of the Metaverse, as of any human creation, is that it can select and distort at will to keep unwanted experiences at bay – just as memory does. In their virtual register, for example, Tuvaluans could opt to erase their unhappy colonial history. One of its most violent chapters was due to ‘blackbirding’, the deceitful recruiting infamously led by Australia in the Pacific islands between 1860 and 1901, which seized as many as 62,000 islanders. Inspired by this colonial practice, Peru, despite having recently won its independence from the Spanish empire, captured 420 Tuvaluans during 1860–61.

Simon Kofe gives a COP26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti, Tuvalu, 2021. Courtesy: Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

In the Tuvaluan origin myth Te Pusi mo te Ali (The Eel and the Flounder), these two marine creatures create the coral atoll and the coconut palms, respectively. The latter are among the islanders’ main living resources along with fishing; the former is their home. Shortly after finalizing his theory on the formation of atolls in The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), Charles Darwin drew a pencil sketch of a coral branch to outline his initial theory of natural evolution. Ironically for Tuvaluans, the rhizomatic, communal formation of atolls – rings of coral left after a volcanic implosion – also offers an accurate representation of their end. Origin and extinction meet in the same place, at different times.

Often perceived as rocks, corals are among the most outstanding fatalities of global warming. The minuscule animal polyps that create coral are killed, and their colourful exoskeletons are bleached, by the rising warmth and acidity of the ocean, aided by its increasing pollution. Tuvalu’s desperate attempt to digitally override its imminent demise is a clear warning for everyone on planet Earth. Digital technology is always evolving and the day will come when virtual realities will be at the tip of our fingers. In the meantime, the question is whether the Metaverse will be able to maintain the islanders’ chosen memory, or whether it will implode like a digital volcano, leaving Tuvaluans with little more than discardable 3D glasses and an empty screen.

This article appeared in frieze issue 234 with the headline ‘A Final Floundering’.

Main image: Aerial view of Tuvalu from Drone, undated. Courtesy: Brandi Mueller / Getty Images

Celeste Olalquiaga is a cultural historian.