In the Land of the Unreal: Virtual and Other Realities in Los Angeles

In the Land of the Unreal is a fantastic, groundbreaking, and beautifully written ethnography covering the nexus between place and technology. Lisa Messeri meticulously examines how Los Angeles, a hub for the entertainment industry with a rich history of urban fantasy, uniquely influences the virtual reality industry.” - Gabriella Coleman, Professor of Anrthopology at Harvard University

Duke University Press, 2024

In the mid-2010s, a passionate community of Los Angeles-based storytellers, media artists, and tech innovators formed around virtual reality (VR), believing that it could remedy society’s ills. Lisa Messeri offers an ethnographic exploration of this community, which conceptualized VR as an “empathy machine” that could provide glimpses into diverse social realities. She outlines how, in the aftermath of #MeToo, the backlash against Silicon Valley, and the turmoil of the Trump administration, it was imagined that VR—if led by women and other marginalized voices—could bring about a better world. Messeri delves into the fantasies that allowed this vision to flourish, exposing the paradox of attempting to use a singular VR experience to mend a fractured reality full of multiple, conflicting social truths. She theorizes this dynamic as unreal, noting how dreams of empathy collide with reality’s irreducibility to a “common” good. With In the Land of the Unreal, Messeri navigates the intersection of place, technology, and social change to show that technology alone cannot upend systemic forces attached to gender and race.

Lisa Messeri is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in FAS.