Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Books of Tomorrow

A Virtual Reality of a Living Library

David Lane

We live in an unprecedented time of informational overload and thus the digital world evolves in ever encompassing ways.

I have seen and heard and touched the future of books. It happened just last night as I was playing with the family’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Although we were early adopters of the VR system, it was only when I played the game Waltz of the Wizard that I saw how books could be potentially experienced five to ten years hence.

Let me set the scene (especially for those who have never dawned an Oculus or HTC Vive headset). You enter into a fully immersive 360 room, quite reminiscent of something out of Harry Potter’s world of magic, and there is a multitude of interactive options. As the official Steam download site explains,

Waltz of the Wizard is a virtual reality experience that lets you feel what it’s like to have magical powers. Combine arcane ingredients into a boiling cauldron with the help of an ancient spirit trapped in a human skull. Unleash creative or destructive wizardry upon a fully interactive virtual world.”

As my youngest son, Kelly, explained to me before I entered into the Wizard’s den, almost everything is interactive. The most impressive items—from chess pieces to crossbows to glowing globes to musical instruments to chairs to illuminated swords—can all come alive depending on which spell you cast and what ingredients you put into the center cauldron.

Yet, what struck me so forcefully, however, was when I happened upon a book that was floating in mid air and I reached out and grabbed it, bringing it so close that I could almost feel its binding. It looked as real as anything I have seen in graduate school at the U.C. Berkeley library. Of course, I couldn’t open it there and then, since it was merely a prompt. But this got me to thinking and then I had an epiphany about the books of tomorrow.

Rough screen shot of a book taken in virtual reality

I can see in the not so distant future (probably sooner than I imagine) where with the latest iteration of a VR headset one can enter a virtual library that can be designed to look like the globed and book-lined hall in Clementinum, Prague, or the huge reading room at the New York Public Library, or, better yet Trinity College’s Old Library in Dublin. It will be fully immersive and one will feel the very presence of thousands of volumes and then one can choose any book off the shelves and as he or she opens the tome a series of wonderful and magical options will emerge. Choose a very comfy chair and just read, or touch the page and listen to the narrator tell you its story, or, more dramatically, let the text come fully alive and fully interactive where one actually become part of the drama and witness all the characters as they unfold and develop via the storyline. You can even choose to be the main lead or any of the secondary characters or, most tellingly, even the landscape itself. The book is now living and it presents the reader with a cornucopia of alternatives—something completely unimaginable in years past. One will become the proceedings and become forever changed by the experience.

Sounds like too much hype? I think not. We are merely at the threshold of what artificial intelligence and augmented reality can produce. Ten years ago Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and Jeff Bezos the first Kindle. For better or worse, these devices (and their various clones) have radically transformed how humans across the globe access information. What is happening now is what I call the great data seduction, where bytes dress up in all sorts of fancy garb in order to entice us to partake of their offerings. And in so doing, we become entranced in worlds upon worlds of differing mind fields, each offering a new vision, a new sound, a new touch, and a new way to experience what was before more or less nakedly unadorned.

I remember my students at CSULB being in awe when I first showed them Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 and how it could download a book within 30 seconds and hold hundreds of books in its memory. Today, this seems quaint and a bit dated since we don’t even need to have hard drives to retain what we want since the computing cloud follows us wherever we are. This reminds me anew of the comedian Steven Wright’s famous joke about how he had the largest seashell collection in the world. As he explained, “I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world. Perhaps you've seen it.”

As ironic and insightful as Wright’s quip was decades ago, I never thought it could literally be true with books and that they would be available wherever we happened to be. We now have at our fingertips not merely thousands of books, but millions of them. And we have a plethora of music, art, film, and other media at our beck and call.

We live in an unprecedented time of informational overload and thus the digital world evolves in ever encompassing ways. Where once we simply read letters on clay tablets, on papyrus, or on thin sheets of wood pulp, in the future the book will incarnate fully formed like an all powerful avatar ready to assume any form we desire, provided that it will capture our attention. Attention and time are in very short supply and that is why virtual reality and augmented reality, even if we are Luddites who curse the postmodern age and its perpetual distractions, is our future.

As Charles Dickens wrote in 1859, the same year that Darwin’s On The Origin of Species was published, in A Tale of Two Cities (which also reflects almost to a tee what we ourselves face when confronting our digital destiny),

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

In closing, however, I must confess that I saw in Waltz of the Wizard a magnificent future for education, where storytelling allows for unexplored vistas and voyages, where we can (and this is ironic) while sitting in our chairs actually leave them and venture forth into Harry Potter inspired regions where information is no longer tethered to the limitations of pen and paper. In the future books will fly and with them so will we. Quite literally so.

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