Nonny de la Peña is a journalist, filmmaker, and virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) pioneer, who is the founding director for the Narrative and Emerging Media program at Arizona State University. Before joining this week’s Zócalo/Future Tense panel, “How Has Computer Code Shaped Humanity?,” she sat down in our green room to chat about her pet squirrel, spin training, and the dreaded null reference exception.
We heard a rumor that you have an unusual pet. Is there any truth to it?
My squirrel. We found the mother dead underneath our outdoor couch. And there were two boys and a girl, I figured out later on. But she's the only one who wanted to hang out with me. There’s a photo of her eating out of my hand; that’s how close we’ve become. And there’s a very funny video of my dog, and me having to tell my dog “no”—and my dog really wanting it to not be “no.” And then my cat comes, and they try to tag team against the squirrel, but she's pretty resilient.
What's your favorite niche online community?
I still have unabiding affection for Second Life. That's where I built the virtual Guantánamo Bay prison. So Second Life was responsible for the entire start of my career, but it was also just the people. It was the weirdest mix of people all hanging out in this space that was very new. And we'd have these dance parties and they were really fun. So I miss that community. One of the most amazing moments was when I went to the Second Life Community Convention, which was the real-life people of Second Life hanging out, and that is a story.
If you had to design your own avatar, what features would you give it?
Currently, there's not really a lot of dials for if your features are unusual, such as for myself, my nose is decidedly bigger than many other people, and it's very difficult to do that. You know, I’m proud of my nose. Why would I not want to have that?
What’s your least favorite line of code?
The null reference exception. If you've ever done C# in Unity— C#, you have your code on the left side, you have your game engine, and you need the game engine to call the code in order to compile it. If you have a lowercase letter and an uppercase letter, and lowercase game engine and uppercase in the code, the code is so dumb that it can't spell check, so it'll throw an error, and it won't tell you where it is.
What's a little-known talent of yours?
I’ve done spin training. I used to fly little airplanes out of Santa Monica airport. And that was the training—you had to learn how to recover if your plane was in a spin. So you literally have to throw the plane into a spin and recover.
What made you want to learn how to fly?
I was scared of flying. And I wanted to do something about being scared of flying. So I went to go take flying lessons. And by learning how to fly, I understood what was going on. And that gave me a certain amount of control over my own fears.
What's the last book you read that you love?
The Astronomer and the Witch. It’s a really incredible book on so many levels. Not only because of the situation and the time period, but also it really helps you understand how information can get twisted. And how accusations unfold, and there’s a moment in that book that's way beyond that story.
What's a moment where technology has thrilled you?
Here’s one example: I had a car accident and I was really, really suffering from whiplash, and I was in a lot of pain. And I was at Sundance, and there was an experience at Sundance, a virtual reality experience. And VR is really well known now for helping mask pain. And it was my first time I've been out of pain in months. I laid down on the machine and I was flying. It was incredible.