The techno-sage and Silicon Valley insider views VR as emancipatory and liberating but what does shared lucid daydream actually entail?

I knew virtual reality for the first time the other daytime, at a exercise workshop for university speakers. When I donned the Oculus Rift- a elegant plastic headset with handheld restraints- I was presented with a table on which sat some cartoonishly made objects: a projectile, a doll auto, a light grease-gun. I picked up the gun and burnt off a few shots. I wheeled the projectile off the counter. Then the lenses in the goggles clouded up and I thrived bored.

I couldn’t see how virtual reality was supposed to help with the training courses of literature, but the techno-apparatchiks who were our navigates for the working day assured me that this was the future of pedagogy( a word they liked ).” Just dream ,” they said,” one day your students won’t exactly provide opportunities to read volumes: 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 journal might come out at about the same experience that VR get cliche ,” 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 the technology. Google Glass( an experiment in wearable augmented actuality firstly released after 2013) too limps on, but having a camera strapped permanently to your psyche feels obtrusive, 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 exchanging images as suffering them.

Lanier is a computer scientist turned writer and techno sage-green, and is often hailed as the leader 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 brand-new” digital Maoism” associated with the influence of social networks, under the auspices of which algorithms become more important than people. Dawn of the New Everything lacks the directed vitality of his previous journals, fusing techno-utopian gues ventures with truncated memoir, but still enclose plenty to argue with.

Most immediately engaging are the autobiographical regions, for Lanier has led a fascinating life. His father was a Viennese dancer who was killed in a auto crash when he was nine, “his fathers” a high school teacher who” lived with Gurdjieff in Paris and Huxley in California and examined with various Hindu and Buddhist coaches “. After his mother’s death Lanier had a slightly feral live with “his fathers”, improving theremins together and living in a geodesic dome residence Lanier had designed. A appreciation of messianic assignment penetrates the descriptions of his childhood( and the book as a whole ). “Was it possible,” he withdraws fantasizing as a child,” that every place in the whole universe was wondrous, but beings precisely get worn out by the work of perception? Is that why all the other kids just sat there, professing 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 practice into university without finishing high school. He wielded at Atari in the 1980 s, and later founded VPL, a company that exchanged expensive virtual reality bodysuits and software to various military and corporate entities, and nightmares to the rest of us. The company’s only foray into mass commercial creation came in 1989 with the publication of the Power Glove, a much-lampooned but fondly remembered machine that allowed users to play computer games exploiting handwriting gestures but that, as Lanier declares, didn’t actually act 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 fairly incorrigible namedropper.” I remember ,” he writes in a usual passageway,” Richard Feynman teaching me to make a tetrahedron with my paws. Steve Jobs demonstrating how to amass the mysterious quality we announce ability by humiliating a hardware technologist … Marvin Minksy demo me how to predict when a technology would become cheap and full-grown .” The hobnobbing is endearing for a while, then becomes annoying. Selling the dream of virtual reality varies depending on showmanship, Lanier says, something he learned in the early years by imparting the manifestations of the technology to Hollywood administrations, Burning Man nabobs and anyone else who would listen.

” VR scientists are the illusionists of discipline ,” he writes,” we’re honest when we say to you we’re moron you, and you should take us severely 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 around patter. VR becomes, in his hands, something of a panacea, a catch-all expression yielded almost nonsensical by interminable description and redefinition. In his introduction Lanier announces it” one of the technical, theoretical, and technological frontiers of our era … a means for creating thorough illusions that you’re in a different residence, perhaps a fantastical, alien situation, perhaps with a body that is far from human “. Further explanations- 52 in total- intersperse the rest of the book. So VR is( or is likely to be) a the ways and means of” improvising reality” or used to generate” shared lucid fantasy “; a” cybernetic interpretation” or a” person-centred, experiential formulation of digital technology “. In one of the most alarming explanations, Lanier calls VR” a cross between cinema, jazz and programming”, which sounds just about the worst thought I can imagine. You can see what he’s get in here, most of the time, but after a while you wonder if the net has been cast very wide to make any meaningful generalisations.

The enemy here, as in his previous works, is the modeling 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 everyone is become commodities.” We dissolved up with an uncharted, ad hoc internet ,” he says.” We prepared “peoples lives” easier during the period outlined in the present volume, but the world is compensating a heavy rate several years later .” To fix things, he proposes that we should lend” a little seriousnes, a little scalp in video games” to the web, and one-way to achieve these objectives- fairly how remains hazy- is through the judicial deployment of VR.

Lanier misses 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 project being done, he reports, on the ways humans can inhabit and operate non-human avatars- the administration is, apparently, very good with tushes ). But at root the challenges of the virtual reality is the problem of realism.” If the world be promiscuously described ,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the Rambler,” I cannot realise of what use it can be to read the note; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon humanity, as upon a reflect which pictures all that presents itself without discrimination .” If information and communication technologies of VR was perfect- if it were possible to create a world as rich in sensory item 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 operating with acquaintances, all of you transformed into glittering angels soaring above an alien planet encrusted with animate gold skyscrapers ,” he writes at one point, which represented me wants to know why VR’s eyesights should be … well, so extremely kitsch. Despite Lanier’s gesticulates towards the benign singularity of universal oneness, the image of VR that rises here feels decadent and isolating. A future in which affairs depend on fastening yourself away in the prison of the self, arranging countries around the world around you so that it shows everything it wishes to and never taking the goggles off, is a future of which I want no part.

* Dawn of the New Everything is published by Bodley Head. To tell a mimic for PS17( RRP PS2 0) go to bookshop.theguardian.comor announce 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online prescribes exclusively. Phone tells min p& p of PS1. 99.

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