The techno-sage and Silicon Valley insider determines VR as emancipatory and liberating but what does shared lucid fantasy actually necessitate?

I knew virtual reality for the first time the other day, at a develop workshop for university professors. When I donned the Oculus Rift- a shiny plastic headset with handheld controls- I was presented with a table on which sat some cartoonishly made objects: a projectile, a plaything gondola, a ray firearm. I picked up the handgun and fuelled off a few shootings. I rolled the ball off the counter. Then the lenses in the goggles misted up and I ripened bored.

I couldn’t see how virtual reality was supposed to help with the teaching of literature, but the techno-apparatchiks who were our templates for the day assured me that this was the future of pedagogy( a word they liked ).” Just reckon ,” they said,” one day your students won’t merely be able to read journals: they’ll suffer 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 journal might come out at about the same meter that VR gets banality ,” he writes. But despite the best efforts of the clergymen, 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 these new technologies. Google Glass( an experiment in wearable augmented reality first released in 2013) too limps on, but having a camera strapped permanently to your intelligence 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 the fact that it has been the future for a very long time, and that it is as much about selling imaginations as knowing them.

Lanier is a computer scientist turned writer and techno sage, and is often hailed as the papa of VR. His previous two journals- Who Owns the Future ( 2010) and You Are Not a Gadget ( 2013)- were poising polemics against the dangers of what he identified as a new” digital Maoism” associated with the strength of social networks, under the auspices of which algorithms become more important than parties. Dawn of the New Everything lacks the directed intensity of his previous volumes, fusing techno-utopian conceive experimentations 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 mom was a Viennese dancer who was killed in a auto crash when he was nine, his father a high school teacher who” lived with Gurdjieff in Paris and Huxley in California and studied with different Hindu and Buddhist educators “. After his mother’s death Lanier had a slightly feral universe with his father, constructing theremins together and living in a geodesic dome room Lanier had designed. A appreciation of messianic duty pervades the specific characteristics of his childhood( and the book as a whole ). “Was it possible,” he remembers making as a child,” that every place in the whole macrocosm was wondrous, but beings merely get worn out by the work of knowledge? Is that why all the other kids just sat there, claiming that everything was normal ?”

Jaron
Jaron Lanier at home in Berkeley, California. Image: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

A talented mathematician and musician, Lanier talked his direction into university without finishing high school. He wielded at Atari in the 1980 s, and later founded VPL, a company that sold expensive virtual reality bodysuits and software to various military and corporate entities, and reveries to the rest of us. The company’s only foray into mass commercial-grade product came in 1989 with the release of the Power Glove, a much-lampooned but fondly recollected invention that allowed users to play video game using side gesticulates but that, as Lanier declares, didn’t actually cultivate very well.

Since then he has become a Silicon Valley insider, and now works for Microsoft as studies and research scientist. He is, it must be said, a fairly incorrigible namedropper.” I remember ,” he writes in a usual piece,” Richard Feynman learning me to make a tetrahedron with my fingers. Steve Jobs demonstrating how to amass the strange excellence we announce influence by humbling a hardware designer … Marvin Minksy indicating me how to predict when a engineering would become cheap and matured .” The hobnobbing is endearing for a while, then becomes annoying. Exchanging the dream of virtual reality depends on showmanship, Lanier says, something he learned in the early years by affording the manifestations of the technology to Hollywood managers, Burning Man nabobs and anyone else who would listen.

” VR scientists are the illusionists of discipline ,” he writes,” we’re honest where reference is say to you we’re moron 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 start to believe this is a notebook built on pitter-patter. VR becomes, in his hands, something of a panacea, a catch-all period made virtually futile by interminable description and redefinition. In his introduction Lanier announces it” one of the scientific, philosophical, and technological frontiers of our era … a means for creating comprehensive apparitions that you’re in a different neighbourhood, perhaps a fantastical, alien context, perhaps with a mas that is far from human “. Further explanations- 52 in total- punctuate the rest of the book. So VR is( or could be) a the ways and means of” improvising world” or used to generate” shared lucid dreaming “; a” cybernetic structure” or a” person-centred, experiential formulation of digital technology “. In one of the most alarming definitions, Lanier announces VR” a cross between cinema, jazz and programming”, which chimes 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 thrown too wide-eyed to make any meaningful generalisations.

The enemy here, as in his previous volumes, is the prototype of a “weightless” internet- anonymous, free, and therefore, Lanier writes, inherently devious- 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 grown products.” We ended up with an uncharted, ad hoc internet ,” he says.” We induced “peoples lives” easier during the period put forward in this journal, but the whole world is paying a heavy toll many years later .” To fix things, he proposes that we should contribute” a bit seriousnes, a bit surface in video games” to the web, and one-way to achieve this- quite how remains hazy- is through the judicial deployment of VR.

Lanier craves it to be emancipatory and liberating: it promises to allow us to experience what it might be like to be another person, or to colonize alien phenomenologies( there is interesting effort being done, he reports, on the ways humans can colonize and operate non-human avatars- we are, apparently, very good with tails ). But at root their own problems of virtual reality is the problem of pragmatism.” If the nations of the world be promiscuously described ,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the Rambler,” I cannot receive of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately following human, as upon a mirror which demo all that presents itself without discrimination .” If these new technologies of VR was perfect- if it were possible to conjure a macrocosm as rich in sensory detail as the one we currently inhabit, but designed by us- what kind of a macrocosm would we come up with?

Lanier’s answers to this question left me cold.” From inside VR you can experience winging with pals, all of you transformed into flashing angels rising above an alien planet encrusted with animate gold spires ,” he writes at one point, which reached me wonder why VR’s visions should be … well, so extremely kitsch. Despite Lanier’s gestures towards the benign singularity of universal oneness, the image of VR that rises here feels decadent and isolating. A future in which relations depend on locking yourself away in the prison of the soul, ordering the nations of the world around you so that it shows everything you want it to and never taking the goggles off, is a future of which I miss no part.

* Dawn of the New Everything is published by Bodley Head. To tell a transcript for PS17( RRP PS2 0) go to bookshop.theguardian.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orderings only. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99.

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