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Dawn of the New Everything:
A Journey Through Virtual Reality
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Two years ago, I stood on the precipice of the World Trade Center. I watched the birds wheel hundreds of feet below my toes, as yellow cabs fidgeted in the squinting distance beyond. Eventually, I took a step on to the rope that lolled between the Twin Towers, feeling its eager push on the soles of my feet while the wind bothered my cheeks (although not my eyes, which were shielded from the desk fan’s gust by the virtual reality headset visor).
That the vignette – created to promote the film The Walk, a dramatisation of the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 dance between the towers – was fabricated in VR and not earnest has made no difference to the strength of its imprint on my memory. It was earnestly terrifying (more than half of the people who tried it, I was told by the software’s creator, are unable to take the physical step out on to the virtual rope). Such is the mind-cheating power of VR, a medium that, if Facebook and all the other heavily invested mega-corps are to be believed, stands on the precipice of its own moment.
We have been here before, as the computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier knows only too well. It was Lanier’s company VPL, formed in 1985, that pioneered the use of head-mounted screens to render computer-generated worlds to fool the brain. Lanier’s personal World Trade Center moment happened in a crudely rendered Seattle, decades before mine, a moment that he describes in Dawn of the New Everything as “transformational”, like the “opening up a new plane of experience”. Still, even then Lanier recognised VR’s two sides, its “potency for beauty” and “vulnerability to creepiness”. VR never caught on back then, at least, not in the living room. Its prohibitive cost ensured that the technology lived on only in the clandestine halls of car manufacturers (where it was used to test new cabin designs), or in the private rooms of university-affiliated clinicians, who use its transporting power to treat PTSD-beleaguered soldiers with exposure therapy.
At first glance, Lanier’s book seems like a sustained effort to secure his place as a founding father (“Everyone who becomes involved [in VR] wants to coin their own new term, or stake out priority to bear their memory,” he admits). He lays out carefully how a small group of dreamer artists and engineers already wrestled with many of the creative and technological challenges that currently face the thousands of VR startups. This is more than a mere attempt to reinforce a particular history. Lanier is more self-deprecating and self-reflective than the typical Californian tech maven, and too self-critical and self-aware to play the role of blinkered advocate (although his earnest belief that VR is “the most humanistic approach to information” runs through the book’s pages). The result is a more studied and nuanced interrogation of VR’s potential, as well as a gentle critique of what he sees as a failure of imagination when it comes to the medium’s current proponents.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, the book focuses principally on Lanier’s story, from his early childhood in the 1960s through to the closure of his virtual reality studio, VPL, in the early 1990s. By interspersing drier chapters that explore the general ideas, principles and promise of VR with intimate autobiography, a human and, often, romantic (if meandering) route into what might otherwise be a somewhat dry subject matter is laid.
This is aided by the fact that Lanier’s childhood was preposterously unusual. His Viennese mother survived a concentration camp and found fortune in America trading on the New York stock exchange remotely from the family home in New Mexico. She spent the proceeds of one unexpectedly large windfall on a new car, the colour of which Lanier was permitted to choose. But on the day Lanier’s mother passed her driving test, she was killed in a crash due to what is now known to be a mechanical fault with the model. Lanier and his father’s bewildered grief (“we cried for years”) was compounded by antisemitism and bullying from neighbours and classmates. One teacher told the boy that his mother, as a Jew, “had it coming”.
After their home was burned down in an arson attack, the pair lived in a tent until Lanier’s father, a teacher, suggested his 13-year-old son design a home for them both to live in. The boy opted for a series of bra-like dome structures, which father and son built together. Lanier’s father lived in the grand design for 30 years, long after his son had left. The details of Lanier’s young life combine tragedy, whimsy and peril in ways that might seem far-fetched for even a David Lynch film (and the New Mexico setting and oddball characters are undeniably Lynchian), proving the hoary adage that truth is so often stranger than virtual reality.
While still attending high school, Lanier somehow enrolled at New Mexico State University and started to study computer science, intending one day to build an orbital device that might protect Earth from an incoming asteroid. On his college course he read the work of Ivan Sutherland who, in the 1960s, was one of the first people to create a head-mounted display that would allow a person to see a digital world sustained by computer programs. After a stint in New York, Lanier moved to California, joined the nascent video game industry, and using the money he made there, funded early VR experiments along with other maths misfits, the core group of whom co-founded VPL.
Lanier’s VR company survived for just five years, but its effects were wide-ranging and long felt. Its EyePhone, a headset that could track head movements, featured in VR’s coming-of-age movie, The Lawnmower Man; its haptic “DataGlove” graced the front cover of Scientific American in 1987. But VPL’s nascent apps were the company’s most foundational inventions, descendants of which are still used in surgical training, aeroplane cabin design, local law enforcement and, inevitably, the military.
The memoir complete, in the final sections of the book Lanier enters his wheelhouse: pontificating in tones that lurch between that of the cheerleader, envisioning all that VR tech might be, and that of the end-time prophet, all dread worries and warnings. Lanier frequently describes the tech-run world as “hell”. We have ceded our individual privacy to Facebook et al, even as hackers like him, who now run multinational corporations, “twitch our marionette strings”. As might be expected of the boy who was given purpose, identity and a route to freedom out of unrecoverable grief by technology, Lanier lands, nevertheless, on a full-throated optimistic note. VR is a full sensory canvas into which young people will “create beauty”, he writes. More than that, “the friendships, the families, the meaning” that are facilitated, in its best moments, by any piece of technology, are “blazingly amazing”.
I experienced virtual reality for the first time the other day, at a training workshop for university lecturers. When I donned the Oculus Rift – a sleek plastic headset with handheld controls – I was presented with a desk on which sat some cartoonishly rendered objects: a ball, a toy car, a ray gun. I picked up the gun and fired off a few shots. I rolled the ball off the table. Then the lenses in the goggles misted up and I grew bored..
I couldn’t see how virtual reality was supposed to help with the teaching of literature, but the techno-apparatchiks who were our guides for the day assured me that this was the future of pedagogy (a word they liked). “Just imagine,” they said, “one day your students won’t just be able to read books: they’ll experience what it’s like to be in them.”.
In Dawn of the New Everything, his insightful (and often maddening) memoir-cum-manifesto, Jaron Lanier argues that we are on the brink of a golden age of virtual reality. “It looks like this book might come out at about the same time that VR gets commonplace,” he writes. But despite the best efforts of the evangelists, VR has so far failed to become ubiquitous..
In 2014 Oculus was bought, with much fanfare, by Facebook for $2bn, but since then it’s felt as if they don’t really know what they want to do with the technology. Google Glass (an experiment in wearable augmented reality first released in 2013) also limps on, but having a camera strapped permanently to your head feels intrusive, and early adopters were labelled “glassholes”. VR may well still be the future, but what becomes clear from Dawn of the New Everything is that it has been the future for a very long time, and that it is as much about selling visions as experiencing them..
Lanier is a computer scientist turned writer and techno sage, and is often hailed as the father of VR. His previous two books – Who Owns the Future (2010) and You Are Not a Gadget (2013) – were bracing polemics against the dangers of what he identified as a new “digital Maoism” associated with the power of social networks, under the auspices of which algorithms become more important than people. Dawn of the New Everything lacks the directed energy of his previous books, fusing techno-utopian thought experiments with truncated memoir, but still contains plenty to argue with..
Most immediately engaging are the autobiographical sections, for Lanier has led a fascinating life. His mother was a Viennese dancer who was killed in a car crash when he was nine, his father a high school teacher who “lived with Gurdjieff in Paris and Huxley in California and studied with various Hindu and Buddhist teachers”. After his mother’s death Lanier had a slightly feral existence with his father, building theremins together and living in a geodesic dome house Lanier had designed. A sense of messianic mission permeates the descriptions of his childhood (and the book as a whole). “Was it possible,” he recalls thinking as a child, “that every place in the whole universe was wondrous, but people just get worn out by the chore of perception? Is that why all the other kids just sat there, pretending that everything was normal?”.
A talented mathematician and musician, Lanier talked his way into university without finishing high school. He worked at Atari in the 1980s, and later founded VPL, a company that sold expensive virtual reality bodysuits and software to various military and corporate entities, and dreams to the rest of us. The company’s only foray into mass commercial production came in 1989 with the release of the Power Glove, a much-lampooned but fondly remembered device that allowed users to play computer games using hand gestures but that, as Lanier acknowledges, didn’t actually work very well..
Since then he has become a Silicon Valley insider, and now works for Microsoft as a research scientist. He is, it must be said, a quite incorrigible namedropper. “I remember,” he writes in a typical passage, “Richard Feynman teaching me to make a tetrahedron with my fingers. Steve Jobs demonstrating how to amass the mysterious quality we call power by humiliating a hardware engineer … Marvin Minksy showing me how to predict when a technology would become cheap and mature.” The hobnobbing is endearing for a while, then becomes annoying. Selling the dream of virtual reality depends on showmanship, Lanier says, something he learned in the early years by giving demonstrations of the technology to Hollywood executives, Burning Man nabobs and anyone else who would listen..
“VR scientists are the illusionists of science,” he writes, “we’re honest when we tell you we’re fooling you, and you should take us seriously when we point out that we’re not the only one.” There’s still something of the showman about him though, and after a while you begin to suspect this is a book built on patter. VR becomes, in his hands, something of a panacea, a catch-all term rendered almost meaningless by endless definition and redefinition. In his introduction Lanier calls it “one of the scientific, philosophical, and technological frontiers of our era … a means for creating comprehensive illusions that you’re in a different place, perhaps a fantastical, alien environment, perhaps with a body that is far from human”. Further definitions – 52 in total – punctuate the rest of the book. So VR is (or could be) a means of “improvising reality” or bringing about “shared lucid dreaming”; a “cybernetic construction” or a “person-centred, experiential formulation of digital technology”. In one of the most alarming definitions, Lanier calls VR “a cross between cinema, jazz and programming”, which sounds just about the worst thing I can imagine. You can see what he’s getting at, most of the time, but after a while you wonder if the net has been cast too wide to make any meaningful generalisations..
Inside VR you can experience flying with friends … transformed into glittering angels soaring above an alien planet ….
The enemy here, as in his previous books, is the model of a “weightless” internet – anonymous, free, and therefore, Lanier writes, inherently manipulative – that we live with today. The libertarian utopianism of Silicon Valley is a result of this frictionless internet, where nobody pays for anything so that we all become products. “We ended up with an uncharted, ad hoc internet,” he says. “We made our lives easier during the period described in this book, but the whole world is paying a heavy price many years later.” To fix things, he proposes that we should add “a little gravity, a little skin in the game” to the web, and one-way to achieve this – quite how remains hazy – is through the judicial deployment of VR..
Lanier wants it to be emancipatory and liberating: it promises to allow us to experience what it might be like to be another person, or to inhabit alien phenomenologies (there is interesting work being done, he reports, on the ways humans can inhabit and manipulate non-human avatars – we are, apparently, very good with tails). But at root the problem of virtual reality is the problem of realism. “If the world be promiscuously described,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the Rambler, “I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.” If the technology of VR was perfect – if it were possible to conjure a world as rich in sensory detail as the one we currently inhabit, but designed by us – what kind of a world would we come up with?.
Lanier’s answers to this question left me cold. “From inside VR you can experience flying with friends, all of you transformed into glittering angels soaring above an alien planet encrusted with animate gold spires,” he writes at one point, which made me wonder why VR’s visions should be … well, so very kitsch. Despite Lanier’s gestures towards the benign singularity of universal oneness, the image of VR that emerges here feels decadent and isolating. A future in which relationships depend on locking yourself away in the prison of the self, arranging the world around you so that it confirms everything you want it to and never taking the goggles off, is a future of which I want no part.
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