Book Review: Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality

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Jaron Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality is an odd book. Part autobiography and part anti-utopian polemic. Part appreciation of a science (virtual reality) and part critique of its industry. There are earnestly personal chapters on the author’s childhood and parents and highly technical ones on “phenotropic” software (software that can be used and modified simultaneously). One suspects Lanier’s genre-mixing was intentional. It embodies the central message of not only this book but of his entire public career: the world is not so orderly as Silicon Valley’s technological saviors imagine it to be. Things are messy. Life is more than just an optimization problem.

Lanier grew up in the Southwest region of the United States. For a time, he lived in Texas but attended elementary school in Mexico. “[It] sounds strange today, since the border has come to look like the world’s most advertised prison,” he writes, “but back then it was understated and relaxed: creaky little school buses crossed all the time.” His parents, however, worried this arrangement was stifling his integration into American society, so they decided to transfer him to a nearby Texas school. Both Lanier’s parents were of Jewish-European descent; his mother survived Nazi internment, and his father lost his entire family in the Ukrainian Holocaust. They didn’t want their son to suffer similar bigotry and alienation.

Unfortunately Lanier did, albeit to a lesser degree. A band of “juvenile cowboy bullies” threatened to kill him over his Jewishness. (The same boys had allegedly already been responsible for the “accidental” drowning of one of Lanier’s Hispanic classmates.) When Lanier’s mother died in a car crash, one of his teachers linked the tragedy to Jewish collective guilt for Christ’s execution. Lanier writes that his memories of school are a montage of “onslaught, racism, and violence.”

After his mother’s death, Lanier and his father moved to New Mexico where they lived in a tent in the desert for two years. The two grew vegetables and raised chickens. Lanier snuck himself into New Mexico State University despite not graduating high school. He sold goat cheese to pay for his tuition. (Incidentally, one of his goats won an award at the New Mexico State Fair.) His father let him design the house they’d build and live in. He decided on a dome structure which ended up poorly leveled and oddly laid out. They called it “Earth Station Lanier.”

Besides these chapters on Lanier’s peculiar upbringing, the other two most evocative sections of the book are on his divorce and on his skepticism of artificial intelligence.

The woman he married is never mentioned by name. They first met while Lanier was at MIT hanging around with Marvin Minsky and his brightest students. We’re led to believe she was a bit silly in her grandiosity. She, for example, told Lanier that acid guru Timothy Leary had sent her to Harvard so she “could seduce MIT computer geniuses into the psychedelic revolution.”

She doesn’t reappear until Lanier has established himself as one of Silicon Valley’s most ambitious entrepreneurs. After coding videogames for a while, he starts his own virtual reality (VR) company, VPL Research. It’s the first company to sell VR equipment.

Wealth and success follow. Lanier gets contracts with the FBI and phone calls from Steven Spielberg. He’s the answer to a Jeopardy question. She’s now interested in marrying him. “She wanted to get married,” Lanier writes, “but she talked about as though it was a prize, a touchdown, a royal flush.”

As in most unhealthy relationships, neither person was wholly guilty or wholly innocent. Lanier’s growing egotism was further invigorated by having the attention of a much-desired woman; and he acknowledges that his ex-wife’s “comically exaggerated gold digger personality” was just the “mirror image…of the stupid vanity monster that emerged” in him. There’s a poetic despair to Lanier’s explanation of why he thinks the marriage ended so quickly: “Both she and I had lost battles with horrid, inherited pseudodesires, not really our own.”

Of course, while the book’s autobiographical fragments are vivid and often interesting, they aren’t why anyone would choose to read it. With Lanier’s previous two books—You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future—he has earned a reputation as the outsider’s insider of Silicon Valley. Nowadays most people with knowledge to write convincingly about cybertechnology are either industry participants or enthusiasts. So Lanier’s intelligible grievances with social media, data management, and artificial intelligence are not only insightful but also increasingly rare. It’s for these grievances (and possible solutions) that someone would most likely choose to pick up Dawn of the New Everything—and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

Lanier is old enough to have been around during all the earliest debates about what the internet should be like. Should links be one-way or two? Should it cost money to send an email or should a certain level of internet experience be free? Should everything be anonymous or should logging on require tethering your digital identity in some way to your actual one?

For the most part, the pro-privacy and pro-commons positions won out. The internet is free and relatively anonymous. Links are one-way (that is, you can’t tell who is clicking or commenting on your website without additional programming), basic services such as email and posting are free, and internet access doesn’t require a social security number or driver’s license.

Ironically, companies have made billions of dollars working within, yet nullifying, these fundamental design features. The internet is open, and thus infinite, so search engines profit off creating boundaries. Cybersecurity firms are paid to track online identities. Telecommunication companies can sell your browser history. Software providers and social networks store your data for interested third-parties. As Lanier puts it, “The strange new truth is that almost no one has privacy and yet no one knows what’s going on.”

With the growing capacity for collecting, storing, and manipulating data, a new “religion” (in Lanier’s words) has emerged in Silicon Valley: artificial intelligence (AI). Lanier argues that the manipulation of vast amounts of collected human data has created the façade of AI, ““Pull back the curtain of AI and there   are millions of exploited people.” He uses Google Translate, which is fed thousands of samples from human translators every day but pitched as a translating machine itself, as a case in point of this façade.

Lanier believes there’s a lot of charlatanry involved in the AI mania. Futurists and their media lackeys prophesize doom: the singularity—where AI becomes so intelligent that it learns to create even more intelligent AI—is coming. It’ll either be our salvation or extinction. Or, like most eschatologies, will blur the line between the two. Your Roomba can’t clean a room without bumping into chair legs, but don’t let that fool you. The end of the human era is near.

Some doubt the singularity narrative because they’re confident the super-AI will share our moral-evolutionary values or that safety measures will be installed along the way. Lanier doubts the narrative because he doesn’t believe AI is “a thing at all.” The doomsayers of the singularity—or any other form of AI apocalypse—are to Lanier “even worse” than those zealously cheering for its arrival: “If you get people scared of the devil, that’s not only the most intense promotion of religion, but it’s the flavor of promotion that probably does the most to make religion intolerant.” The devil may not be real, but hell is always a possibility.

Lanier regards virtual reality as “the inverse of AI,” since VR creates new experiences and possibilities for users while AI merely combines (and, in most cases, accelerates) already existing experiences and possibilities, which are then marketed as novel.

Although Lanier is disappointed in most current VR entertainment—which he sees as treating its users as “second-class citizens,” embedding them in virtual worlds without the ability to interact or change them—he is still impressed and hopeful about the VR training industry. Back in its early days, Lanier’s VR company produced the world’s first real-time surgical simulator. Since then, VR technologies have been developed that improve not only medical treatment but patient rehabilitation and are being used in everything from chemotherapy to lost-limb recovery.

Throughout Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier offers sixty or so definitions of VR. Some are mundane (“Instrumentation to make your world change into a place where it is easier to learn”), while others are downright mystical (“Virtual reality is the reality that exposes you to yourself”). Like the book’s genre-mixing format, this definitional ambiguity is intentional. For Lanier, VR is difficult to isolate because it’s connected to everything. It is “the most humanistic approach to information”—at once deeply personal and alien.

Whether one shares Lanier’s optimism about virtual reality or his sense of proportion about artificial intelligence, one should appreciate his determination to go against current trends and discuss these issues in human terms.  Silicon Valley is filled with people who either don’t care or don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Lanier reminds them (and us) that there are ghosts in the machines: fragmented, indistinct, and commodified bits of ourselves.