Dawn of the New Everything : A Journey Through Virtual Reality
After decades of false starts, virtual reality (VR) is on the point of taking off, said Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times. For an easily affordable sum, we can now don headsets that enable us to immerse ourselves in remarkably convincing alternative worlds. The technology is now progressing at such a rate that if VR isn’t commonplace within a decade, “somebody will have got something horribly wrong”. And who better to acquaint us with it than Jaron Lanier, the US computer scientist and philosopher who was one of the medium’s early pioneers? In the 1980s, his company, VPL Research, was one of the first to make and sell VR products. His book is both an eccentric history of the technology and a memoir. The point it seeks to drive home is that, while other technologies reduce the self and its capabilities, VR is all about expanding human freedom. Whether we are pretending to be dinosaurs, tightrope walking between the Twin Towers or chatting to strangers in a virtual bar, it enables us – at least in theory – to become better, more creative versions of ourselves.
It’s very fitting that Lanier should have devoted himself to creating alternate realities, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times, because his early life, in southern New Mexico, was spent “living in one”. After his mother died and his family home burnt down, he and his father moved into a “geodesic dome” resembling a “50ft golf ball” that Lanier designed at the age of 13. He paid his way through college by working as a goatherd and sewing his own clothes – “mainly capes” – before landing in Palo Alto (“the original Silicon Valley”) in his 20s. Quite apart from what it says about VR, this book fascinates as a portrait of a “wild, roaming mind” and as a history of the tech industry.
At first, Dawn of the New Everything looks like an attempt on Lanier’s part to “secure his place as a founding father” of VR, said Simon Parkin in The Guardian. But it soon proves much more nuanced. Lanier is “more self-deprecating and self-reflective than the typical Californian tech maven”, and he admits to being uncertain about where VR is headed. Currently the technology is mainly used for gaming and porn, which, he concedes, has little to do with creative self-expression. Yet his idealism is infectious and irrepressible, and he ends the book on a “full-throated optimistic note”, lauding VR as a “sensory canvas” that will enable young people to “create beauty”. Whether or not you think this realistic, it’s hard not to be charmed by Lanier’s enthusiasm.