To many people, Jaron Lanier is the father of virtual reality. He coined the term in its contemporary usage though points to an older, literary use. Lanier is a credit-sharer, not a credit-grabber, so this memoir of his childhood, early work and years at VPL Research, Inc. is full of sharing the credit with mentors and collaborators. Lanier, though, is not your typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur/coder/inventor.
First and foremost, Lanier is a humanist. Much of that may come from his unconventional childhood. He lost his mother in a car accident when he was young. He grew up in New Mexico in a house his father allowed him to design (geodesic, sort of). He was taking college classes before he graduated high school. In fact, he never graduated. Much of his life reads like Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs and misogyny. Wild, free, spontaneous, and on the edge, that was his life, but it was a life of learning, always thinking, always learning.
He talks about the development of virtual reality and computers. He also explains why he does not fear the singularity because he does not believe in artificial intelligence. He explains why VR is the anti-AI. In fact, he has fifty-two definitions of VR which is, of course, the “new everything.” He believes that as we develop technology, we also develop, that machines will not outpace us.
He is full of opinions that reflect his humanism. He thinks the “weightlessness” of the internet leads to the fakery, fraud, theft, and vile abusiveness that is so common. Folks do not have to invest themselves and that lets them be their worst selves. There, I am sure he is right.
What the heck did I just read? That’s kind of how I have felt all through reading Dawn of the New Everything. I enjoyed every minute of it, but it was a wild ride. I don’t have the background to make this an easy read. I don’t code. I know how to make bold and italic text, but that’s about it. Even simple things like hyperlinks, I have to look at a sample. So, this is a book that I expected to take me out of my comfort zone. It did more than that.
There’s a stream of consciousness kind of speed and spontaneity to the text. It feels like it was spoken, not written. Perhaps it was. More than anything, though, it was sort of hallucinogenic. I might not understand it all, but it’s all original. His major theme is that we need to center computing and technology on humanity, not on the technology for the sake of technology. Technology should be contoured to humanity and not seek to shape humanity to its contours.
Lanier sees risk in technology if it is produced without empathy, but also sees tremendous potential for technology, particularly virtual reality, to create empathy. I enjoyed this book very much even though it was a challenge and took me far too long to read it.
I received an e-galley of Dawn of the New Everything from the publisher through NetGalley. There were no photos or illustrations in the e-galley but I have paged through the released version and it’s full of pictures.