“The History of the Future” book was published on February 19th, and it’s a storified non-fiction account of the modern resurgence of virtual reality through the eyes of the founders of Oculus. Author Blake Harris was able to cultivate some extraordinary access to the founders of Oculus to tell many of the behind-the-scenes stories of the major events from the founding of Oculus through past the launch of the first consumer Rift (aka “CV1″).
Harris was also able to secure thousands of emails that are cited in throughout the book, which helps to fill in many gaps of knowledge between the collaboration between Valve and Facebook as well as how the open source ecosystem cultivation of Oculus was slowed shifted towards strategies of platform ownership pushed by the leadership of Facebook.
Harris was able to craft a super dramatic human story of innovation and risk that starts with a dream of virtual reality and slowly evolves into a full-blown start-up team, and eventually a unicorn acquisition that catalyzes the next phase of an entire spatial computing revolution. It’s a story that’s packed with dramatic tensions between logic versus intuition, pragmatism versus idealism, engineering versus marketing, and open ecosystems versus closed platforms. It’s integration of these different polar extremes that makes for a magical team combination of being at the right place at the right time with the right amount of passion, drive, vision, money, and luck.
While the narrative is super engaging and helps make this story a super fun read through the key moments and technological landscape of the history of the modern resurgence of VR, the problem is that from a historical perspective it’s very difficult to source where exactly the information is coming from. Harris chose to obfuscate the precise sourcing of information in order to build trust for engaging with employees within a publicly traded company.
This obfuscation actually makes for a more immersive and engaging story through artificially re-constructed dialogue, but it’s difficult to know precisely where the information is coming from and whose perspective is being preferenced whenever there are inevitable differences of opinion. In the absence of being able to triangulate different perspectives, then it ends up being a mysterious fusion of perspectives that ultimately is Harris’ unique perspective on the story.
I actually trust that it’s likely he gets many of the fundamental points correct, but this methodology is almost by definition going to be limited in trying to capture the full nuances of complexity and paradox that comes with any sufficiently meaningful human endeavor.
But with all of that said, there are aspects of this story that would have been impossible to tell had Harris tried to preserve the complexity of every nuanced disagreement, especially when Facebook allegedly deliberately tried to spread misinformation through Harris. Ultimately Facebook’s cooperation with Harris broke down after Harris suspected that Facebook was tried to mislead him for the reasons why Palmer Luckey was no longer working at Oculus. Harris claims that Facebook was insisted to him that it was Luckey’s choice to leave, but Harris was hearing contradictory information from multiple sources that led to Harris to believe that he was being systematically lied to. This eventually came to a head about a year after Luckey was fired when Facebook ultimately cut off access to Harris in the spring of 2018.
Harris alleges that Luckey was compelled to sign a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement with Facebook as part of his departure. If this is true, then Facebook is using it’s power and authority to suppress aspects of the truth that they want to keep secret. To me, this fosters an unethical relationship to the historical record through compelled suppression of deeper truths. Rather than handle difficult questions in a direct, authentic, and embodied way that would encourage retrospective contemplation and self-reflection, then Facebook chooses to deny and suppress the truth through tactics of silence, ghosting, and the explicit suppression of open dialogue through NDAs and non-disparagement agreements. They blindly march forward continuing to build new solutions that focused on the future while denying opportunities to be held accountable or learn lessons from retrospectively reflecting upon the past.
If there’s any set of questions that I have for Facebook, then it’d be “Did you have Luckey and/or Iribe sign an NDA or non-disparagement agreement? If you truly believe in transparency, then why do you have former employees sign NDAs and non-disparagement agreements? What are you trying to hide? Why are you using your power and money to promote secrecy and the promotion of incomplete narratives in the historical record?”
Harris sent me an advanced copy, and so I was able to read the book ahead of release and then conduct this interview with him the day before the book’s official release date. We talked about many of the topics above, and he game me additional context about his journey in writing the book, some of the topics that didn’t make the cut, additional insights and quips from Carmack’s emails, and more about the challenges he faced in covering Luckey’s cultural fallout.
“The History of the Future” is a huge contribution for helping to document how far virtual reality ecosystem has evolved over the past eight years. It’s a monumental effort to focusing so deeply on a single story that represents a major turning point in the evolution of immersive and spatial computing. But I also see it as a first draft, as there are many more perspectives, more stories, and more history to be told. Hopefully this book will become a center point of conversation that allows even more stories and perspectives to be shared.
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