Dawn of the New Everything – Jaron Lanier

Review From User :

Virtual Reality as Life Therapy

I admit it: I was wrong. After reading Jaron Lanier's Ten Arguments, I dismissed him as a half-literate techno-traitor peddling some personal resentment about a mis-spent life in technology; but I couldn't have been more wrong. Steered by another GR reader, I ran smack into Dawn of the New Everything and immediately began groveling. Lanier is not only someone of integrity, he is the kind of person who is worthwhile aspiring to in the very specific sense that he has used his life to address the mystery of his life.

The son of artistically and intellectually talented Holocaust survivors, Lanier's personal life alone is worth knowing about. Raised in the wilds of West Texas, he started primary school in Mexico because the education was better and the bullying less. Before he left school he had designed and built a Theremin which not only made eerie music but also transformed the music into images that he projected at night onto his house.

At age 13 his father allows him to design and build a geodesic home for them in the New Mexico desert. Dropping out of high school age 14, Lanier starts university before being accepted or even applying. His main worry isn't dating, or grades or even nuclear war but the fragility of the earth's orbit. He pays for university by starting a herd of goats from which he makes cheese for a hippie commune. At 15 he thinks up the idea of shared virtual reality: "putting each other in dreams." By 17, he has flunked out but finds himself at 19 playing jazz sets with Richard Feynman at Calthech.

Lanier then launches himself into a nascent Silicon Valley without even a high school diploma. At this point it becomes clear - certainly to the reader, perhaps at the time even to Lanier - what he has always been: a mystic. As I have discussed elsewhere (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), mystics are not necessarily religious, and they are almost always annoying. They're judgmental without apparent reason, socially awkward, irritatingly self-contained, and driven by strange and alien forces which they cherish. So indeed, does Lanier describe himself.

Lanier's mysticism attaches itself to technology. In other times and places and circumstances, it might have taken to steam engines, or string concerts, or baroque architecture; but for him it happened to be computers and the emerging field of artificial intelligence. Mysticism is not a job description. No mystic ever got paid well, or at all, for being a mystic. But if they're lucky, and Lanier was, they get to be mystical through what they do for a living.

This isn't easy to do. In the first instance, mysticism is not a conscious philosophy of life. Neither is it a systematic or rational roadmap for one's career. Simply put, mystics make connections, usually strange ones which they can neither explain nor completely describe; they just know. They don't analyse; they see wholes and marvel that others can't. This makes them difficult to follow. They don't proceed from a beginning leading to some terminal point; they proceed from beginning to beginning. There is only flow, process, indeterminacy; never a conclusion. This is precisely what annoyed me so intensely when I read Ten Arguments.

But I know Lanier is a mystic primarily because of his attitude toward what he does. For him, VR is not just a scientific or technological pursuit; it is the central science and the most important area of technological development. It is for him, therefore, the core of human intellectual activity. Or, perhaps better said, it is the entirety of thought itself, and therefore of the universe. VR is Lanier's language for the connections among things which are not connected in normal discourse - from neurology to cosmology and from preconscious sensation to eschatology. VR is code for these potential connections.

VR is also an attitude, a stance toward the world, and a method: "Virtual reality peels away phenomena and reveals that consciousness remains and is real. Virtual reality is the technology that exposes you to yourself." That is, the object of study through VR is not programming, or information, or 'the world' but oneself. This is a remarkably mystical point of view. It allows Lanier to devote himself to the technology without idolizing it. He knows its dark side, just as his knows his own.

VR has a spiritual component for Lanier. "Virtual reality was and remains a revelation," he says. Perhaps not for everyone, but I believe him. That's what he experiences. VR for him is indeed a transcendent event. He explicitly admits as much: "As technology changes everything, we here have a chance to discover that by pushing tech as far as possible we can rediscover something in ourselves that transcends technology."

What is most interesting is the source of this transcendence. It isn't in the successful creation of technology, but in the failure to do so: "Bugs were the dreams within virtual reality. They transformed you." This realization brings with it a truly stirring thought: "Maybe there's peace and happiness to be found in uncertainty. There isn't anywhere else to look." This in turn leads to a profound existential appreciation of what he is up to in his professional life: "VR is the technology that... highlights the existence of your subjective experience. It proves you are real."

Others who know much more about artificial intelligence and the practicalities of survival in Silicon Valley will have a different take on Dawn of the New Everything. But for me, Lanier's book is a revelation about how it is possible to live one's life, whether in high-tech or not. We all play the cards we're dealt; but what's special about Lanier, it seems to me, is that he took his hand and insisted on his own game: An unexpected inspiration.


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