The Ghost Machine

Two new books on the utopian promise of virtual reality.


| Spring 2018


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.














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