A tech pioneer reflects on the growing hubris of Silicon Valley
Dawn of the New Everything. By Jaron Lanier. Henry Holt; 351 pages; $30. Bodley Head; £20.
WHAT is virtual reality (VR)? Over 21 chapters and three appendices, Jaron Lanier, a tech pioneer, puts forward 52 definitions. Some are geeky: “a media technology for which measurement is more important than display”. Others are poetic: “the technology of noticing experience itself”. And a few are terrifying: “a training simulator for information-age warfare”. VR is all of these things and more besides. Yet at a time when the malign influence of social media is grabbing headlines, it is the last of these that seems most urgent.
Mr Lanier is a Silicon Valley grandee. In 1984 he started the first VR firm, VPL Research, which sold early headsets and accessories, and is widely credited with popularising the term “virtual reality”. He has seen the tech industry go from being a bunch of start-ups run by counterculture idealists to global companies. He now works at Microsoft.
Mr Lanier is also a critic of his industry. His first book, “You Are Not a Gadget” (2010), argued that the web was creating “digital serfs”—users who gave up their data and privacy for no monetary reward or say in the system. “Who Owns the Future” (2013) railed against the monopolistic power of big tech firms. His new book is a memoir about virtual reality and a history of how the utopian thinking of Silicon Valley has brought dysfunction and division. It will be essential reading, not just for VR-watchers but for anyone interested in how society came to be how it is, and what it might yet become.
Many books about the early days of Silicon Valley play up the hippie-meets-techie culture that shaped it. Few define that better than the dreadlocked Mr Lanier, who was raised in El Paso and educated across the border in Ciudad Juárez. After his mother died, Mr Lanier and his father moved to New Mexico and lived in tents for over two years before moving into a DIY geodesic dome. Mr Lanier skipped the end of high school and went straight to university, but did not graduate. After drifting in semi-poverty and trying various careers, he found himself in Silicon Valley.
This was not an uncommon trajectory in the Bay Area in the 1980s. Mr Lanier describes one associate as a “hippie physicist musician”, another as a Wyoming rancher and rock lyricist. In those days techie culture was a subset of hippie culture. The first advice Mr Lanier was given when he moved there was: “Don’t trust the suits.”
Silicon Valley believed everything would improve once coders were in charge. “We better find a way to constrain people more or the world will never get more efficient,” he remembers being told. “We’re creating a kind of power that is much more important than money.” Software, like air or sex, was meant to be “free”.
Today the world’s three most valuable companies are tech firms. The web is less wild and more structured. But the shortcomings of techie ideology have been exposed. The obsession with “free” nearly destroyed the music industry and continues to wreak havoc on the media. Tech firms still believe that they do not need to follow the rules—witness Uber’s bruising battles with municipal authorities around the world. And the biggest, most influential firms resist any regulation that would make them responsible for the content on their platforms. Web platforms care more about the amount of time their users spend on their sites than the quality of the experience or what they consume.
Mr Lanier remains optimistic that things can be fixed, perhaps by instituting a system of small payments to users for their data or by ensuring that artists and writers are recognised and paid for their work. Human beings, not algorithms, should be at the centre of the internet economy, he says. These ideas will be familiar to anyone who has read his previous books. The business models of big tech firms are, however, too successful and too lucrative to change, so Mr Lanier’s views are unlikely to prevail.
What does this mean for VR? Virtual reality will never be as widespread as the smartphone, but it will be influential. Its promise is to make experiences in computer-generated environments feel as visceral as those in the real world. It has philanthropic potential and may improve medicine and aid education. But it can also be dangerous if virtual worlds are designed to manipulate users. Mr Lanier worries that VR may go down the same route as social networks, becoming, as in another of his definitions, “the ultimate way to capture someone inside an advertisement”.
But that is not a given. Although VR has flourished of late, and headsets are now available for a few hundred dollars, the industry is still in its infancy. VR is unlikely to be widely adopted for some time. Meanwhile, Western democracies are debating the merits and dangers of tech, and the need for big companies to police their platforms better. When VR goes mainstream, that debate will have intensified—and perhaps ended well.
By the time VR matures, it will be used by people who have grown up with smartphones and social media. They, Mr Lanier argues, will be more sophisticated than today’s internet users, for whom it was a new technology. The next generation will see through the manipulation. It is not much of a hope to cling to, but it is something.
Perhaps the most fitting of Mr Lanier’s 52 definitions of VR is that it is “a preview of what reality might be like when technology gets better”. Technology is improving. Whether reality does too depends on the technologists in charge and the power of society to shape their vision.
This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "Reality check"