A LARGE MAN with a voice as high and reedy as the medieval pipes he collects, Jaron Lanier has for years fashioned himself as an insider-outsider of Silicon Valley, an in-demand apostate on television and the lecture circuit. His appeal derives partly from the fact that unlike most of his peers, he does not emit a stream of upbeat bullshit. Mark Zuckerberg is “connecting friends” and “spreading prosperity.” Lanier talks about inequality and the decimation of the middle class. That he is himself a wealthy start-up founder and Microsoft researcher is a contradiction that does not escape him, and one of his most redeeming—or most slippery—qualities is his willingness to own his compromised position. “There is no way for anyone who is deeply engaged in the perversely intertwined world of tech to write about the big issues and not have conflicts of interest,” he wrote in his last book.
That book, Who Owns the Future?, provides the best introduction to Lanier’s thought. It diagnoses a straightforward problem: While in previous decades wealth might have accreted around land or oil or rail lines, today it flows to whoever owns the largest arrays of computers. Lanier’s name for Facebook-size data centers, “Siren Servers,” pins the tail on this particular donkey. Facebook’s servers are like the singers in the twelfth book of The Odyssey because they persuade people to surrender themselves to an ultimately self-destructive purpose. Ditto the servers owned by Instagram, Google, and Amazon. Users, who create the actual value—photos, links, whatever—get nothing. The tiny cabal of Sirens plays with house money. Odysseus had his crew put wax in their ears, then tie him up. Lanier proposes a more technocratic solution: Facebook and the Siren Servers should pay us for the data we provide. This strikes me as a terrible idea, making users dependent on Facebook for their social and economic lives. Lanier often hits a sharp and nearly socialist insight, then follows with a capitalist tweak.
Imagining Facebook paying a few hundredths of a cent per click of a family photograph, to the family in the photograph, depressed me. It depressed me enough that virtual reality began to seem preferable to what’s on offer these days here at home. Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything, about the invention of commercial virtual reality between 1984 and 1992, took me there. This is a disjointed and melancholy book, with a beautiful idea at the core. Lanier proposes that VR, the technology of the unreal, refreshes our love for the world as it is.
IN 1984, LANIER'S COMPANY, VPL, developed the first commercial VR prototype. (He is credited with coining, or at least popularizing, the term virtual reality.) His product was haptic, or touch-based. It was a glove. Sensors mapped the movements of the user’s hand and transmitted the data to a first-generation Mac. When the user moved her finger in space, the finger moved on-screen. Because head-mounted displays (HMDs) like PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift (owned by Facebook) are now so prominent, most of us think of VR as visual. But there was a long period when gloves were the thing, and no wonder. To wave your hand and cause action at a distance is the absolute essence of magic. In Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays a cop who conducts his investigations by rearranging onscreen images of the evidence, never touching the screen, with a series of flicks of his fingers. Jaron Lanier served as VR consultant on the film. In 1987, VPL’s glove appeared on the cover of Scientific American, looking like black leather, the hand open and fingers extended upward in the climax of the wrist-rolling gesture that accompanies an exclamation of “voilà!” The image said: The future is here; it’s in your hands. Many of Lanier’s engineers left to work at other Valley companies, and it is not a stretch to imagine Apple engineers with the VPL glove in mind as they designed the iPhone interface, so submissive to warm touch.
Gloves preceded HMDs because their virtual images required less computing power to render, and because their wearable components were lighter. “Weight was a huge problem for the first half century of VR goggles,” Lanier writes. The VR pioneer Ivan Sutherland designed an HMD in 1969 that weighed so much he called it “the Sword of Damocles” for the way it dangled from the ceiling. “There was a death,” Lanier informs us, “resulting from a cable failure in a different heavy HMD—part of an experimental 1970s military training system.”
We have now arrived at the moment when chips can produce latency-free VR imagery, in headsets light enough to not murder you. When I first tried VR, at the E3 electronics fair in Los Angeles, I felt I was experiencing something at once amazingly stupid and qualitatively unlike anything I’d ever done. I used the PlayStation headset to play Batman. When I looked down, his gloved hands were mine. I was in my library. I opened the piano. I banged a chord. A door opened. I stepped through it into a cage. The floor lowered. My stomach dropped. I flung Batarangs into the mist. When the Sony staff cut me off to pass the demo to the next person, I felt cheated. I hadn’t even used my grappling hook.
If that sounds ridiculous, be assured that most of the significant work in VR is undertaken not by game designers but by university researchers flush with corporate cash. One of them is Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford professor and VR utopian, and Experience on Demand, his new book, gives a bat’s-eye view of practical VR applications, delivered in a peppy, optimistic package designed to fit snugly into your Aspen Ideas Festival gift bag. (“What really grabbed the group—especially Eric Hutcherson, the head of human resources for the NBA—was diversity training.”)
THE POWER OF VR technology surprises. A burn patient placed in an arctic VR environment experiences less pain during physical therapy. Chemo patients who exited a treatment room into a VR environment during therapy “reported that it made the duration of their treatment seem shorter.” Returning to a virtual Iraq may relieve PTSD symptoms in some soldiers. Nor are the beneficiaries exclusively the ill. Quarterbacks now use VR simulations to practice reading the defensive line, and change their calls based on scenarios they have seen only in simulations. Surgeons practice surgery.
But the application that most excites Bailenson is an ephemeral one. He believes that VR shows most promise in its capacity to induce empathy. For example: A 2015 VR film, Clouds over Sidra, co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, took viewers inside the Zaatari refugee camp for displaced Syrians. Milk called his accompanying TED Talk “The Ultimate Empathy Machine,” and Bailenson applauds it. “Eighty thousand is just another heart-numbing statistic,” he writes of the population of the camp, “an abstraction—until you are standing in the middle of . . . the children.” When he did, he “felt like they were interacting with me.” In his lab at Stanford, Bailenson places students in the position of an animal in a slaughterhouse. “Horrifying to be a cow,” one student reports, “and be poked by the prong.” He also conducts experiments about racism, placing a white student in a black body in VR to see how her behavior changes in a job interview.
In the past ten years, “empathy” has traveled from the literature syllabus to the corporate retreat lecture calendar. The Harvard Business Review published the “Empathy” edition of their Emotional Intelligence series this past spring, and practically every day in the business press one finds some version of the claim that empathy and effectiveness in business are related. “Using Empathy to Drive Innovation” (Forbes, October 12). “How to Lead With Empathy” (Fast Company, September 18). “How Do You Turn Around A Tech Giant? With Empathy, Microsoft CEO Says” (NPR, All Things Considered, September 25). “Building Empathetic Connections through mobile engagement” (Irish Tech News, October 12). “Discover Your Biggest Business Advantage—Empathy” (Forbes, June 6). It is as though, having thrown up their hands on systemic misery, the managerial class now sees world-changing as a conveniently individual project, a spiritual journey for a person to experience with a few hours on his Kindle and an earnest desire for self-improvement. A call to selflessness becomes the ultimate form of self-help.
Claims about technology’s power to induce empathy themselves emerge from a long history, much longer than the history of the Valley. Empathy used to be the health benefit of novel reading. VR evangelists often sound like enthusiasts of 19th-century realism, without realizing it. Here is Michael Abrash, head of science for Oculus: “The most important problem yet to be solved is figuring out how to represent real people convincingly . . . in all their uniqueness . . . allowing people anywhere on the planet to share virtually any imaginable experience.” Critics of the Obama administration struggled to reconcile the president’s appetite for books with his war policy, a conundrum Teju Cole addressed, tongue in cheek, in an article about the drone program: “How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy?” In ten years, we will confront the same old contradictions, as a president virtually visits the Zaatari camp, or dispatches an avatar to a hurricane-thrashed island, then authorizes refugee restrictions and fossil-fuel deregulation. Empathy flows at the whim of the person on high ground, as unpredictable as a pardon, whereas revolutions rush from the low ground uphill.
The Valley’s relationship to revolution has always been uneasy. In the Whole Earth Catalog, the techno-hippie omnibus beloved by Steve Jobs, author Stewart Brand inveighed against “remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church,” and beckoned toward “a realm of intimate, personal power,” where the individual can “conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” What defines Valley companies is the consistency of their technology versus the ever-shifting reasons the technology supposedly exists. Facebook was, until recently, a platform for democracy (“making the world more open and connected”). Now, having rather botched its democracy initiative, Facebook is a tool for “connectedness.” This kind of shiftiness is the rule rather than the exception. Tech bosses can no longer espouse the Whole Earth story of resistance. They’re too big. Off with whose head? And unlike Wall Street, their more honest mirror image, these companies cannot articulate the profit motive, because their users, who produce their value for free, might feel betrayed. Tech CEOs are stuck. Therefore, connectedness. Therefore, VR and empathy.
Familiar with Lanier’s skepticism from Who Owns the Future?, I expected he would be wary of jumping on the empathy bandwagon. Still, I wondered how he’d explain what VR does, why it exists. The best way to think about VR, Lanier writes, is as the removal of a single human-shaped mass from the fabric of the universe. To build a VR universe, then, you mentally excise a single person from her surroundings; the surroundings stay the same. The hole you just created—what do the edges look like? How does the inside surface feel? What do you see when you look around? Imagine the attention you have to pay the world to take a human being out of it, virtually. Then imagine how intense it feels to return. “Once your nervous system adapts to a virtual world,” he writes in Dawn, “and then you come back, you have a chance to experience being born again in microcosm. The most ordinary surface, cheap wood or plain dirt, is bejeweled in infinite detail for a short while.”
The notion that VR could incite a ferocious love for the “infinite detail” of the physical world that it imitates felt, by the time I finished these books, almost painfully elegiac. What physical world, which version? New details daily supersede the old ones. VR emerges, by the near accident of human design, in the middle of a biomass wipeout, alongside wildfires and floods and displacement. A technology reminds us what we’re losing, by envisioning the world from the point of view of a single eliminated person.
There is a passage in Bailenson’s book about whale-watching in Alaska. Whale-watching is unpredictable these days, he writes, because there sometimes aren’t whales. You push out into the ocean, burning hundreds of gallons of gasoline, and are confronted with the unrelenting water. Relief seems unlikely in the near term, because whales are experiencing what biologists call “unusual mortality events,” at such a rate of frequency that the phrase becomes inaccurate, the result of warming waters. Bailenson considers the whale watcher’s frustration. Then he furnishes the fix. We can substitute a VR excursion for the real one. In VR there will be animals forever. “The weather is always perfect, the visibility always high, and the whales are engaging in whatever behavior is most educational.”