humiliation of my towels

p. 95:

Daisy went upstairs to wash her face – too late I thought with humiliation of my towels – while Gatsby and I waited on the lawn.

This is a beautiful bit of technique, I just want to deconstruct it very carefully. We’ve just come out of one of the most emotionally intense moments in the book, the reunion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the goal of Gatbsy’s years-long quest finally realized. This scene has taken place off-stage, from narrator Nick’s perspective, as he departed his own house in order to give the couple privacy. So Nick has been standing in the rain on his modest little lawn for half an hour, the lawn that Nick had allowed to grow shaggy and unkempt until that morning, when Gatsby had sent his landscaper around for a proper mowing.

Now Nick re-enters his house to see Daisy’s face shining with happy tears, Gatsby relaxed and composed where before the meeting he’d been a nervous wreck. Whatever happened in that half hour had been full of painful joy. Daisy goes to clean up, the men wait. Such a simple action, it could have passed by without any further flourish. But Fitzgerald takes this opportunity to show us the reflexive thought that enters Nick’s head, a simple and true statement that he’s embarrassed that he forgot to do something about his dingy towels in the upstairs bath. It reveals the kind of person Nick is, his class concerns, the ever-present impulse of self-judgment that resides within him as surely as his heartbeat.

The narrative of this novel is about Gatsby and Daisy, but the genius of it is that the story is about Nick. We learn nearly nothing about the interior lives of the purported main couple. But we learn everything about Nick in these stealthily delivered injections of perspective.

American experimentalism

I’m proud to be an American, always have been. What I’ve always loved about this country is that the truest test of citizenship is about ideas, not history or genealogy. The USA is special in this way, that you can be most authentically American by internalizing and adhering to certain ideals. You can’t become more French by reading Sartre, more Irish by drinking whiskey, or more Korean by eating kimchee. In nearly all countries, the strongest claim to belonging is made by tracing family lineage. Only in America can you make an insuperable claim to belonging merely by believing the right things.

Though a popular view, the idea that the United States is special in this way is strongly disputed in academic circles. “American exceptionalism” is regarded as a naive worldview that has served primarily as a rationalization for imperialism, discrimination and arrogance. While I don’t agree with that critique, I have finally come to understand that the American experiment has always included genocide, and always will. The nature of pursuing ideals above all apparently includes the plowing of actual humans into the ground like so much fertilizer.

There’s no disputing that the establishment of this country by European settlers included the genocide of Native Americans. There’s no way of excusing such carnage; the best anyone can say is that the founding of the nation in blood was regrettable but unavoidable. As if one original sin weren’t enough, our country additionally built its economic strength on the backs of slavery, perhaps the most profitable genocide in history, one that continues to pay dividends to some privileged classes up to this very day.

This carnage can’t be defended. We can only promise to do better in the future. In looking ahead, we try to draw a through line to the past, saying that our nation was founded on the correct ideas, those of liberty and equality, freedom and justice. Although only a very few truly participated in the American ideal at the start, the course of bloody history has painfully expanded the benefits as we’ve expanded our understanding of common humanity. The most charitable view is that we’ve always had the right ideals, but the challenge has always been improving our implementation. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The hope is, I suppose, that each successive genocide is less bloody than the last.

Fleeing Europeans established this country by killing Native Americans. Early Americans grew the country with the slavery of Africans. We are getting closer and closer to a country where our ideals are truly extended to African-Americans, along with previously disenfranchised and disadvantaged women and LBGT people, immigrants and religious adherents of all kinds and creeds. Life is getting better for everyone, on average. And though our conflicts may be impassioned, they are no longer openly murderous. Perhaps genocide is no longer part of the cycle of the American experiment.

But as life gets better for everyone on average, it gets worse for some in particular. Now it seems that many male Americans of European heritage, in losing their privilege, are suffering a kind of slow death. “Genocide” may be too dramatic a term, held too dear by those who have suffered the most from it. But we can still talk about death, we can see that the greatest increase in suicide rate in recent years is among uneducated white male Americans. Here is a class of people who will slowly lose everything they hold dear.

And who will miss it – when what they hold dear is so often tribalism, jingoism, racism, all manner of deplorable -isms – doesn’t such savagery deserve extinction? They deserve to be left behind, for they are malformed and often malicious, substandard and nearly subhuman … Never mind that these are the same judgments that “true” Americans have always made in the name of reforming this nation ever closer to the deathless ideals. Let’s ignore the echoes of of our bloody past, for this time we are so sure we are right.

That is the price of progress, we say, those of us who are on the winning side of the historical moment. Like every other set of Americans who believed that the evolution of our country requires regrettable-but-unavoidable bloodshed, we believe that this is the last forced extinction of a way of life. Once the deplorables are finally put in their place, surely we will have justice for all.

Is there an end to the American experiment? What would that look like? American ideals may outlive America. The institutions of statehood may only be a temporary infrastructure in the eternal pursuit of abstract ideals. For example, democracy outlived and evolved long beyond the historical city-state of Athens.

Stranger still would be an end involving expanded recognition of consciousness. There have long been a tiny minority of people who would extend consciousness and its attendant rights to certain animals, or even plants. If this notion ever becomes mainstream, what are the consequences to expanding American ideals to all conscious beings? More fantastically and yet more plausibly, what will happen when machines have processing capability such that their operations are indistinguishable from human consciousness? Our notions of liberty and equality, freedom and justice, even the pursuit of happiness, may continue to become increasingly abstract, until these ideals are no longer be tethered to any particular people, or to any people at all.

The repeated refrain in the American songbook is the collapse of the way of life of those who thought they controlled the music. Custer had his last stand. The South lost the Civil War, and really isn’t rising again. MLK Jr. is more alive than his assassins, Trumpism is the last gasp of a dying breed. Today we seem to be in yet another war for the soul of our nation. No matter who emerges as the victor, I doubt it will be the last.

product management, destroyer of worlds

God I hate tech hyperbole. And I literally hate the use of “literally” to mean its opposite … but let me explain how bad technology product management can literally lead to the end of the world.

Donald Trump represents an existential threat to humanity. To put such a man at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation is like handing over the controls of a nuclear submarine to a petulant baby. That’s a poor simile only because it’s not an analogy but a nearly literal description.

What can I do about this? I’m just one person, one vote. Moreover, I’m in California, which will surely vote Clinton anyway, so my vote won’t sway the outcome. I could advocate, I could preach to everyone around me, but really most of the people in physical proximity to me already agree with me.

What about technology? I’m in the center of Silicon Valley, I know me some techmology, can’t I do something wizardly to extend the power of a single voice? Nope. I mean, I can write this little essay, and maybe my fifty readers will like it, but those fifty people and everyone they’ll share it with already agree with me.

But about twenty miles from here, there are a couple of dozen people who literally hold the fate of our political conversation in their hands. In fact, it’s been in their hands for quite some time now, and they’ve made decisions which, only in retrospect, appear to have been disastrous for our nation’s politics.

At Facebook, the News Feed is the main stream of information that people see when they use the service. It has become the single most important source of news and conversation for many if not most Americans. It is designed to show people information that they want, which largely means showing people what they already agree with, from people who they already are inclined to sympathize with.

At Google, the search results page answers billions of queries each day, from billions of people. The results are carefully shaped not just with regard to each query, but as much as possible conformed for the particular user, so that the user sees results they are more likely to want to click, which in essence means showing them information they already agree with.

I’m not the first to note that the creation of these echo chambers only serves to reinforce existing biases, and isolate people from diverse opinions that could broaden their horizons and enrich our society. I might be among the first to charge that the product managers who now lead Facebook News Feed and Google Search are failing at their jobs.

On its face that’s a ridiculous statement, as we are talking about two of the most successful products in history, literal world changers. And who could argue against the general strategy of conforming experience to user tastes? But there comes a time in the life cycle of even massively successful products, when the product has attained a use and effect that were never anticipated through all of the prior success. Product managers who do not grapple with what their products have become, in all dimensions, are not doing their jobs well.

News Feed and Search are unique in landscape of all products. These are no longer simply things that people use, and therefore need to be designed to be as pleasant and popular as possible. These products now form the infrastructure of political conversation, they have become the backbone of our polity, they are the means by which citizens of our nation engage with each other on the essential ideas of community. The success of these products must now be judged on how well they serve beneficial outcomes in our society, especially our politics.

There are plenty of people at Facebook and Google who are deeply invested in denying this responsibility, which is so self-evident to all of the rest of us mere users. They would like to say that their products are designed to be “neutral,” to simply follow algorithms that have no sense of society or humanity. They want to hide their power behind obfuscating explanations of math and probability.

Some of this may be a difference in perspective. Some of this may be benign short-sightedness. But some of it is moral cowardice. I hate to make such an inflammatory charge, but when you have the ability to shape a product in a way that would reduce the likelihood of a fascist from taking the reins of a country with the firepower to end life as we know it, and you deny that you have this power, I have a hard time calling this anything other than what it is.

Facebook and Google know that their products contribute to a stifled political conversation that only hardens lines of hate and allows well-meaning people to isolate themselves in their own safe spaces. Will they continue to build their products in a way that divides our society? Or will they take real moral responsibility for how their products shape our political conversation, and make their products a conduit for uncomfortable ideas that could improve our world? Will they break down the barriers between hardened positions, expose ignorance to truth, measure hatred and inject love? Or will they claim that these goals are too soft, and anyway achieving them is too hard?

When Philip Morris discovered that their product was killing their customers, they hid the evidence for as long as they could, and they denied the truth even after it was apparent to everyone else, all so they could squeeze out the last dollars from their death-dealing empire. When Coca-Cola realized that sugary drinks were contributing to unprecedented rates of obesity, they diversified their product lines to include healthy drinks as well as sugar bombs – not exactly admirable, but at least preparing for a shift where people who could watch out for themselves would continue to contribute to the company’s bottom line. At this point, I would be okay with lesser evils, but I would prefer to see moral courage. Product managers at Facebook News Feed and Google Search: Do Your Jobs.

black and blue

I began writing this in the morning of July 7, disheartened by the killing of Philando Castile, struggling to make sense of this ongoing slaughter of black lives. I have a lot of respect for law enforcement as well, and I wondered how we will rebalance the scales of justice to make a better world. I sat down to write that Black vs Blue is a literal tradeoff of lives, not just a one-sided injustice, and it will only get worse if both sides cannot explicitly acknowledge this. Then I paused my writing, checked the news, and saw that it’s already gotten worse. I won’t change anything I’ve written so far, and I’ll call out where I paused and restarted …

#BlackLivesMatter is the apotheosis of hashtags, arguably the mark of separation between the Internet as merely united information and the Internet as truly united culture. Uniting the world doesn’t happen with the ties that bind – those ties were always there, if we had the eyes and heart to see and feel them. Unity comes with a force implacable enough to sink us if we can’t acknowledge what’s been there all along.

In dusty eons past, the world’s knowledge was stored on fragile dried plant pulp, stacked up in schools, libraries, churches and palaces, separated by uncrossable oceans, vast and hostile distances. Fast-forward a few centuries and everything is instantly connected, world knowledge is united, human progress progresses in a coordinated manner that, if not moving in lockstep yet, fairly resembles loosely bound rafts strapped together on a common ocean. At the bleeding edge of the modern evolution of common knowledge, participants in the exchange of information must form a common culture, at least to the extent they are forced to deal with the vast gulf that yet remains between us all despite swimming in the same waters. #BlackLivesMatter is the iceberg that must be reckoned with, ignore it at the peril of having our boats wrecked by the rocky mass underwater. It is a call for the absorption of information at first, but more deeply it is a call to grapple with history, with the experiences of another, with the immediate reaction and grief, the defensiveness and guilt, the raw emotions of others all paddling in different directions to pull our own rafts out of the way of the iceberg, futilely ignoring the unbreakable ropes that bind us together.

… I am hoping that high-falutin’, fantastically florid introduction has gotten rid of the idiots, before I get to the point, if there is one. Because I’m not engaging with the #AllLivesMatter or #WhiteLivesMatter crowd. As entertaining as it can be to methodically unpack the ignorance, fear, guilt and willful blindness of those reactionary hashtags, they are nothing more than the impotent flags flown atop the largest rafts whose inhabitants see the iceberg and ignore it, not seeing that the ropes between the rafts are indeed unbreakable, and no hull or armor will protect their own raft from the sharp rocks beneath the water. #AllLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter are false flags to be ignored. #BlackLivesMatter is the iceberg.

But #BlueLivesMatter is not so easily dismissed, although its standard bearers can seem similar to the false flag brigade, in being across such a great divide of cultural understanding that the good instinct to dismiss false flags casts its shadow over this hashtag as well. And a call to value police lives seems absurd as we watch, over and over again, the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile … at this point the despair of listing so many names is swamped by the certainty that we need wait only weeks to add another to the list. The volume of clear police crime and misbehavior may lead one to believe that #BlueLivesMatter only defends individual and institutional racism, corruption, appalling training and criminal collusion.

Hashtags, like people, aren’t monolithic. Different people mean different things when they post, tweet, instashare, snapblog, or whatever we do to cry our digital tears in the electronic ether. But in the best interpretation of #BlueLivesMatter, it really does spring from a concern for life, and there are the utmost consequences for the lives that will be affected when #Black meets #Blue. For #BlackLivesMatter to be given its full due, #BlueLivesMatter will have to make the ultimate sacrifice in some instances.

The question here is how to share the burden of mistakes. On my best days, I can imagine a world without racism (or at least, without the level of racism that directly or indirectly leads to death), as idealistic and distant as that world may be. But I can’t imagine a world without mistakes, which are so fundamental to the human condition, and necessary to human progress, that we ought to fear a world without mistakes more than one with racism.

So in a world with mistakes, where we also have deadly weapons and criminals, unless we want criminals to be able to kill with impunity, we must have police or accept vigilantes. And if you have police in this world, some of them must be armed, and some of them will make mistakes. (I suppose we can imagine a world without deadly weapons, or one without criminals, but if all we do is imagine a world without problems, there isn’t much to discuss.) So the police will make mistakes involving deadly weapons, and someone will die as a result. Who should it be, an innocent suspect, or an innocent police officer or bystander?

#BlueLivesMatter says that the innocent suspect must die. This sounds horrible, but it isn’t hard to envision math that makes this seem rational. Say there are 1000 life-or-death suspect vs police confrontations per year. Say that 10% of those confrontations will end in a mistake, so we count up the number of lives at stake as something like:

  • 100 suspects
  • 300 police officers
  • 500 bystanders

Again, we are assuming that all of these actions will be a police mistake, but we’re not yet deciding where the burden of mistakes lies. Let’s say that the mistake in every instance is that the police show up and start shooting – they shoot all of the suspects (100), 10% of the bystanders (50), and 5% of the cops (15). That’s 165 dead, all of them innocent.

Now let’s say that instead, the mistake is that the cops never shoot. They’re unarmed, or even if they are armed, they never unholster. But again, this is a fatal mistake. In this type of mistake, the suspects are not innocent, so all of the cops and bystanders die. That’s 800 innocent dead.

Obviously, this is not the actual data – the point here isn’t to examine the data, but to question the concept. If #BlueLivesMatter is saying that they’d rather see innocent suspects die than innocent police and bystanders, that is not an argument that can be dismissed conceptually. It is at least worthy of discussion. An informed discussion would require actually examining the data. It is wrong to say that #BlueLivesMatter is a conceptually nonsensical response to #BlackLivesMatter, as we can say about #AllLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter. #BlueLivesMatter has conceptual integrity, but lacks data.

Coming out of the conceptual world and back to reality: much of the data that would be needed is never collected, and probably can’t be reliably collected. How exactly do you count lives saved? How exactly do you count mistakes made by police inaction? In addition, the sad reality is that many elements of police culture are devoted to hiding what little data we might have. And then the truly despairing reality is that in the vast majority of innocent suspects who are killed, the victim is black, and some of those killings are less properly characterized as mistakes than as manifestations of direct and institutional racism.

Nevertheless, conceptual integrity matters. #BlackLivesMatter demands that …

This is where I paused. Check news. Eleven officers shot, four confirmed dead. What the fuck was I doing in the conceptual world? What the fuck is happening in the real world? Where the fuck is all this heading?

#BlackLivesMatter demands that we reduce the slaughter of innocent black lives, without explicitly recognizing the treacherous mass of iceberg beneath the surface. In a somewhat more perfect world, one without racism but still with crime and guns and deadly mistakes, to reduce the killing of one set of innocents will increase the killing of another another set. We don’t know if the tradeoff is 1-for-1, 10-for-1, or 1-for-10; we’ve never seen the data and may not be able to get it. But if police officers are trained to be slower on the draw, to err on the side of caution, that means that they must be trained such that more police officers will die. Maybe it’s worth it. Maybe 1000 innocent black lives will be saved in return for 1 police officer’s death. But what do you say to that one police officer’s family?

It’s easy to object, “Well how about we just get rid of racism in the police force first, and then go from there? No one here is asking cops to die, dummy!”

Get rid of racism in the police force? Do you have a formula for that? How about we get rid of racism in the classroom, in the workplace, in the legislature, in the entire world while we’re at it? We don’t know how to do this within a group of kindergarten kids, how are we going to do this for the more than 1 million police officers in the United States? Why do police officers bear the responsibility for curing racism more than any other group, how can we ask them to sacrifice even one of their own?

This is not to say that we can do nothing. Of course we can. Of course there is better training, better hiring, better testing, better evaluation, better management. And when there is still racism, there can be better recognition, better correction, better enforcement and true and swift punishment. Nevertheless the package of all of those things is going to mean, in addition to less racism and sundry other benefits: more caution. Saving innocent black lives is about changing the balance of mistakes. It is about erring on the side of caution so that fewer innocent black lives are ended – and it therefore also means that some more innocent blue lives must end.

This is a mortal conflict. It is black lives against blue lives, there must be a tradeoff. I don’t know where the tradeoff is, and although we don’t have sufficient data, I feel we will need to act without all of the data in order to prevent greater carnage. Because if advocates, thought leaders, legislators, and well-meaning citizens on both sides don’t admit this is a mortal trade-off, and make the hard decisions to force those trade-offs, then the formula will continue to get worse. More lives will be lost on every side.

More innocent black men will die. In response, there will be more outrage. We no longer live in a world where this outrage can be suppressed by a combination of obfuscation, brutality and social pressure. It will only grow until there is outright war in the streets. And here is where we are now. Two innocent black men dead this week. Four innocent blue lives ended in Dallas today. This isn’t slowing down, it isn’t blowing over, it isn’t getting better.

That’s all I can manage right now, an uncharacteristically unedited dump of thoughts. #Black vs #Blue is an ever-growing river of red. 

trump card

Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States. And technology is to blame. If you disagree with either of those statements, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Why is Trump about to win the Republican nomination? Do you blame ignorance, stupidity, racism, sheer anger? Do you blame the cynicism and greed of the Republican party over the last 30 years? All of these answers are rooted in an ungenerous assumption about the many millions of voters who have voted for Trump and will continue to do so. You would be saying that these people are fools, ignoramuses, racists. I think that is wrong substantively, but I know for sure that is wrong for you as a person. Always choose to be generous and empathetic in your assumptions about people, so long as that serves you just as well as your lesser instincts toward mean-spirited judgment.

The generous and empathetic view here accepts that the political system of this country is incontrovertibly broken for the majority of people. And since this country is ostensibly a democracy, that majority is understandably willing to vote for the person that most loudly claims that they will revolutionize the existing system. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, taken together, represent the vast majority of this country’s voters.

Trump won his party’s nomination (and Bernie will not) because Trump received billions and billions of dollars worth of free advertising. In a democracy, getting the message out to the people is the fundamental lubricant of the polity, which is why for nearly all of our nation’s history, the media have been regarded as the Fourth Estate, an equal peer to our functioning government alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

But in the last twenty years, intensified in the last decade, the media have undergone a tremendous upheaval, all wrought by technology. And here is where we, all of us in technology, have been so proud of how we shaped the future, so unbearably, insufferably proud. We were proud to destroy Old Media, to disintermediate the gatekeepers, to revel in the creative destruction. Pride goeth before the fall.

What we didn’t realize, didn’t take seriously, is the real value of media as an institution in a properly functioning democracy, the Fourth Estate that keeps the others honest. We destroyed the gatekeepers without any foresight that we were replacing them with monsters much more insidious: the tyranny of the click, the plutocracy of the pageview, merciless metrics. Technology has become a dominant force in our culture over the last twenty years, and we as technologists were wholly unprepared for the responsibility.

If you think Hillary Clinton is going to win the general election, you have an optimism that is wholly unsupported by the slow-motion train wreck that has unfolded before our eyes these last few months. What could possibly support that optimism? Would you deny the obvious truth that this is a representative democracy, and that the majority of voters have stated their preference for overthrowing the current system? Hillary is a creature of the system, she cannot win over those voters.

The only hope is that the will of the majority will become disengaged from this election. They will not do so in the face of the billions and billions and more billions of free advertising that the media will continue to lavish upon Trump because they are no longer gatekeeping bastions of the Fourth Estate, but slaves to the clicks and advertising dollars that the technology revolution have left to them as the only form of viability that they have left. Believing that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency is like believing the New York Times is still The Paper of Record.

Bury your head in the sand if you must. I’m making plans for 2020.

greatness and lateness

The late, great Bill Campbell passed away this week, and there is no shortage of encomia from the technorati about him. He was the greatest coach in Silicon Valley, and the list of leaders that have paid tributes is appropriately star-studded. Some of the most successful people in the business world have benefitted from his wise counsel and friendship. It’s not hard to find stories of some pearl of advice that Bill gave to change the direction of a company, or even a life. I’d like to share a story that’s different, though no less illustrative of his greatness, because it’s a story of what happens when you don’t listen to Bill Campbell.

Back when Linden Lab was one of the most hyped companies in the world, in the interregnum between Google and Facebook, we had typical growing pains that were no less painful for being typical. Through the extraordinary pleading of one of our board members, we had the good fortune to receive some time from Bill Campbell. It was a tough time to get his time. He’d recently found out that his close friend was suffering from a terminal disease, and he knew that supporting his friend and his friend’s family would soon becoming an all-consuming task. He could not agree to a team-wide mentoring relationship. But even in the face of this tragedy and his many other commitments, he agreed to spend some one-on-one time with our CEO in several sessions, and just one round of discussions through the rest of the exec team.

I was very excited when my turn came, having known not only of The Coach’s legendary reputation, but having heard and seen his sharp advice to our CEO implemented on a few occasions in our company already. We sat down in a fishbowl conference room, centrally located on the company’s main floor, with a view out across the desks on an otherwise normal day. As I began responding to his initial questions about my background and context, I saw his attention drawn sharply away to the window.

In just a few seconds of observation, he saw something he didn’t like outside the conference room. “Do you see that?” he asked me. Yes I did, I responded, I knew exactly what he was talking about. “What’s it about?” he probed. I gave my best explanation, no doubt biased, certainly incomplete, filled with my caveats and allowances for things that I perhaps did not understand completely. “Nonsense,” he said, “Your job is to take care of that situation. Do you think this company is going to make or break on the new markets you’re after, on the business deals you’re trying to swing? No. You are here for that, no one else on the team is going to do it. Fix it. That is your most important job.”

I’m sorry I’m being vague about the details of the problem that Bill saw. The details don’t matter in this particular telling of the story. What matters is how quickly Bill could see a critical problem in barely more than a glance, how few questions he had to ask to understand the nature of the problem, how firmly he could direct action where it was needed, how incisively he could assess character and roles on a team. That he could do all this in seconds was simply stunning.

The sad, though hopefully instructive, remainder of the story is how poorly I executed on his insight. Fixing the problem immediately would require an extreme action that would disrupt the company in a sudden and unwelcome manner. I thought that the safer course of action was to confine the problem to a tight but explosive space, allowing it to self-destruct in a formidable container, like a bomb going off under a fortified blast dome. In retrospect, of course this was the wrong choice. The problem lingered longer than it should have, was not completely isolated or contained, and rather than have an explosion in the air that the winds could blow away, I had poison in the ground that was now part and parcel with the soil on which the company was built.

I wish we’d had more time than we got with Bill, I don’t think I would have handled things the same way with just a little bit more counsel. It was not the difference in our company’s success or failure, but it was the best advice for the moment and for the team in place. The lesson, I suppose, if there must be a lesson here, is that when you are fortunate enough to access the wisdom of the great, act on it decisively before it’s too late.

magnificent seven

Tomorrow Oculus Rift is taking consumer pre-orders for its heralded VR headset, and many people are wondering whether 2016 will be the year of virtual reality … just as they wondered in 2015, and 2014 … as they wondered in 2009 when I left Second Life. At that time, I remained certain that virtual reality was the future of online interaction, but that it would be at least 10 years before the field could achieve mass consumer success. Virtual reality actually has many decades of history as a technical project, as well as a rich history in fiction that demonstrates the enduring attraction.

People keep mistaking “THE year” for virtual reality because they fail to properly assess the progress in each field required to make a truly compelling VR experience. Observers see great progress in just one field, and they assume that it’s enough to break open mass consumer interest. But in fact there are SEVEN fields required for VR success – “the year of virtual reality” won’t happen until every one of these fields has progressed past the minimum development threshold. Here’s a brief rundown of each field, WHAT it is and WHY it’s important, and WHEN it’ll be ready for a truly compelling VR experience.


WHAT: The most obvious requirement is that a computer needs to be powerful enough to make a compelling simulation of reality. Now, what’s “compelling” is open to argument, and I would argue that some relatively primitive figures can comprise a compelling environment if they move, interact with each other, and react to you in an engaging way.

WHY: I guess you could have virtual reality without computers, just as you can have it without compelling graphics. I mean, that’s called “storytelling” and it’s pretty cool. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Some minimum level of simulated graphics is required.

WHEN: Sufficient power exists now, and has existed for at least seven years. But if your requirement for visual fidelity is very high, then you might think that even today’s computers aren’t powerful enough.

The technical measurement discussion isn’t too interesting, so please skip this paragraph and the graph below if you’re not inclined to pick over this kind of detail. There’s no single measure of computing power, but as a rough analogue I’d pick FLOPS and say that to simplify further we should talk only about GPU FLOPS, noting that there’s CPU-equivalent performance. Because I believe that an experience comprised of rough primitives can be compelling, I’d say that even one GPU GFLOPS is sufficient to support a compelling experience, and we’ve had that in home computers since 1999. But giving room for argument, I can raise the requirement to 500 times that, and still we’re talking about 2007-8 as the time when consumer-level computers had enough power to make virtual reality.


WHAT: Unlike the first field, this is less about predicting the power that computers have than it is about predicting what type of computer people will use. “Personal computing” used to mean desktop computers, but now people actually carry computers on their persons. Today, the type of computer that is most commonly in use is the mobile smartphone.

WHY: Philip Rosedale frequently said that when he started SL, he underestimated the time that it would take to get to mass market use of virtual reality, because he was only looking at the increasing power of desktop computers. He didn’t predict the shift to laptops, which happened in the early 2000s. Using smaller computers generally means using less powerful computers, so although desktop computing power was sufficient to simulate reality by the mid-2000s, the computers that people actually used were laptops, which were not powerful enough. Today, the computer that most people use is a mobile phone, which is even less powerful.

WHEN: Using the same standards above, smartphones will be able to simulate a compelling VR experience in 2017.

(Boring, skippable paragraph follows.) As above, this assumes the requirement is 500 GPU GFLOPS, without arguing too much about what that number really means. A high-end smartphone today can do about 180 GPU GFLOPS, with more power coming soon. (For comparison, a PS4 game console can do over 1800 GPU GFLOPS.) Taking Moore’s Law narrowly and literally, it will be 2017 before smartphones will get over 500 GFLOPS.

But should we even be talking about smartphones here? Forget about “PC” meaning desktop – the truly personal computer has moved from your desk to your lap to your pocket. Where is it going next? On your wrist, on your face? This is a question about the intersection of device use and power, not either one alone. The precise question is, “When is the type of computer that most people use every day going to be capable of 500 GFLOPS?” I still think this is a question about smartphones, but who knows?


WHAT: A computer just simulates the environment, you need to be able to see what the computer is simulating. For many years, the way most people see a computer’s output has been through a monitor. Now, Oculus Rift and other goggles are coming into the mass consumer market, and these are so good that they’ve ushered in the current wave of excitement about VR.

WHY: Sight is the most important sense in giving people a feeling that they are somewhere other than where they’re sitting. It’s not the only required sense, but without seeing a virtual environment, most people cannot begin to immerse themselves in the experience. I used to think that a flat monitor of sufficient size and resolution could provide a compelling enough VR experience, but using the most advanced VR goggles today simply blows away the monitor experience.

WHEN: The major unsolved problem with VR goggles is that using them for too long induces nausea. Although Oculus and others have made a lot of progress on this, it’s only to the point where nausea is delayed rather than eliminated. A product that makes you puke is never going to be mass market. Based on nothing more than a rough guess based on many years of observation of consumer hardware cycles, I’m going to say that it will take three years to sufficiently refine VR goggles to smooth away the nausea and other early problems, so it will be late 2018 before this field is really ready for mass consumption.


WHAT: Properly spatial audio means that sound should be directional, you should be able to hear where a sound is coming from, and more than just direction, you should be able to distinguish sounds from each other even when they are coming from the same direction or obscured by ambient sounds. This latter goal is called the “cocktail party problem” – even in a noisy cocktail party, you can focus on and hear a single speaker who isn’t necessarily louder than the party noise.

WHY: Seeing may be believing, but hearing is confirmation. The audio experience is often overlooked and undervalued, but the sound of being in a space is crucial confirmation that your brain can believe what you see. It’s possible that the nausea of the VR goggles experience is due to insufficient confirmation from other senses, and hearing is probably the most important and easiest sense to add to the virtual environment, though some might advocate for smell or taste (uh, yuck).

WHEN: “3D audio” has been around for many years, but the cocktail party problem remains unsolved despite recent advances. Still, the current state of the art in spatial audio is very good, and probably good enough without fully solving the cocktail party problem. I think we’ll see really excellent integration of audio fidelity with VR goggles even before the VR goggles are fully nausea-free, so let’s say that the audio component will be ready by 2017.


WHAT: This is the most important area that not enough people are talking about. Virtual reality requires a host of new technologies for allowing a whole body to interact in a 3D space: hand and finger movement, body position, eye-tracking, multidirectional treadmills. Every single one of these is a new Oculus-size opportunity in the making.

WHY: A keyboard and mouse or trackpad are not designed, and not sufficiently adaptable, for a person to move easily in three-dimensional computed environment. The only innovation in input in mass computing devices that we’ve seen in the last 20 years has been multitouch on a smartphone or tablet, and that doesn’t help much for 3D.

WHEN: We have yet to see a breakthrough product here, despite many promising efforts. The field is extremely varied and diverse, and it could take many years to sort out the winners. Somewhat arbitrarily, I guess it will be at least 2019 before we have mass consumer products that enable all of the tactile, visual and auditory input needed for compelling VR.


WHAT: Though it’s easy to imagine a VR experience that is entirely created by a single computer at a single place (somewhat like watching a movie at a theater), it is much more likely that many computers will need to talk with each other over distance, and that requires access bandwidth to communicate (like the Web).

WHY: The design of the particular VR experience that defines success really comes into play here. For example, this post assumes “mass market VR” will be enabled by personal computing devices and that multiple people can share a VR experience from different locations. That means that larger computers will perform important tasks and coordinate communication with the smaller computers that people have. The amount of bandwidth required can vary greatly depending on what demands the system is making on the computers involved.

WHEN: If you think that VR is going to get to mass market through smartphones or whatever successor computer that we carry around with us, then you’re bottlenecked by the state of wireless cell networks. Although high-speed data connection is broadly available in major metropolitan areas, it is unreliable even there and unavailable outside of the most densely populated areas. Given the slow rate of evolution of cell networks, it would be at least 2022 before bandwidth is sufficient for VR everywhere.

Many VR enthusiasts picture mass-market adoption through desktop computers, gaming consoles, or other specialized hardware yet to penetrate mass market, but all of which would use wired connections up until the wireless access point, so for that camp, we could say that bandwidth is already sufficient.


WHAT: The delay in computers communicating with each other is sometimes related to bandwidth, but this field is included as a separate factor to encompass other network quality issues as well as the sheer physics of data traveling across large terrestrial distances.

WHY: Some amount of perceptible latency is unavoidable as a matter of physics if we are talking about communication across the world. So to the extent that the VR experience relies on real-time interaction with a global population, acceptable latency must be designed into the experience, mediated somehow to make the perception of latency acceptable.

WHEN: Arguably, this is a problem that is solved now for many types of VR experiences, but I include it here just because I’ve seen many VR proposals that don’t consider how latency must be designed into the experience. We’ll see some common design patterns in the first year of release of the current crop, and they’ll formalize into best practices by next year, so we’ll call this solved by 2017.

So, when will “The Year of VR” really be? My rough guess is 2019 at earliest, 2022 for the more ambitious visions of mass-market VR that include mobile computing.

My point isn’t to be right on the prediction though; here I just wanted to give a more rigorous framework for making predictions of mass market success. When people claim that this or any year will be the year of VR, they should be clear on what the state of progress needs to be on each of these seven pieces. Considering progress in just one field alone has led to many, many mistakenly optimistic predictions.