Emily Parker, Future Tense fellow at New America, is the author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground.”
Jaron Lanier, the best-selling author of “You Are Not a Gadget” and the computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality,” has written a deeply personal book. “Dawn of the New Everything” is a conscious rebuttal to detached proclamations about how technology is shaping our world. Lanier’s writing is intentionally subjective. “There’s a big picture way of thinking about computing and a personal one,” he writes. “I prefer the personal one. It’s fun. The big picture approach to computing tends to foster utopian fantasies, so it’s dangerous.”
Lanier has some strong opinions. He is scathing on the current state of social media, which he describes as “replete with spying algorithms that organize and optimize people for the benefit of giant server businesses.” But his overall approach is refreshingly nuanced. He does not feel the need to declare the Internet to be either good or bad for democracy, nor does he try to decide if machines will save or destroy the human race. While he is in love with the potential of virtual reality, he acknowledges that its fate will be determined by the ways people use it. Like other technologies, virtual reality will bring out the best and worst in humankind.
But what exactly is virtual reality? Don’t worry if you can’t come up with a simple explanation. Lanier doesn’t have one, either — and he is the founder of the 1980s start-up VPL Research, which brought commercial virtual-reality products into the world. (One early consumer product was the Power Glove, to be used with a Nintendo game machine.) In “Dawn of the New Everything,” Lanier offers more than 50 definitions of virtual reality, ranging from “hope for a medium that could convey dreaming” to “the medium that can put you in someone else’s shoes; hopefully a path to increased empathy.” If you are looking for a pithy definition of virtual reality — or of anything, for that matter — then this book is probably not for you. Instead, Lanier provides something much more compelling: a poetic and humanistic view of technology.
His book is largely a memoir. He writes about growing up in New Mexico, the devastating death of his mother and working in Silicon Valley decades ago. But these are only a few aspects of Lanier’s colorful biography. His style is wonderfully discursive, reflecting his wide range of interests and experiences. Before he turned 17, he had designed his family home, a futuristic if structurally flawed building he calls the “dome.” He is passionate about music and has at least 1,000 instruments in his home. He also loves goats. When Lanier was in college, he needed a way to make money. He “made friends” with a goat who lived near the dome, then decided that one goat is never enough. He learned how to make cheese and sell it. When he got a car that was so broken down that it was missing a back seat, Lanier put bales of hay in it and turned the vehicle into a “goat limo,” allowing him to do his job while “moving the lovely creatures around in style.”
These may seem like little more than quirky details. But Lanier’s idiosyncratic style reflects his larger worldview.
But back to our question: What is virtual reality? You may know it as putting on a clunky headset and stepping into a new world. It's a little like lucid dreaming. You can do things you wouldn't or couldn't do in real life, such as go rock climbing up a tall cliff. Lanier's overactive imagination drew him to the concept of virtual reality. He is, unsurprisingly, a vivid dreamer. He describes dreams in which he would become a mountainside, "feeling villages spread on its skin over the course of centuries, the stone cathedrals pressing into my flesh." When he woke up, the real world was limp and inflexible by contrast. "I imagined virtual worlds that would never grow stale because people would bring surprises to each other. I felt trapped without this tool. Why, why wasn't it around already?"
In his 22nd definition of virtual reality (yes, they are numbered), Lanier describes it as a “preview of what reality might be like when technology gets better someday.” This description contains both a promise and a warning. Will virtual reality eventually become so life-like that it threatens to supplant reality? If you could virtually go to a concert, a sporting event or even the French countryside, why would you bother leaving your house?
It doesn’t have to be that way. Virtual reality is not going to take over anything if we humans remain at the core of the experience. Or as Lanier puts it: “Everything about you and your world can change, and yet you are still there. . . . Virtual reality is the technology that exposes you to yourself.” Virtual reality, he says, proves that you are real. He is optimistic that it will help us become better “detectives,” more skilled at distinguishing illusion from reality.
Lanier believes that humans should never be passive consumers of virtual reality but must play a proactive role in the experience. You should be able to throw a virtual ball, at the very least. “If you can’t reach out and touch the virtual world and do something to it, you are a second class citizen within it,” he explains. “To be an observer exclusively in VR is to be a phantom, a subordinate ghost who cannot even haunt.”
Lanier posits that virtual reality can heighten our appreciation of reality. Once you emerge from the experience, you see the world with fresh eyes. “The most ordinary surface, cheap wood or plain dirt, is bejeweled in infinite detail for a short while. To look into another’s eyes is almost too intense.” Will this phenomenon continue as virtual reality develops, becoming increasingly “real?” Lanier is first to admit that this is only the beginning. But his vision is so infused with possibility that we can only hope it comes true.
One of his favorite tricks for enhancing a virtual-reality demo is to present the user with an actual flower. “They’ll come out and experience a flower as if it was the first one they’ve ever seen,” he says. “The best magic of VR happens in the moments right after the demo ends.”
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt. 351 pp. $30