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Dawn of the New Everything, book review: VR, and decisions that cast long shadows

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dawn-new-everything-book-main.pngDawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality • By Jaron Lanier • Bodley Head • 351 pages • ISBN: 978-1-847-92352-3 • £20

During his promotional tour for Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality[1], Jaron Lanier commented to Luke Robert Mason at a Virtual Futures[2] event that Facebook's future might include a profound change in its business model. He didn't, of course, predict anything like the scandals -- Cambridge Analytica[3] and millions of harvested accounts -- that are colonizing this week's front pages. But he did imagine that Facebook might find it ultimately more lucrative to adopt a transition path in which the company starts paying for the most popular posts while charging for the use of the network, gradually refusing to pay "people who want to manipulate you".

Ultimately, it would be a paid network, and the abusive behaviour that 'free' attracts would fade away. "But," Lanier noted, "it could get a lot worse before it gets better". It's not a wholly convincing argument, if you consider the history of advertising[4].

As he writes in Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier believes that we made a serious misstep in the early days of the internet when we allowed the 'free' business model to flourish, beginning with refusing to accept charging for email. Lanier disagreed with other pioneers such as the late John Perry Barlow[5], who believed that charging would kill many desirable uses of the internet and limit access to those who could afford it. Twenty-odd years on, huge businesses are built on appropriating the work of others. Today's machine learning systems are a particularly good example, as they depend

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