Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality
by Jaron Lanier (Holt, $30)
Jaron Lanier is an odd duck: a creator and slayer of illusions, said Stephen Phillips in the San Francisco Chronicle. A virtual-reality pioneer and longtime Silicon Valley icon, Lanier has in recent years become a powerful socioeconomic critic as well, “assailing what he sees as the illusory thinking of many of his fellow technologists.” Though he has great hopes for virtual reality—the field he’s still working to advance—he also demonstrates a keen awareness that Silicon Valley’s innovations could change the world for the worse. His baggy new memoir-manifesto is not a breezy read; it’s loaded with deeply felt opinions and complex science. But it “pulses with kaleidoscopic insight” and also contains “some of the more artful, numinous writing you’ll find on technology.”
Lanier comes by his offbeat perspective honestly, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times (U.K.). As a child growing up in West Texas, he attended a Montessori school by crossing the border into Mexico each day, and at 11, he designed the desert home he and his father built for themselves. Later, as a college dropout, Lanier worked as a goatherd and midwife before following a girl to California. Recounting his early work on virtual reality, he describes having to learn to think like a lobster and discovering that a gorilla will eat a VR device if given a chance. But because Lanier was far from being the only dreamer in 1980s Palo Alto, “this book fascinates as a modern history of the industry that changed the world.” Of course, some of the hippie renegades Lanier ran with are now lords of the global economy, said The Economist. Lanier criticizes the disruption- is-good ethos that has made his peers feel justified in creating web businesses that destroy old institutions and exploit users. But he remains optimistic that the internet’s manipulations will be tamed as users grow ever wiser to them.
He also predicts that his specialty, VR, will unleash latent creative potential in everyone who engages with it, said Richard Waters in the Financial Times. Though that’s an alluring prospect, “there are reasons to question it,” beginning with people’s propensity to choose easy amusement over the more challenging demands of self-enrichment. Still, Lanier is right to point out that the technology revolution is not an unstoppable, unguided force but a product of human creativity. He’s confident that because we are the authors of each advance, we can decide where technology will take us, and “readers will find themselves wishing that he is right.” ■