What Seattle’s VR/AR Community Means to Me

collage-2016-12-171

As a writer, the emergence of virtual and augmented reality is the biggest story of my life. A year ago I was still reeling from the fallout of an article I wrote about Master of Fine Arts programs for The Stranger. Meant to be an honest appraisal of what it takes to cultivate artistic talent and a call for more profound engagement with literature, the piece backfired, to say the least, and led to the near total collapse of my professional network. Overnight I became one of those people who gets publicly shamed on social media, and the fallout was covered internationally by such outlets as the Guardian, Slate, and Salon. I became a sort of Osama bin Laden figure of MFA programs, and The Stranger referred to me as “the writer you love to hate.” A years-longs, self-funded project of mine to get Seattle designated a UNESCO City of Literature collapsed spectacularly, with the board of directors I had just recruited demanding a public apology before they’d raised a penny or crafted a strategic plan. I refused. One, because I don’t believe in the shaming rituals of public apologies, which never seem to be accompanied by public forgiveness. Two, because I believed that a board whose very first official act was to admonish a writer for something he had written had no business championing free expression. As a result, they promptly quit. After literally traveling the world to raise the profile of Seattle’s literary community, I found myself exiled from that very community. The local publisher of an anthology I edited about Seattle’s literary history informed bookstores that they were welcome to exclude me from promotional events if they found me too controversial. A local reviewer scanned the table of contents of said anthology, tallied the number of contributors who were white, declared me racist in her review, then later admitted, in front of an audience at a reading, that she hadn’t even bothered to read the book. A troll with a lot of time on their hands anonymously registered my name as a domain and it remains the world’s go-to website for all things negative written about me. I’ve seen writers cross to the other side of the street to avoid me.

Interestingly, during this period I was approached privately by dozens of authors and writing instructors who agreed with my article and offered me their sympathy, but who were rightly terrified for their own reputations if they were known to sympathize with my point of view. Some of them gave me money and fed me. These authors included winners of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and a Macarthur Genius Grant recipient who advised me “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” One author, whose books have sold in the millions all over the world over a decades-long career, took me out to dinner one night. When I asked him why my piece had elicited such a furious reaction, this beloved literary figure offered two words: “inferiority complexes.”

When I decided I needed to start a website of my own, I discovered, to my surprise, that  ryanboudinotisahack.com was available. In my old life, a hack is a writer of low talent, an assessment that many aspiring writers in Seattle would still agree with. Soon after I started blogging about VR, however, I remembered that “hack” means something quite different in tech circles. A hack can mean a clever solution. That’s the meaning of the word I choose to embrace.

The more I wrote about virtual reality, the deeper I became involved in Seattle’s VR community. People who started as the subject of blog posts became friends, and friends became collaborators. Writing the article for Seattle Met magazine gave me the opportunity to meet VR creators in workshops, garages, and co-working spaces around the city. The more I learned about what was happening in VR/AR in Seattle, the more I wanted to not simply cover the emergence of an industry, but champion that industry’s pioneers.

There are specific moments that stand out to me from this past year. The moment Eva Hoerth walked up and said, “Hey, can I join your team?” at the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon. Getting my mind blown by Gus McManus’s trippy virtual DJ booth at Tim Reha’s CNDY Factory. Hearing spatial audio for the first time at Immersive Systems. Visiting Ron Jones’s Sky Muse studios in Stanwood just down the road from the house I grew up in. Many a soul-stirring conversation with Steve Turnidge. Scooping snowballs in Evie Powell’s snowball fight game and sniping at robots in Invrse’s The Nest. Watching Mechanical Dreams kick ass, over and over again. Meeting Amanda Knox and admiring her poise and positivity while the troll armies continue to bait her cultural doppelganger. Looking around me on day 1 at CoMotion Labs and realizing that I wasn’t alone in not knowing how the hell I had ended up at a virtual reality startup incubator.

I now understand that I wasn’t ever meant to belong to a book-bound community. My fate was probably sealed when I first started working in customer service for Amazon in 1998. I knew well before most people, just by virtue of being present in conference rooms with Amazon VPs, that the publishing industry was going to get vivisected. While getting four books of fiction published remains one of my proudest accomplishments, I have found that the publishing industry, in general, is structurally and philosophically unprepared to cope with the rate and intensity of technological change in the 21st century. I’d love to be convinced otherwise, but from where I sit, American literature looks increasingly insular, irrelevant to the vast swath of the public, rife with identity politics infighting, and disengaged from our most powerful engines of culture.

Technology has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. When I was about five or six years old, I discovered an illustration in a magazine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, her body composed of circuits and gears, with the caption, “Alice in Technology Land.” I remember asking my mother what technology meant. She explained that it meant machines and inventions. I swear that I heard a voice in my head at that moment that said, “Pay attention to this word. It’s going to be really important to you.”

In the past year I realized that I probably won’t ever publish another book. I parted ways with two literary agents this year. I have two manuscripts–a long novel and a short memoir–that I decided this year to squirrel away so that my kids can make money on them after I die. That thought brings me no small degree of joy. I have no plans to put any more effort into writing books. I understand that I am meant to apply my energy and talent to the emergence of the new storytelling medium of virtual reality. I was surprised at the relief I felt after coming to that decision.

And here’s the most striking thing of all. I have never felt more appreciated as a writer. I’ve never felt that more people cared about what I write. The compliments I get these days on my blog posts mean more to me than any positive review I have ever received for one of my books. And as a result I’ve never felt such a strong a sense of responsibility to my readers. I have experienced levels of appreciation this past year that I never imagined were possible. If you’re reading this, it means that you’re taking part in one of civilization’s grandest experiments in meaning and understanding, and I send you my undying gratitude for inspiring me. I tell people that I’m a small-town reporter of Seattle VR, and I’m invested in making sure that this community thrives. If I’m biased, it’s because I’m so blessed.