I experienced virtual reality for the first time the other day, at a training workshop for university lecturers. When I donned the Oculus Rift – a sleek plastic headset with handheld controls – I was presented with a desk on which sat some cartoonishly rendered objects: a ball, a toy car, a ray gun. I picked up the gun and fired off a few shots. I rolled the ball off the table. Then the lenses in the goggles misted up and I grew bored.
I couldn’t see how virtual reality was supposed to help with the teaching of literature, but the techno-apparatchiks who were our guides for the day assured me that this was the future of pedagogy (a word they liked). “Just imagine,” they said, “one day your students won’t just be able to read books: 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 book might come out at about the same time that VR gets commonplace,” he writes. But despite the best efforts of the evangelists, 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 reality first released in 2013) also limps on, but having a camera strapped permanently to your head 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 that it has been the future for a very long time, and that it is as much about selling visions as experiencing them.
Lanier is a computer scientist turned writer and techno sage, and is often hailed as the father 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 new “digital Maoism” associated with the power of social networks, under the auspices of which algorithms become more important than people. Dawn of the New Everything lacks the directed energy of his previous books, fusing techno-utopian thought experiments 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 mother was a Viennese dancer who was killed in a car crash when he was nine, his father a high school teacher who “lived with Gurdjieff in Paris and Huxley in California and studied with various Hindu and Buddhist teachers”. After his mother’s death Lanier had a slightly feral existence with his father, building theremins together and living in a geodesic dome house Lanier had designed. A sense of messianic mission permeates the descriptions of his childhood (and the book as a whole). “Was it possible,” he recalls thinking as a child, “that every place in the whole universe was wondrous, but people just get worn out by the chore of perception? Is that why all the other kids just sat there, pretending that everything was normal?”
A talented mathematician and musician, Lanier talked his way into university without finishing high school. He worked at Atari in the 1980s, and later founded VPL, a company that sold expensive virtual reality bodysuits and software to various military and corporate entities, and dreams to the rest of us. The company’s only foray into mass commercial production came in 1989 with the release of the Power Glove, a much-lampooned but fondly remembered device that allowed users to play computer games using hand gestures but that, as Lanier acknowledges, didn’t actually work 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 quite incorrigible namedropper. “I remember,” he writes in a typical passage, “Richard Feynman teaching me to make a tetrahedron with my fingers. Steve Jobs demonstrating how to amass the mysterious quality we call power by humiliating a hardware engineer … Marvin Minksy showing me how to predict when a technology would become cheap and mature.” The hobnobbing is endearing for a while, then becomes annoying. Selling the dream of virtual reality depends on showmanship, Lanier says, something he learned in the early years by giving demonstrations of the technology to Hollywood executives, Burning Man nabobs and anyone else who would listen.
“VR scientists are the illusionists of science,” he writes, “we’re honest when we tell you we’re fooling 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 begin to suspect this is a book built on patter. VR becomes, in his hands, something of a panacea, a catch-all term rendered almost meaningless by endless definition and redefinition. In his introduction Lanier calls it “one of the scientific, philosophical, and technological frontiers of our era … a means for creating comprehensive illusions that you’re in a different place, perhaps a fantastical, alien environment, perhaps with a body that is far from human”. Further definitions – 52 in total – punctuate the rest of the book. So VR is (or could be) a means of “improvising reality” or bringing about “shared lucid dreaming”; a “cybernetic construction” or a “person-centred, experiential formulation of digital technology”. In one of the most alarming definitions, Lanier calls VR “a cross between cinema, jazz and programming”, which sounds 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 cast too wide to make any meaningful generalisations.
The enemy here, as in his previous books, is the model 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 we all become products. “We ended up with an uncharted, ad hoc internet,” he says. “We made our lives easier during the period described in this book, but the whole world is paying a heavy price many years later.” To fix things, he proposes that we should add “a little gravity, a little skin in the game” to the web, and one-way to achieve this – quite how remains hazy – is through the judicial deployment of VR.
Lanier wants 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 work being done, he reports, on the ways humans can inhabit and manipulate non-human avatars – we are, apparently, very good with tails). But at root the problem of virtual reality is the problem of realism. “If the world be promiscuously described,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the Rambler, “I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.” If the technology of VR was perfect – if it were possible to conjure a world as rich in sensory detail as the one we currently inhabit, but designed by us – what kind of a world would we come up with?
Lanier’s answers to this question left me cold. “From inside VR you can experience flying with friends, all of you transformed into glittering angels soaring above an alien planet encrusted with animate gold spires,” he writes at one point, which made me wonder why VR’s visions should be … well, so very kitsch. Despite Lanier’s gestures towards the benign singularity of universal oneness, the image of VR that emerges here feels decadent and isolating. A future in which relationships depend on locking yourself away in the prison of the self, arranging the world around you so that it confirms everything you want it 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 order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.