Now an “interdisciplinary scientist” at Microsoft Research, the virtual reality pioneer avoids social media. He compares the social networks’ influence in our lives and politics to “an evil hypnotist” and says they need better controls “before virtual reality becomes mature.”
BERKELEY, Calif. — Jaron Lanier is the most unusual person I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot of unusual people.
A barefoot Buddha with dreadlocks, perched in a crazy fun house in the leafy hills of Berkeley, Lanier is a founding member of the digerati. The 57-year-old computer scientist, musician and writer has been christened the father of virtual reality.
“I’m a professional illusionist,” he says. “In some ways, I might know more about making illusions than anybody.”
Upcoming book: His memoir, “Dawn of the New Everything,” will be released Nov. 21
Education: Studied as a teenager at New Mexico State University, while earning money as an “independent goat milk and cheese provider”
Career: In early 1980s founded VPL Research to sell virtual reality products. Founder or principal at several startups.
Scholar at Large for Microsoft from 2006 to 2009, and Inter-disciplinary Scientist at Microsoft Research from 2009 forward.
Source: Jaron Lanier
Lanier is one of the few prophets who admits that the spawn of Silicon Valley could become evil, but he tries to stay on the sunny side. It helps that he avoids all social media.
“The popular ones are designed for behavior modification,” he says, wearing his usual black T-shirt and black pants. “It’s like, why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”
At this moment when dark clouds loom over Silicon Valley, Lanier is able to talk about the Lords of the Cloud with affection yet candor, as he worries that these tech gods creating new worlds may be getting “high on their own supply.”
“This is such a scary time, isn’t it?” he says. “I mean, it is for me. I had always feared we would create this social-manipulation technology out of computers.”
In his forthcoming memoir, “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality,” the Microsoft wizard is enthusiastic over how VR “weds the nerdy thing with the hippie mystic thing,” high-tech but like a dream and “an elixir of unbounded experience.”
But he’s well aware of the “Matrix” dangers. He realized early on, he writes, that “it could turn out to be the evilest invention of all time.”
It’s a pretty simple proposition, he tells me: “If you control the person’s reality, you control the person.” Or as he writes in the book, “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness.”
Recently, the creepiness has been on display.
Mark Zuckerberg stumbled into more trouble for tone-deafness when he used his cartoon avatar to take a disaster adventure trip, a “magical” 360-degree virtual reality tour of hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico to promote his new Facebook Spaces app.
“Oh, God,” Lanier said when he saw it. “It is scary and awful how out of touch Silicon Valley people have become.”
Cornucopia of stuff
We sit down at his dining-room table amid a wild cornucopia of stuff, including a lamp with a hot-pink feathered shade and black cats lounging on chairs and hanging, Cirque du Soleil-style, from carpeted staircases. There are also musical instruments — a golden Wurlitzer pedal harp; a rare pre-Depression Mason & Hamlin piano that Lanier says has “a uniquely American sound;” a 19th-century Chinese opium bed filled with saxophones, flutes, clarinets, lutes and ouds; mandolins covering the walls, and over 1,000 more instruments, from a medieval cornetto to a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute — all of which Lanier can play.
Like his house, his new book is crammed full of strange and mesmerizing stuff.
Right after he was born, his mother, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike and Viennese pianist and stock trader who had talked her way out of a concentration camp by passing as Aryan, and his father, whose family had been mostly wiped out in Ukrainian pogroms, took Jaron someplace they thought would be safe: the westernmost corner of Texas. There, he had to confront more than his share of bullies growing up, once by swinging a baritone horn at them.
His mother died when he was about 9, when her car flipped over on the freeway as she was coming back from getting her driver’s license. His father, who worked for a time as the science editor of “Amazing,” “Fantastic” and “Astounding” pulp science-fiction magazines, then let his 11-year-old son design their new house in New Mexico: a geodesic dome.
The wild stories about Lanier’s coming-of-age flow in a rush, from playing piano at the Ear Inn in SoHo and avant-garde parties with John Cage and Laurie Anderson, and working for the Ear magazine, where editors would have to go up to the Dakota regularly and beg for cash from John Lennon and Yoko Ono; to breaking out Timothy Leary from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, to a failed first marriage to a beautiful woman who had a roommate who kept tarantula venom in their refrigerator. (“Carved by trauma and tradition, her demons dragged my demons to the courthouse,” he writes of their divorce.)
After a takeout dinner of chicken and macaroni, Lanier bids a loving good night to his wife, Lena, a child psychologist, and their 11-year old daughter, Lilibell. Then he brings out his Microsoft HoloLens headsets and a big mug of chocolate milk. “I’m more like the child than the parent, I’m afraid,” he says.
I ask about social-media sites getting hijacked by Russians pushing propaganda aimed at putting Donald Trump in the White House. Vanity Fair has compared this juncture, with anxious lawmakers demanding accountability from the resistant tech companies, to the moment when we all had to start taking off our shoes at airports.
“Expect some smelly feet,” Lanier says.
Unlike many here, he does not think of humans as ants in his experiments.
“Hopefully, in this period, when we’re dealing with this really crude and early stuff like Facebook feeds, Instagram, Snapchat,” he says, “we’ll be able to get the politics straight and find a path for people to have dignity and autonomy before the hard-core stuff comes. Unless we all kill ourselves through this other stuff, which is a possibility, too.”
Lanier believes that Facebook and Google, with their “top-down control schemes,” should be called “Behavior Modification Empires.”
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“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.
“And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.”
Facebook’s business model
Why would Facebook change its business model when it’s raking in billions?
“I would appeal to the decency of the people in it,” he replies. “And if not to them, then the toughness of the regulators. It’s going to be one of the struggles of the century.”
He continues: “I think there are a lot of good people at Facebook, and I don’t think they’re evil as individuals. Or at least not the ones that I’ve met. And I know Google a lot better, and I feel pretty certain that they’re not evil. But both of these companies have this behavior-manipulation business plan, which is just not something the world can sustain at that scale. It just makes everything crazy.”
I remark that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg expressed surprise that their fiendish little invention could do something so nefarious.
“People in the community knew,” Lanier says, adding that he wrote essays and participated in debates in the early 1990s about how easy it would be to create unreality and manipulate society, how you could put out a feed of information that would put people in illusory worlds where they thought they had sought out the information but actually they had been guided “the way a magician forces a card.”
“So for somebody to say they didn’t know the algorithms could do that,” Lanier says in a disbelieving tone. “If somebody didn’t know, they should’ve known.”
So what happens when fake news marries virtual reality?
“It could be much more significant,” Lanier says. “When you look at all the ways of manipulating people that you can do with just a crude thing like a Facebook feed — when people are just looking at images and text on their phones and they’re not really inside synthetic worlds yet — when you can do it with virtual reality, it’s like total control of the person. So what I’m hoping is that we’re going to figure this stuff out so we don’t make ourselves insane before virtual reality becomes mature.”
I ask Lanier about the sexual harassment and gender inequity problems roiling the Valley.
“Well, sometimes, I think there’s a kind of emerging new male-jerk persona of the digital age, which would be some kind of a cross between the Uber guy and the pharma bro and maybe Milo Yiannopoulos and maybe Palmer Luckey and maybe Steve Bannon,” he says. “Because, there’s this sort of smug, superior, ‘I’ve got the levers of power, and I know better than you.’ It’s sort of this weird combination of a lot of power and a lot of insecurity at the same time.”