Jaron Lanier, Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017), 351pp.
For almost forty years now, since his early twenties, Jaron Lanier (born 1960) has occupied an unusual place as both an insider techno-enthusiast and an outsider humanist prophet crying in the wilderness. This memoir proceeds along these two tracks. It's partly the story of his personal life, and partly a history of the technology of Virtual Reality that he helped to pioneer. This book, like his previous three books (all reviewed on JWJ) — You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Who Owns the Future? (2013), and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), have all been international best sellers. In 2010 Time Magazine named Lanier one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
To describe Lanier's personal story as unusual is a gross understatement. He grew up in rural New Mexico in a place of "unsurpassed irrelevance." His mother Lilly died when he was young. He was bullied and beaten at school as an oddball. After living in tents for two years with his widowed father, at the age of twelve he began a two-year project to build a geodesic dome house in the desert that his father lived in until his late eighties. At the age of fourteen he started taking classes at New Mexico State University. He never returned to high school and never graduated from college. By age seventeen he was in New York City making friends with the likes of John Cage. He has a collection of two thousand rare and antique music instruments, all of which he can play "with some enjoyment." Today he sports his trademark dreadlocks. His friends run the gamut from Yoko Ono to Al Gore. There was a bad first marriage, and struggles with power, fame, vanity, and wealth.
Then there is Lanier the technologist. By the time the polymath and prodigy was twenty, he was giving "thousands" of talks around the country about the technology of Virtual Reality that he pioneered. In 1984 he co-founded a company called Visual Programming Languages (VPL), which eventually flamed out around 1990, and then was acquired by Sun Microsystems (which was acquired by Oracle). To this day, Lanier is an enthusiastic cheerleader about VR, but he is always and everywhere wary of the many myths that surround it (and technology in general): it has the capability of "amplifying the best and worst in people."
The question for our age, says Lanier, is whether we can deconstruct the powerful seductions of technology in order to see ourselves and the world with honesty and realism: "How bad do things have to get before tech culture decides its worth challenging even our most cherished mythologies in order to dig ourselves out of our mess?" In his view, today's world feels like a dystopian science fiction vision come to life — technology has become both "irresistibly cool" and dangerously creepy.