Book Notes: “Dawn of the New Everything”

Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Co., 2017

Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. He founded and led VPL Research, one of the first VR companies, in the 1980s. This book is in parts a history of VR, a (very) personal memoir, and a philosophy manual for thinking about the application of digital technology towards human goals. “This book conveys my personal perspective,” Lanier states early on. “It doesn’t attempt a comprehensive history or survey of ideas.” But the history-survey it does attempt is both enticing and profound.

The story’s arc goes through four stages:

  1. Lanier’s childhood experiences in New Mexico (which had a very important influence on his outlook on technology and life in general),
  2. his unorthodox education (“trying to be normal is a fool’s game”),
  3. the founding and running of VPL, and finally,
  4. the post-VPL years.

A thread of VR philosophy is weaved into the autobiographical sections. Often founders of schools of thought, fields, technologies, etc. will offer a handful of definitions of the thing they’re famous for. Lanier emphasizes VR’s multi-faceted nature by offering multiple definitions throughout the book. Many of these don’t deal at all with the technology, but with their effect on people — especially VR’s ability to augment our humanity:

19th VR definition: instrumentation to explore motor-cortex intelligence.

And that is the core of this book: technology in service to human ends. Lanier contrasts VR with artificial intelligence: where AI seeks to replace human capacities, VR seeks to allow us to explore our consciousness, to become more human. I don’t buy this idea completely (there are other ways to do this that don’t require technological intermediation), but it’s refreshing to have a strongly (and deeply) argued case for a more conscious and ethical approach to tech:

I love recalling the first passes of computer science because then you can see how the whole of computation is an act of invention. Nothing about computers is inevitable. But we’ve put such a massive number of bits into place that it’s often too much work to remember how each brick of the edifice we live in is but a peculiar obsession somebody else put into place once upon a time.

This massive edifice of bits has inertia, but it’s ultimately within our power to determine what technology is in service to. Tracing the history of significant parts of the edifice can help us understand that they aren’t inevitable. We can and should explore other ways of being with technology, and this book makes a compelling case for doing so.

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