Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Jaron Lanier has been called the “Father of Virtual Reality” and he’s been involved with many of the main companies in this area of technology for three decades. In this fascinating and quirky book, he traces the history of the creation and development VR, which was a technological idea without the software and hardware before it was those face masks and weird gloves which allow people to explore invented gloves, and the philosophies behind and around VR.
So people had thought of this idea before they could actually do this, and had to spend time waiting for the real world to catch up. In the meantime, they had philosophical discussions and animated “what if?” conversations in local sushi bars (local being local to Silicon Valley, as you’d kind of expect). The book takes in the history and development of the Valley, yearning for the more simple days but also celebrating the fact that a “hacker” can now run a company or make millions with an idea.
The blurb claims that this is “likely to be one of the most unusual books you ever read” and that’s true to a great extent. Other reviewers have criticised it for its haphazard arrangement, but it reads like a long conversation or maybe a seminar or retreat with the author, and has an authenticity that comes from that. He’s also been accused of being arrogant, but I didn’t really find that in the book: he is extremely honest about the failings he perceives in himself, from being naïve to the point of stupidity in the early days, unclear about how to set up a company, lacking in memory (although he remembers the emotions of events, he’s not so clear on the details) and being prosopagnosic (face-blind, explaining why he doesn’t always describe or delineate people very clearly). As well as the face-blindness, he appears to have a few neurological tics and quirks, including a sort of hyper-sensitivity to landscape and atmospheric pressure and more than a touch of synaesthesia. What better person to help invent a new kind of reality?
The book does take a fairly simple chronological journey through Lanier’s life, from early childhood. Chapters along the way act as standalone discussions on, for example, the physical technology of VR or the rules for presenting VR demonstrations (these can be deeply philosophical or highly practical: don’t let people experiencing VR trip over the wires). There are also over forty definitions of VR which chime with whatever the chapter is about in which they appear. What a childhood he had, encouraged to design and construct a house for himself and his father in the desert in his teens, which, naturally, took the form of a geodesic dome (a nice point in the book was where he described it to one of the founding fathers of this architectural form, who immediately asked him how much it leaked). He farmed goats to pay his way through college and sees the seeds of the Internet revolution to come in a telemarketing company he works for whose boss gathers phone numbers by spying, getting other people’s lists and bribing people to hand over their data.
It’s a fairly diverse book, with women certainly playing a technological role and there’s a long piece about the women who instigated the first networks in the Valley, before computers took over that role to a large extent. There’s also a lot of experiential stuff as well as the tech, philosophy and theory that really brings VR to life: for example, if you have a desk in a virtual world and the person in the world goes to thump their hand down on it, if you create a convincing shadow and a thump at the moment of “contact”, you can make their hand stop moving, even though there’s no physical obstacle. It was also interesting to learn that the main issue in VR is not the detail of the world you “see” but the tracking of a person’s movements and particularly eyes to make sure that the world keeps up with them in real time – if this isn’t done, however stunning the rendition of the world, the lag will make them uneasy and even nauseous. This explains how they got great results in the early days with worlds made of very clumsy renditions of people and places, and was something I hadn’t thought about.
The main thread of the book, for me, was an insistence that VR is not about technology but about people: “As technology changes everything, we have a chance to discover that by pushing tech as far as possible we can rediscover something in ourselves that transcends technology.” (p. 55)
Lanier is clear on the fact that we need to know when we’re in VR and when we leave it. He advocates having a real flower to experience as people come out of a demo, and how very “real” that will seem. Again, he emphasises the human experience within a virtual world when discussing the complete importance of interacting with other people in it rather than experiencing it alone:
“The visceral realness of human presence within an avatar is the most dramatic sensation I have felt in VR. Interactivity is not just a feature or a quality of VR, but the natural empirical process at the core of experience. It is how we know life. It is life.” (p. 173)
There’s some good stuff here about how we recognise or come to recognise the people we interact with in VR worlds through tiny details of their movement and physicality, even when that physicality resides within a very different-looking avatar.
He details his concerns about the technology being used for harmful ends, and also has a long digression about whether we all live in someone else’s VR world, which was a bit mind-bending. He also talks quite a lot about the hundreds of musical instruments he’s collected and taught himself to play, seeing them as a use of haptics (bodily sensations) that can raise different worlds (temporally or geographically) in the mind of the user – an interesting idea and maybe unusual in a tech book.
This is a controversial book in some quarters – made so, as I suspected, by the world Lanier inhabits being “Like one of those obscure art world or academic microcosms filled with jealousy and backstabbing, even though the stakes were preposterously low” (p. 242). Although this quotation describes his time back in Silicon Valley, I would imagine it’s carried over until now and might have influenced some reactions. I’d encourage people to read this book, which is just fine for the layperson reader with an open mind about reading about technology and philosophy (yes, there are some hard bits, but they’re mainly stashed away in some slightly frightening appendixes).
Liz Dexter has read quite a few unusual books, particularly in the tech area. She’s also face-blind and might just have let out a whoop when she read that this author is, too. She blogs about books and running (and not politics) at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com. She’s written about face-blindness at https://libroediting.com/2015/10/08/what-is-prosopagnosia-and-how-does-it-affect-business-self-employed/
Jaron Lanier, Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality (Bodley Head, 2017). 978-1-847-92352-3, 351 pp., ill., Hardback
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