Jeff Norton speaks to Female First in an exclusive interview
Jeff Norton speaks to Female First in an exclusive interview

Author and executive producer Jeff Norton wrote a series of books called MetaWars, which is set 30 years into the future and focuses on the virtual world, called the metaverse, being dominant as opposed to the real world which he predicts will eventually happen.

However, Facebook’s rebrand to Meta has brought this transition forward; will it be a good thing?

The Covid-19 pandemic expedited advances in technology to keep up with the demand as we could no longer just hop on a plane to see our loved ones around the world, but Norton believes this is just the beginning and we will soon be living in the metaverse age.

Norton explains what the metaverse is and could be, spoke about how it could improve society and entertainment, revealed how it could help the divide between the technology have and have nots and gave a brief synopsis of what MetaWars is about.

Why did you decide to write the MetaWars series of books?

It was sort of an inspiration from two places really.

The first is, this is going back quite a while by the way, is I had attended what was then called the Virtual Worlds Forum, which I think only happened once and it was in a derelict building in London in 2009 maybe, and I was fascinated by this idea of a nascent space of virtual worlds, and it was being made niche but popular at the time.

That was one thing and I kind of had that in the back of my mind and then flash forward a little bit later in 2010 I was actually living in Portugal for a little while - we had a new baby and we decided to do a house swap. It was the time when the Icelandic ash cloud erupted and all the flights, everything was grounded, so we couldn’t travel and all of a sudden, we couldn’t get back and very sadly my wife’s grandfather had passed, and we couldn’t attend his funeral. And so very quickly we started having to do everything virtually, everything digitally.

So, I was imagining – what would the world look like if that is the dominant way we all interface with one another, everything we do and all the interactivity and interconnectivity we have is virtual instead of real, take that to the nth degree, what does that story world look like?

And that’s what MetaWars was born out of and one of the premises I wrestled with that’s the underlying story premise of the books is in a world where we all interact digitally, whoever controls that Internet literally controls the world, and that’s why it’s called MetaWars, it’s a battle for control over that future Internet.

Funnily enough, flash forward 10 odd years later since the book published, low and behold that’s exactly what seems to be transpiring with different companies and factions battling for control over the way we’re going to interact with one another digitally.

What are the MetaWars series of books about?

The books take place about 30 years in the future in a world where we all interact with one another in a virtual world. And it’s the story of a teenager called Jonah Delacroix who is represented like everybody by an avatar, and he finds the avatar of his dead father and he tries it on and all of sudden there’s a case of mistaken identity, and it turns out his father was a double agent in this battle for control over what I call the Metasphere in the book, but it’s the metaverse.

Jonah ends up becoming partnered with another teenager who’s on the opposite side of this battle and the two basically become best friends as they try and keep the Metasphere open and free for consumers and users. It’s a real high-octane thriller so it’s very deliberately to kind of read at a very fast pace.

I was a very reluctant reader as a teenager and so I was way more addicted to video games and film and television, so I wanted to write something that was as addictive and compelling as a video game, and obviously set in a high tech, fast-paced, high-octane world.

MetaWars: Fight For The Future by Jeff Norton is out now
MetaWars: Fight For The Future by Jeff Norton is out now

What is the metaverse?

I think the concept of the metaverse is still evolving but if I had to pin it down, I would argue that it’s the next evolution of the Internet, and it’s a way in which people will communicate with one another in a more three-dimensional, hyper-interactive way – evolving from where we are now which is more of a 2D screen-based experience. So, Zoom calls and such is kind of a dress rehearsal for the metaverse but the next iteration I think will be much more interactive and much more three-dimensional in its nature.

What are your thoughts on Facebook’s rebrand to Meta and do you think that foreshadows the future?

It’s funny because the books are strangely prescient because the antagonist is a Mark Zuckerberg type character, somebody who runs a company who is trying to run the Metasphere, and that’s exactly flash forward to a couple of months ago when Facebook rebranded.

I think what’s interesting is the new company, Meta, has really nailed its colours to the mast and is very deliberately signalling to consumers and users that they think the next generation of social media, which obviously they own and control the dominant share of social media now with Facebook and Whatsapp and Instagram, that the next iteration of that will be in this Metasphere/metaverse kind of manifestation. And they’re trying to signal that they’ve got the hardware and the software to be the place where people will interact with one another.

What cultural impact is the metaverse going to have in your opinion?

I think it’s interesting, I think nobody knows. My optimistic hope is that every new platform or medium develops a new aesthetic, if you think back to the printing press and novels, film, radio, television – I think there’s a lot of cultures that’s come out of Web 2.0, one could argue about its validity, but I think the rise of the creator culture and the creator community is really fascinating and I think is worth exploring and worth celebrating.

I think there will be another cultural moment from the metaverse, but I don’t know that we know what it looks like yet. It could be anything. The interesting thing the metaverse can offer people is to open up scarcity to be more accessible. What I mean by that is there are some experiences that you can only have in the real world, but they’re limited by geography, or they’re limited by capacity. If you want to go into Manchester for example and see a gig of a hot new band, they’re only going to let, say, 100 people in. But in a global persistent online world, I could also attend, or my family in Canada could also attend. And I think that’s really interesting and is an opportunity for cultural impact to come from anywhere in the world because it’s open to everybody.

If I’m being optimistic that’s a very, very exciting thing that somebody can have something to say, they can have a voice or they can have a point of view, or a piece of art, or performance art, and all of a sudden, they have a global audience built-in - I think that’s incredibly exciting and that’s where the cultural impact will come from.

Lockdown highlighted the difference between the have and have nots in terms of technology – but how would the metaverse change this divide?

I think the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already happening, crisis often does that, points of crisis in human history do accelerate change. The fact that we’re all stuck working from home, well my day today is back-to-back Zoom meetings basically and in a way that’s good because I’m flattening the Earth and I’m flattening geography, I’m on the phone later with Toronto and Los Angeles, and I’m not on an aeroplane so that’s much, much more efficient.

At the same time, I’m very aware that there’s a cost of entry. There’s a cost of entry for Web 2.0, mobile phones aren’t that cheap, laptops are not inexpensive, and I’ve seen it certainly in the educational realm that there are some families who can afford to have the hardware and the fast broadband to allow their children to attend school, and sadly there’s a lot of people who can’t, and that’s a serious societal issue.

I think that issue will only be exaggerated if the computing power necessary to participate in the metaverse goes up and up and up because the hardware and the broadband has a price tag attached to it. As a society, we have to be really on guard if we want to have this next version of the Internet be open and accessible and fair that we don’t have a significant number of digital have nots.

How will the metaverse change how we socialise and seek entertainment?

I think there’s two things that are going to happen, the first thing is there’ll be a bunch of experiments of trying to take the type of entertainment that we have in a Web 2.0 world and migrate it to the metaverse. Some of those experiments will be successful and others will be lame.

Beyond that I think there’s a whole bunch of new forms of entertainment that will spring up using the tools available that we can’t predict right now, we just don’t know what that looks like yet. And they’ll probably come from creators, creative people that are probably very young right now. There’s a whole generation of kids that are learning how to code and program in Roblox that are eight years old right now. In ten years’ time when they’re 18, or 20 years’ time when they’re 28 they may be the next big creator of entertainment or experiences in a metaverse – but we just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. I find that very, very exciting. But I do think that’s where the trajectory is going to go.

And in terms of socialising, I do think that the biggest win for a metaverse type of environment is to be able to have social interactions with people untethered from geography, so people can connect with one another in an environment that feels intimate but is actually completely broken down from geographical barriers.

Again, if I’m being optimistic, I think that’s generally a good thing because anything that allows people to connect with one another across cultures or across geography is net positive. The pessimistic view would be, well what if you only seek to find voices like your own and we have the amplification of the echo chamber problem that we have on social media – does that become worse in the metaverse? I don’t know, I think it’s a watch out, it’s something we have to be mindful of.

But for me, I’ve lived in the UK for 15 years, I’m from Canada originally, I moved here from America where I still have lots of friends, so the idea of having a way and an immersive experience of communicating with people that I love that are not around the corner from me is really exciting. I’m always struck by how many people are from different parts of the world living somewhere else, and I think if you can connect people in a really meaningful way that’s worth pursuing.

What does the future hold for you personally?

I’m a pretty prolific writer so I’ve just handed in the second book of a new series called Dino Knights, it’s literally knights on the backs of dinosaurs, which is for younger readers, it’s sort of an onramp to Tolkien basically, for eight to 10-year-olds. The first book came out in 2021, I’ve just handed in the second book and I’m working on the third one.

Then the other part of my life is I’m an executive producer, so I help people put together television shows, so I’ve got a number of projects on the go on that front as well.

Interview conducted by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.

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