Named one of the best books of 2017 by The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, & Vox
The father of virtual reality explains its dazzling possibilities by reflecting on his own lifelong relationship with technology
Bridging the gap between tech mania and the experience of being inside the human body, Dawn of the New Everything is a look at what it means to be human at a moment of unprecedented technological possibility.
Through a fascinating look back over his life in technology, Jaron Lanier, an interdisciplinary scientist and father of the term “virtual reality,” exposes VR’s ability to illuminate and amplify our understanding of our species, and gives readers a new perspective on how the brain and body connect to the world. An inventive blend of autobiography, science writing, philosophy and advice, this book tells the wild story of his personal and professional life as a scientist, from his childhood in the UFO territory of New Mexico, to the loss of his mother, the founding of the first start-up, and finally becoming a world-renowned technological guru.
Understanding virtual reality as being both a scientific and cultural adventure, Lanier demonstrates it to be a humanistic setting for technology. While his previous books offered a more critical view of social media and other manifestations of technology, in this book he argues that virtual reality can actually make our lives richer and fuller.
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About the Author
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1960s: Terrors of Eden
My parents fled the big city right after I was born. They roamed for a while; eventually alighting in what was, at the time, an obscure and harsh place. The westernmost corner of Texas, outside El Paso, at the juncture of New Mexico and Mexico proper, was an outback, barely part of America. It was impoverished, relatively lawless, and of unsurpassed irrelevance to the rest of the country.
Why there? I never got a clear answer, but my parents were probably running. My Viennese mother had survived a concentration camp and my father's family had been mostly wiped out in Ukrainian pogroms. I do remember hearing that we had to live as obscurely as possible, but it would be unacceptable to live too far from a good university. They came to rest in a place that split the difference, for there was a good university nearby in New Mexico.
I remember my mother saying that the Mexican schools were more like those in Europe, with a more advanced curriculum than was available in rural Texas at the time. Mexican kids were a couple of years ahead in math.
"But Europe wanted to kill all of us. What's good about Europe?" She replied that there were beautiful things everywhere, even in Europe, and you have to learn how to not get shut down completely by the evil of the world. Besides, Mexico most definitely wasn't Europe.
So I crossed the international border every morning to go to a Montessori school in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Sounds strange today, since the border has come to look like the world's most advertised prison, but back then it was understated and relaxed; creaky little school buses crossed all the time.
My school was a world apart from the one I would have attended in Texas. Our schoolbooks were sheathed in fantastic images of Aztec mythology. Teachers dressed up for holidays; colorful fabrics, mod 1960s cuts, with large, living, iridescent beetles soldered to silver chains, free to wander on shoulders. Every hour or so, the beetles were offered brightly colored sugar water from eyedroppers.
Since it was a Montessori school, we were free to roam like beetles, and I made a discovery. Looking through a ragged old art book on a low shelf in our forlorn schoolhouse, I saw an image of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
I remember being scolded at my little school for not paying attention. Instead I stared out the window endlessly, as if hypnotized. But this was not spacing out. It was an intense contemplation.
¡Atención! Pay attention!
The Garden of Earthly Delights had left me thunderstruck. I imagined being inside it, petting the soft, giant birds of intimate velvet colors, crawling through playgrounds made of transparent fleshy spheres, plucking and blowing the mammoth musical instruments that pierced each other and would eventually pierce me. I imagined how that would feel. An intense tickling, a spreading warmth.
A few of Bosch's figures look out from the canvas. What if I were one of them? When I was staring out that window, I was looking out at our supposedly normal world from inside the painting. No small chore; it took hours, infuriating the teachers.
¿Quées lo que estás mirando? "What have you been staring at?"
I saw the occasional naked child alight on the little sandbox, then prance until caught, rather like in the painting. But I also saw beyond the yellow grass of the schoolyard, through the chain-link fence, to a dusty and chaotic city street.
Grizzled men in frayed straw hats inside the glass heads of mammoth trucks painted in carnival colors, blinding speeds, black noisy exhaust clouds; weathered pastel neighborhoods vanishing up into tortured striations of rock in the far desert mountainside; silver planes in the sky filled with people. Right across the street was a heroic two-story mural of Quetzalcoatl climbing a parking lot wall.
Estoy viendo maravillas. I see miracles.
Right up close, just behind the fence, I could make out more detail: furled growths on the chest of a beggar; the tottering motion of a polio survivor delivering stacks of fresh newspapers; dirt on the fringes of a teenage boy's green shirt; a pyramid of shiny green cut cactus on the handlebars of his wobbling bike. I once saw gashes in the face of a sullen prisoner in the smoky rear chamber of a careening Mexican police car, viewable for the barest instant through blinding, sweeping beacons.
Was everyone else in my little school blind and deaf? Why were they so inert? Why wasn't everyone else thunderstruck? I did not understand them.
I became obsessed with useless speculations. What if I had gone to a school across the river, in Texas? Things must be more orderly in Texas. If you took a copy of The Garden to Texas and the little naked people looked out, would they see a world that looked weird, or would they say, "Wow, we didn't know anyplace could be that boring!"
Was it possible 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?
Of course I couldn't have articulated these words. I was tiny.
I stared and stared at the painting and then out the window and then back. I felt my interior color shift each time, like blood rushing in and out of my head. Why was the painting so luscious? What was so naughty about it that drew me in?
Even better was staring at the image while listening to Bach. The schoolroom had a battle-worn record player. One LP had Bach's organ music played by E. Power Biggs and another offered Glenn Gould on piano.
My favorite thing was staring into The Garden while listening to the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, loud, and eating from a bowl of Mexican chocolates, tinged with cinnamon. Hardly ever allowed.
My earliest memories are of being consumed by an overpowering subjectivity. Everything was distinct, moody, filled with flavor; each little place and every moment was a fresh spice in an endless spice cabinet, a new word in an endless dictionary.
It continues to surprise me how difficult it can be to convey a state of mind to those who do not immediately recognize it. Imagine you are hiking in the light of the full moon at midnight on a high ridge in New Mexico, looking down on a valley dusted in new snow that appears to fluoresce. Now imagine an exchange between two fellow travelers, one a romantic and the other possessing a dry, analytical temperament. The romantic might say, "Isn't this magical?" while his opposite might say, "Well, the visibility is unusually good and the moon is full."
In my childhood I was hyperromantic, unable even to conceive of a pragmatic notion like "visibility," because the experience of "magic" was completely overwhelming, to the near exclusion of everything else. My early experience was of the dominance of flavor over form, of qualia over explanation.
Over time I've learned to become more normal, or more boring. It used to be that I could hardly stand to fly from one place to another because the shift in mood and quality would be so overwhelming. I would always be stunned by what it felt like to land in San Francisco, coming from New York, even after doing it hundreds of times. The air was brisk, tinged with the smell of gasoline, but also the ocean; it was thinner, less pregnant. Just to take in the shift in feeling could take hours.
I worked at being able to suppress the overwhelming burden of subjective mood for many years, and started to make progress in my late thirties. These days, I fly from one place to another without difficulty. The airports are all finally starting to feel similar.
I called my parents by their first names. Lilly had been a prodigy concert pianist as a girl, born to a successful Jewish family in Vienna. Her father was a professor and a rabbi; an associate of Martin Buber's. They lived in a nice house, had comfortable lives. My grandparents were determined to wait out the threatening politics of their day. They were convinced there was a limit to how low people would sink.
Lilly was a precocious and resourceful teenager, and while it would normally be the last thing you'd care about, it turned out to be crucial that she was very light-skinned and blond. She was able to talk her way out of a pop-up concentration camp by passing as Aryan, and then to forge paperwork to get her father released just before he would have been murdered.
Maneuvers like this were only possible in the earliest days of the Holocaust, before genocidal procedures were optimized. In the end, most of my mother's family was murdered by the Nazis.
Some got out, eventually to New York City. At first, Lilly made a living as a seamstress; soon she had her own lingerie brand. She studied painting, and was still young enough to train as a dancer. She earned her own money to pursue these dreams. In photographs, she looks like a movie star.
We were so close that I had barely ever perceived her as a separate person. I remember playing Beethoven sonatas on the piano for her and her friends, and it felt as if we were playing them together from the same body. The interpretation was languorous and showy.
My parents had just transferred me to a Texas public elementary school. No art books to peruse, nothing interesting out the window. They were worried that I wasn't learning what I would need in order to integrate into America.
Boy, was that true. In order to get to my new school, I had to walk through the territories of neighborhood bullies. These were kids with cowboy drawls and dirty boots. I was shocked when my parents decided a karate class would be prudent for me.
I loathed every little thing about karate, except that the costumes were kind of cool. When my mother came to the faux Texas dojo to see a demonstration of my training, I stood still and took it while another boy hit, kicked, and chopped at me. I don't remember feeling scared or shy, but instead that fighting this other person would be stupid, wrong; just bad. Besides, the kid couldn't really fight and nothing he did actually hurt. But my mother was horrified; she looked disappointed in me for the first time ever. I remember feeling the sky drop.
The next morning, as I walked across the hardened soil and stubby yellow grass in our yard on my way to school, I was surrounded by big bellicose bullies. I had a baritone horn with me, which is like a mini-tuba. But to a nine-year-old, it's about as big as a tuba, and a strategy formed in my mind.
I started turning like a helicopter, the horn extended like a shield, though it acted like a battering ram. The bullies were not clear on the concept of momentum, and tried charging me head-on a couple of times, only to be knocked sideways to the ground. They couldn't find it within themselves to stop for a moment to reconsider their approach. I think there were three of them, soon bruised and running away. I was dizzy, but music had saved me.
Suddenly my self-satisfaction was atomized by shrieking. Lilly was standing behind the front door, cracked open just a bit, wailing as if the Nazis had come for me. She was not dressed and did not come outside. It took me years to realize that she must have experienced a flashback to Vienna.
At the time, I was terrified by her reaction. My not fighting at the karate studio had displeased her, and yet here I fought, but that also freaked her out. Suddenly I felt a disconnection. The sensation was so disorienting and unpleasant to me that I didn't know what to do. I ran away, to school. That was the last time I saw her.
A glum man with sharp features, in a perfectly pressed military uniform, knocked at the door of the classroom and asked for me. I was happy to get out of a droning lecture about the Alamo, but something felt terribly wrong.
Soon I saw that the principal was also there, and this man asked me in the most formal voice I had ever heard to follow them to her office, where I had never been. There was a flag, a framed photo of President Johnson. Was I in trouble for hitting the bullies with the horn?
Then these strangers told me that my mother was dead and my father was in the hospital.
It happened to be the day Lilly was set to go into town for her first-ever driver's test. The DMV was about an hour away, near downtown El Paso. Ellery, my father, drove on the way there. She passed the test.
Lilly was driving back, on the big freeway, when their car spun out of control, flipped, and flew off a high overpass. Or so said a fresh newspaper clipping, which the principal gave me, as if that was helpful.
For years I worried that Lilly's traumatic flashback that morning might have made her panic on the road. I was consumed by guilt. Had I been part of the problem?
Decades later, an engineer friend of mine read about a possible flaw in the model year of the car. It was a match for the events of the accident. By that time it was way too late to look into legal recourse, but I wondered, why did my parents even buy a car from Volkswagen? It wasn't a "beetle," the model designed by Hitler, but still.
The choice must have been part of my mother's program to find the good in Europe, in everything.
It turned out that the military man was a distant relative the police had tracked down. He was named in my mother's will, and was stationed at Fort Bliss, the military base that makes up much of El Paso. I had never heard of him.
I was taken to the hospital to see my father, whose body was blackened in between bandages, after he had become conscious. Both of us cried uncontrollably, so hard it felt like I'd choke to death.
This memory is a wall. I remember almost nothing else from before my mother's death. My slate was shaken clean.
I was disconnected from the world for a long time after. Endured a desolate tour of life-threatening infectious diseases, barely aware of my circumstances. I was virtually immobile for a year in that same hospital.
Ellery was devoted. He slept on a cot next to my hospital bed. The seasons cycled, and I finally started to engage with the world again. I remember paying attention to my new surroundings for the first time.
The hospital was cramped, hot, and noisy. Cracked pea-green tiles running halfway up the wall, greasy windows embedded with chicken wire, splintered frames, peeling dark green paint. Smelled like medicine and urine. Big tough nurses with tiny crosses hanging from their crinkled necks; they moved like tanks, mostly ignored everyone.
I started to read. Books propped on crimped-up bedsheets.
Then, two moments of irreversible positivity sparked in me, just because I read sequences of words.
One was the Jewish admonition to "choose life" in a children's book about Jewish culture. There was a logic to it, since death would come soon enough, no matter what, so choosing life was at least a reasonable bet. Like Pascal's Wager, but for this life. (Not that I would have heard of Pascal or his wager as a kid.) But as I thought about it, I realized that "choose life" has even more going on.
It's so obvious that you could miss it, but the phrase tells you that life is a choice. Furthermore, it suggests that once you notice that you've chosen to live, then you might notice that you can probably also make further choices. I needed to hear that, because it had not even occurred to me that I had any choice at all at the time. Before reading those words, all I could do was lie there, waiting for whatever might happen next.
But then there's an even deeper level to the phrase. You choose even though you can't ever know what that means. This physical world we inhabit; we're only in it because of a crazy bet we make with the unknown. Maybe there's peace and happiness to be found in uncertainty. There isn't anywhere else to look.
I guess you, my reader, might wonder if I'm forcing adult thoughts into my recollections of a child's brain, but I remember this phase pretty clearly. I was obsessed with what's usually called philosophy, and it helped.
The second bit of reading was a biography of Sidney Bechet, one of the great early New Orleans wind players. According to the book, he overcame his childhood respiratory problems by playing the clarinet. Well, I had a nasty case of pneumonia that persisted for months, along with other respiratory distresses, so I asked Ellery for a clarinet. Not only was it a great way to annoy the nurses, but my lungs started to clear.
This is starting to sound like a familiar inspirational healing narrative, but there is something else you should know. My father and I never again spoke of my mother.
Silence is not forgetting in intimate settings. Just the opposite. We still lit Yahrzeit candles; we cried for years.
Decades later, I realized that both my parents had no choice but to put those who died out of mind much of the time. It was the only way to make space for life, for there were so many who had died so horribly.
Ellery had an aunt who was entirely mute, but she wasn't born that way. As a girl she had survived by keeping absolutely silent while her big sister, who she clung to, was slain by sword where they hid under a bed during a pogrom.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dawn of the New Everything"
Copyright © 2017 Henry Holt.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: Virtual Reality’s Moment
1. 1960s: Terrors of Eden
2. Rescue Spacecraft
3. Batch Process
4. Why I Love VR (About the Basics)
5. Bug in the System (About the Dark Side of VR)
8. Valley of Unearthly Delights
9. Alien Encounters
10. The Feeling of Immersion
11. To Don the New Everything (About Haptics, with a Little About Avatars)
12. Nautical Dawn
13. Six Degrees (A Little About Sensors and VR Data)
15. Be Your Own Pyramidion (About Visual Displays for VR)
16. The VPL Experience
17. Inside-Out Spheres (A Little About VR “Video” and Sound)
19. How We Settled Into a Seed for the Future
20. 1992, Out
21. Coda: Reality’s Foil
Appendix 1: Postsymbolic Communication (About the Reveries of One of My Classic VR Talks)
Appendix 2: Phenotropic Fevers (About VR Software)
Appendix 3: Dueling Demigods