“A twenty-first-century art form that will weave together the three great twentieth-century arts: cinema, jazz, and programming” is the first definition of virtual reality (VR) author Jaron Lanier gives his audience in The Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality. There are 50 more.
The subtitle might suggest the main focus will be technology and specifically VR. This isn’t entirely the case. As Lanier notes in the introduction, there are some of what he calls “about” chapters—chapters that explore various aspects of VR (headsets, gloves, softwares)—but most of the chapters tell Lanier’s personal story—from the time he was a child to when he left the VR company he helped found. “You have my permission to skip through them if you prefer storytelling to science or commentary. Or, if you don’t like storytelling and just want to read my thoughts on VR tech, then race right to those chapters.” Don’t do this.
First, even without the VR, Lanier’s personal story is fascinating—often tragically so. His mother died in an automobile accident (and his father was severely injured in the same crash) when Lanier was a child. Lanier remembers sobbing with his father in the hospital and then he relates “I was disconnected from the world for a long time after. Endured a desolate tour of life-threatening infectious diseases, barely aware of my circumstances. I was virtually immobile for a year in that same hospital.”
Lanier survives this only to return to a school where he didn’t fit in and was bullied. Of his school days, he recalls “My memories of that school are of constant onslaught, racism, and violence; of adults who were no better than the children.”
The family home burns down, he and his father have no money, but they still survive, and by age 14, Lanier is enrolled in classes at New Mexico State University, an experience he introduces simply by stating “There were wonders to explore.”
The VR chapters are just as fascinating and truthfully, sometimes it’s hard to tell where one type of writing begins and another ends. The storytelling chapters include tech and the tech chapters include storytelling. In each, Lanier’s hope and enthusiasm are often contagious. At times he almost seems to be the quintessential underdog that everyone pulls for—such as when he meets with a “Suit” from Lucas Films about a job. The conversation does not go well, particularly after Lanier sort of insults Star Wars, is called a hippie idealist, is accused of hating money, and finally praises Star Trek: “…science fiction can be about people getting better, not just gadgets getting better. I mean, in 2001: A Space Odyssey there’s this sense of transcendence, like we might outgrow our petty conflicts. Well, maybe that’s not a great example—it’s pretty abstract and amoral. What about Star Trek? Gene Roddenberry had this idea that people would get kinder as the machines got better. That’s so much more exciting. I think it’s actually happened in human history already.”
After Lanier’s sophisticated and thoughtful dialogue (earlier in the discussion he even references Noam Chomsky), the Suit can only respond “Star fucking Trek?”
Lanier is not completely optimistic, however. He issues a strong warning to the tech community about the need for greater diversity—both in their user testing and in their hiring practices. While the book contains cautionary tales about technology throughout, Lanier expresses these concerns most directly toward the end of the book. Here he states “At the start of this book, my younger self thought the future sounded like both hell and heaven. There’s certainly plenty of hell to go around lately” and a few pages later he remarks “As I’m writing, the world feels more and more like a dystopian mid-twentieth-century science fiction vision come to life. That genre invariably depicted the technology of the future as irresistibly cool even as it warned us of the perils.”
His optimism pops up when he talks about seeing young people who “don’t seem to be as easily fooled by online fooliganism” and the joy of watching people have “giddy VR experiences”. Still he ends with the idea that the world we live in is difficult to navigate: “I realize I might seem schizophrenic to some readers. If you’re a techie, you might wonder how I can spend so much time on downer warnings about how we’re turning ourselves into zombies. If you’re a humanist book lover, you might wonder how I can be a cheerleader for tech at the same time. It isn’t easy to walk this particular tightrope, but we all have to learn to walk it if we’re going to survive.”
Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality is full of fresh writing, informative footnotes (don’t skip them), interesting perspectives, and wonderful storytelling. Lanier’s sense of humor is infectious. One of my favorite bits is a heading in one of the VR sections: “Scope Is the Thing with Feathers” and its accompanying footnote “If you don’t get the joke, look it up in your Emily Dickinson.” Perhaps only book-loving, techie humanists will appreciate the joke, but perhaps that’s part of the point.
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You might also enjoy Lanier’s video interview at Virtual Futures Salon.