Luke Robert Mason: You’re in for a real treat this evening. I am blessed to be able to welcome Jaron Lanier to Virtual Futures. My name is Luke Robert Mason, and for those of you here for the first time, which is pretty much Jaron and nobody else, the Virtual Futures Conference occurred at the University of Warwick in the mid-90s, and to quote its cofounder it arose at a tipping point in the technologization of first-world cultures.
Now, whilst it was most often portrayed as a techno-positivist festival of accelerationism towards a posthuman future, the “Glastonbury of cyberculture” as The Guardian put it, its actual aim hidden behind the brushed steel, the silicon, the jargon, the designer drugs, the charismatic prophets and the techno parties was much more sober and much more urgent. What Virtual Futures did was try to cast a critical eye the phenomenal changes in how humans and nonhumans engage with emerging scientific theory and technological development. This salon series completes the conference’s aim to bury the 20th century and begin work on the 21st. So, let’s begin.
Luke Robert Mason: For this crowd, Jaron Lanier needs no introduction. Our distinguished guest is credited as inventing the iPhone. Except it wasn’t the iPhone, the small smart computing device made by Apple, it was the EyePhone, or E‑Y-E-phone, quite literally a phone for your eyes.
His new book Dawn of the New Everything tells the story of this device and the VR startup that created it, VPL Research Inc., a company that Jaron founded in 1984. Anyone notice the troubling irony? Nineteen…eighty…four.
Often credited as having coined the term “virtual reality,” it is Jaron that we have to thank or perhaps chastise for the virtual insanity that’s been plaguing all culture of late. As the VR industry promises enhanced worlds in which we’re all gaming with each other, Jaron’s book reveals VR’s dangerous potential in allowing us to game each other. Or, be gamed by more problematic external power structures.
But this is not a dry book of dystopian technological predictions, it is hopeful and it is hyperlinked. And when you read it you’ll know what I mean by that. This book is a manifesto for worldbuilding. And what’s so clear is that Jaron truly and deeply understands what it really takes to develop immersive and more importantly, satisfying, experiences in VR. And that’s not because he’s an accomplished computer scientist or technologist, although those things are true, but it’s because he’s deeply connected to what it means to be human.
So to help us understand the new everything, please put your hands together, stamp your feet, go wild, and join me in welcoming Jaron Lanier to Virtual Futures.
Jaron Lanier: Hi!
Mason: So Jaron, I want to start at the beginning of the end. I want to start in the 80s when you moved to Silicon Valley. Because when it comes to the Internet, we got what we wanted but it wasn’t necessarily what we thought it was going to be. How did you envision cyberspace?
Lanier: Oh gosh. Well, I mean… That’s quite a hell of a question, because it’s a, it’s a big thing. Cyberspace is a particular word that was made up by Bill Gibson, who writes books. And around the time we actually— [comment from audience about using his microphone] Oh, god. Alright here, how about that? Is that good? Can you hear?
Yeah, so around the time we incorporated VPL, Bill published a book called Neuromancer that I’m sure people remember. And so the rule used to everybody has to come up with their own names, so there were a zillion names in currency for what we ended up calling virtual reality, which was my little version of it.
And Bill… Oh God you know. Something I feel like I can’t fully tell this story without his permission because some of it’s very personal.
Mason: We’re among friends.
Lanier: Yeah. But I’ll leave out some of it. But he took not only— He was writing in I think an extremely important and wonderful dystopian tradition about this very thing. Much of it English, which I— How many people have read The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster? Oh, please…
Mason: That’s disappointing for [inaudible].
Lanier: Oh come on, people. Come on. Get with it.
Alright. So this was written something like 110 years ago. And it’s a science fiction novella. And this is the fellow you know who wrote Room with a View— Can you guys still hear me, by the way? Is this is close enough? Yeah? No?
Audience Member: Not very well, no.
Lanier: Here, I’ll just kiss this stupid piece of foam, for you. Is that dystopian enough for you? Is this what it was all for?
Okay, so. So anyway. So I forget if it was…it’s something like 1907, 1908, 1909, something like that. E.M. Forster writes this novella, and he describes a population addicted to these screens connected to giant global computers. And the screens are hexagonal, suggesting that the people have become like a beehive, like a hive mind. And they talk about topics and they do little video calls. And they all get kind of lost and everything becomes a little unreal, and you get the feeling that they’re all subject to this power structure. And then there’s a crash. It’s not very reliable machine. There’s a crash and all these people die, and they finally crawl out out of their cubicles and they see the sun, “Oh my god, the sun. Reality.”
Anyway. This was 110 years ago. And in a way he nailed it. I mean, all of the dystopian science fiction literature since then, whether it’s the feelies, or the Matrix, or so many others, are in a sense echoes of The Machine Stops, so you ought to read this thing. I mean if you’re interested in this world.
And in a sense I thought Neuromancer was in the tradition. It was another… That The Machine Stops is such a profound work it actually created its own literary genre that continues to this day and I thought Neuromancer was something like a cross between William Gibson and E.M. Forster or something like that. But it was also much more than that but that’s a story for another time.
Anyway. I used to argue with Bill about Neuromancer. Because he would send me scenes he was writing. He’d been writing short stories in the same style beforehand. And at that time, my thing was virtual reality could either end up as the most beautiful medium that brings people together and helps bridge the ever-mysterious interpersonal gap. It could be the greatest form for art ever. It could be this thing that makes imagination more valued. It could make it possible to extend some of the more luminous aspects of childhood into life without losing them into the rest of one’s life. There were all these hopes I had for it. I hoped it could be a beacon of empathy that would help people behave better.
But, it could also turn out to be the creepiest thing of all time because it could be the ultimate Skinner box. Do you know what I mean by Skinner box? Everybody know that reference? Okay. Because I never know these days what anybody knows.
So it could be like this mind control horrible thing that could be really awful. It could be the creepiest invention ever. And I thought it would flip one way or the other and if we kind of set the right tone at the start, that might help set it on the positive course. So I used to call up Bill and bug him. And I’d say, “Bill, your stuff’s so creepy! You have to make it nicer!”
And I’m not really good at doing voices but at that time he still had this incredibly strong Tennessee Southern accent. It was like, “Well Jaron, you know—” I can’t do it, but anyway he would say you know, “I’m a writer! I write what I write. I can’t change it for this program of yours even though it’s very nice.”
But when we started to get VR stuff working around oh, I don’t know, 84-ish or something like that, he would come by. Which was hard at that time. I don’t know if— He was stuck in Canada, because he’d gone there to avoid being drafted into Vietnam. So it was hard— His situation was difficult at that time. But anyway, we’d get together and he would say, “You know, if I had it all to do over I would just work on this tech instead of being a writer.”
And I’d say, “Be a writer.” But then I said, “Okay, but hey. If you want to come work, you know…”
And he was like, “Uh…maybe I’ll be a writer,” after he saw the realities of Silicon Valley, where you work all night and you just completely work yourself to the bone on and on and on.
Anyway. So at that time so long ago, the way I thought about it is it could flip either way and what we had to do is just kind of say the right incantations, just get it set on a good course. And where I am today on it— Is this answering your question at all, or have I totally—
Mason: I’m enjoying the stories, so I’m going to let you continue. But Jaron, the question I was going to ask you was with regards to the Internet itself. So cyberspace is what Gibson envisioned, but the Internet, do you believe went off course?
Lanier: Well, yeah. I mean, kinda obviously. I mean… Let us count the ways. I mean, under the current Internet as it exists right now, before we even talk about our own situation in the United States, I’ll mention that what’s called in the trade “shitposting” seems to’ve played a critical role in fomenting the Rohingya crisis, in destabilizing some parts of India, some other issues in parts of Africa—particularly Sudan. And so there are people dying who do not have the benefit of an advanced society or stable government as a backup. So out in the wild it’s absolutely deadly.
I could also talk about the absolutely extreme and untenable wealth and power concentration that’s been engendered by the digital networks, that mirrors late 19th-century Gilded Era’s but is probably worse, and is absolutely unsustainable and headed off a cliff.
I could also mention the destabilization of democracies all over the world that before social networking as we know it showed up, we had thought that once countries went democratic they would tend to stay that way and perfect it. And instead we see the United States, Turkey, Egypt, Austria…I mean who knows.
I hate to even say these names because I want to be wrong. Like I mean it’s horrifying to even think of this. Just speaking of the United States, it’s a thing we never expected and it’s a terror, and it’s…I don’t know where it’ll end. I don’t know how bad it’ll get. And it’s very clearly related to what’s happened with digital networks. So I would describe it as an abject failure. It’s…the program of my generation of computer scientists has failed. So…
Mason: Well, John Perry Barlow said in The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that this should not be a construction project. And yet it has become a public construction project. Is it time, Jaron, for a demolition.
Lanier: Mm. Well, my take on it—oh god. This is a tough one. Barlow and I are on opposite sides of interpreting this, and I think it’s kind of broken his heart and I don’t know what to do about that. We were kinda back at the time, too.
Okay so here’s what I think happened. What I think happened… And this is not to lay blame on anybody, because I don’t think anybody really knew for sure how this stuff would work. This was all rather mysterious and experimental. But what I think happened it was, back in the 90s and into the turn of the century, there was an extremely strong sensibility that things should be free. That information should be able to move without restrictions related to payment. There should be free music. Email should be free.
For instance, in the 90s there was this controversy about whether some kind of tiny homeopathic amount of postage might be good on mail. And the reason for it was very simply— I mean, there was an immediate reason and there was a long-term reason. The immediate reason was that even the slightest amount of postage would shut down spam, which is already a gigantic problem, right. So it’s one thing if you spam like millions of people, even a tiny amount of postage cost some money, right.
But then the longer-term thing is that if there was some sort of commerce built in from the start, then eventually when the robots start doing more and people take on new roles at least there’s a chance they could get paid instead of becoming wards of the state. So it holds out some kind of hope for that option which wouldn’t be there if some kind of payment wasn’t generalized, right.
So those were the two reasons. But this idea that things should be free totally swamped that. People were just very very like, sort of militantly dogmatic about it, and many still are. But here’s the problem. We then created this kind of super-open Internet where everything can be free, nothing’s traced, you can make copies of anything. And I can get back to this whole idea of being able to make open copies of things just means that nothing has context anymore. You don’t know where anything came from and that— The original idea for social networking was to not make copies because copies are an inefficiency anyway and you just trace back to the original, both for payment and for context so you would know what things are.
[To audience:] So when was the first design for a digital network? What year? 1960.
Audience Member: 1969?
Lanier: 1960. And it was by Ted Nelson at Harvard. Yeah. He didn’t call it Xanadu yet, but he designed one in ’60 and it was the first one. The packet switch idea predated it but there wasn’t an architecture. And in that one, you didn’t copy because copying seemed like an unconscionable expense. Instead you traced back to origins. But his reasoning for that was extremely sound, which is then everything has context and somebody can’t misrepresent somebody else’s context and appropriate it. Plus if you want to have capitalism people can be paid. And if you don’t want capitalism you don’t have to, but it’s an option. So it increases your options. So that was his argument in 1960, and so that was absolutely rejected by this feeling that things must be free.
And this idea that things must be free had merit. I mean, I understand the arguments. There were a series of things that had happened that… Well, I mentioned Bill was avoiding the draft. There were a lot of people that felt that the ability to hide was the most important thing ever in freedom. And so they ignored other things that might also be important. That’s the short answer to how it happened,
But anyway. So we created this network design where everything’s free, everything’s copyable, context is lost. But then we thrust it forward into— And the “we” is specific people, many of whom are very straight. Al Gore essentially did invent it as a political project. Just to be clear that was actually what happened. You might not even know that controversy, but— [inaudible audience comment] The pipes thing was somebody else’s comment. But anyway. That was a Bush comment.
We thrust this open network into a capitalist context where the larger society was still in one where you had to pay for rent and where you were expected to start corporations, and if somebody put money into something they wanted a profit and all of this. And we made a very raw Internet that didn’t do much. It didn’t have identity mechanisms, it didn’t have payment mechanisms, it didn’t have persistence mechanisms, it didn’t have…really much of anything. It was just this very raw thing.
So the question is what do you do? So eventually somebody invented the World Wide Web on top of it, and… A British thing. How about that, yet another local thing. Tim Berners-Lee. Well, he did it in Switzerland, so. I don’t know.
Mason: Well, we have current issues with Europe, but.
Lanier: No no, I would like to finish. Sorry no, you don’t get another question yet. I need to finish this.
So here’s what happened. If you tell people you’re going to have this super-open, absolutely non-commercial, money-free thing, but it has to survive in this environment that’s based on money, where it has to make money, how does anybody square that circle? How does anybody do anything? And so companies like Google that came along, in my view were backed into a corner. There was exactly one business plan available to them, which was advertising. And advertising doesn’t sound so bad until you remember what all of that cautionary literature pointed out for so many years (I should also mention Norbert Wiener, who’s an important figure in cautionary literature.), which is that in a cybernetic structure, if you have a computer measuring people and then providing feedback based on that measurement, you are no longer offering them persuasive communication. Its like a rat in a Skinner box. You’re modifying their behavior and you’re addicting them. You’re doing both of those things. And you’re doing it inevitably, irrevocably. And so essentially what we said is the only thing you’re allowed to do on the Internet is build a behavior modification empire, everything else is disallowed. So it was a project in a way of the left that created an authoritarian Internet. And I think it backfired horribly and I think it was disastrous. And that’s the thing that needs to be undone.
Mason: So to some degree, Jaron, it was logical that this would be the outcome. Why do you think we’re seeing now the individuals who were there at the beginning starting to come out against some of these, as you call them, behavior modification empires? Both Ev Williams, and only a week ago Sean Parker, have both tried to step up to be the Cassandra of Silicon Valley and go, “Well, we knew this was going to happen.”
Lanier: You know… I need to ask Sean about that. The day before he said this thing about how, “Oh yeah, we intentionally set up this addiction loop,” there was a piece, an interview of me by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times about that mechanism, and it’s possible that it was tied.
But this has been an open secret. Everybody’s kind of known that this was happening. And I think people have to come out against it because the world’s being destroyed. It’s a matter of survival. I mean, it’s really becoming so dangerous.
Mason: So then the question becomes how? So how do we divorce these platforms from the nonhuman agency of capitalism which has morphed them into these problematic entities, these behavioral modification empires, as you call them?
Lanier: Yeah… Well, see this is the trick, isn’t it? I’ll make a few observations. One observation is that if we want to live in a capitalist society and if somebody has a program that they think is better than capitalism, I’m not ideologically opposed to such a thing, it’s just not gonna happen in three seconds. So, just for the moment in the short term we have to survive in a capitalist society. And so we have to think about how there can be businesses that don’t rely on behavior modification.
And fortunately there are a lot of them. I mean, for instance, um… Oh god, I don’t know where to begin. Of the giant tech companies there’s only two that do it. Google and Facebook do it. Facebook more so. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and many others actually sell goods and services. And you might feel that they should be criticized for various things, and you might very well be right that they should be. But not for that, alright. I mean, they might have little experiments in that direction but they don’t really…that’s not their main thing.
So it’s really two big companies and mostly one big company, and then a few smaller companies, that are failing as businesses. I mean Twitter as a business is this really wobbly thing. So it should want to try different business ideas. And it’s not hard to imagine what these might look like. So if there were like a hundred thousand companies doing it that would be harder, but it’s really kind of boils down to just a handful that need to be changed.
Could that be done by regulators? Maybe. I think what makes more sense is to try to just kinda cajole the companies, just say, “What you’re doing is really stupid. You’re decent people of good will. Just do something different.”
And the way they transform—like you could imagine a transition— There are a bunch of different paths, but the one that I think is the easiest and makes the most sense is Facebook says, “Hey you know, if you have popular posts we’re gonna start paying you. And then gradually we’re going to also start charging you but a very low amount, and if you’re poor, nothing. But if you’re not poor at least a little tiny bit.” So this is getting back to like digital postage. And we’re going to gradually start refusing people who want pay to manipulate you. And then we have a target that in five years or whatever it is, this thing will become a monetized social network instead of a manipulation-based one. And there’ll be no hidden third parties who’re paying to affect what you experience. And boom, done. And then Putin has to go cry in a corner.
Mason: So do you think where we are now is just a passing fad? Do you think this will come to pass and we’ll look back on these twenty-five years where we ended up with social media and go, “Ha, weren’t they so silly to build it that way?”
Lanier: Well that’s certainly what I want. I want this period to be remembered like a bizarre bad dream that we passed through. I want this to be remembered like other stupid things that’ve happened as just this historical period that was just incredibly strange that we try to teach kids about and wonder if we’re really doing it well enough. I want it to be like that.
But I don’t know, though. I mean, this could get a lot worse before it gets better. I just— I don’t know where it’s going. It’s not clear how bad things are going to get in the US. But it’s bad. It’s really bad. It’s scary. I mean, I live in Berkeley, California, and periodically right wing demonstrators come to try to provoke fights. And something’s happened which has never happened before, which is once in a while on these days when they’re coming and hoping for a fight, there’ll be these guys like in pick-ups driving round and they’ll pretend to swerve at you if you look leftist. And then they’ll cut back and just go off. But it’s a weird, scary thing. And people have started just staying in their homes. It’s like a thing that has never happened before. So it’s bad. It’s really bad. And all these people live in this other reality which was created by— If they’re old enough it was created on cable news, but this population it’s all social media.
Mason: Well let’s start talking about other realities. Because the situation we’re in with the fake news and the way in which people’s perception is manipulated by these empires is a form of virtual reality, is it not?
Lanier: No, I mean I— Well, I mean listen, I don’t own the term or anything so you have as much right to define it as anyone. But it certainly isn’t… It doesn’t correspond to any of the ways I use it. If you want to use the term to refer to an instrumentation strategy or something like that, that’s okay. If you want to use it for marketing your product or something, I guess whatever.
But if you want to talk about it in broader philosophical terms, what I hope we’re talking about is a medium of personal expression that might be used by mysterious third parties but so far hasn’t been because it’s so nascent. I mean, what I hope is that this period of the darkness of social media will help us sort this out before virtual reality becomes more commonplace. Because it’s going to be much more potent than this really crude stuff like you know, Facebook on a phone, which is really not much of anything compared to what’ll come, you know.
Hey by the way, you’re all smart, hip people, right? Will you delete your accounts?
Audience Member: Facebook?
Lanier: Yeah. Get rid of it, it’s stupid. You don’t need it. You think you need it but it’s an artificial addiction. Just get rid of the stupid thing. Like come on.
Mason: Get rid of Facebook, but if you are following this conversation on Twitter—
Lanier: Oh, Twitter too. Get rid of Twitter. Twitter’s really stupid. Just stop it.
No, actually— Let me say a couple things about that. What happens on Twitter and Facebook might be quite beautiful and amazing. I’ll give you an example. In the US there was a movement that started on social media called Black Lives Matter that brought awareness to a phenomenon— This is another thing, it was kind of an open secret and anybody who knew anything knew it was going on. But somehow it just shifted into something that was an open open secret that people actually talked about. It made it more real. And this was this horrible phenomenon of unarmed black kids suddenly getting killed after a traffic stop, over and over and over again, the police not being prosecuted. And it was like this national blood sport or something, it was this horrible thing.
So there was this movement to raise awareness about it and to try to reform police department. So, Black Twitter is a form of literature. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a legitimately extraordinary literary phenomenon. And it was fun when like, Trump engages with it and they totally run rings around him, black Twitter users. So it’s cool.
But here’s the thing, though. At the same time that people are using Twitter for something like Black Lives Matter, or currently for #MeToo, there’s this other thing going on which is that the algorithms, without any evil genius directing them, the algorithms are putting people into bins who were doing this. And then what they’re doing is they’re automatically without any evil genius directing them, testing what it’s like when other people react to people from those bins who are in say, Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or whatever. And then the algorithms are naturally tuned to further what’s called “engagement,” which we might more properly called addiction.
And so if there’s something from Black Lives Matter or #MeToo that then upsets some other group, the algorithms will all automatically optimize that to upset them as much as possible, and vice versa. So now the people are automatically, without any evil genius directing them, forming themselves into groups. And then what happens is advertisers or saboteurs or weird billionaires with a stupid agenda or you know, Russian information warriors—whatever it is. They come along and they use the Facebook tool and they say, “Oh, what can I buy? What can I buy?”
And then this thing is like super optimized. It’s a super bargain. So like, “Yeah!” So they do that, then they push it even more, and it goes more and more. So the interesting thing is that Black Lives Matter, through its success, undermined itself because of this structure. It’s a dirty trick. It’s a dirty dirty trick. At the very moment that you’re succeeding, you’re building in your failure. And you will suffer in the polls. You will create a societal reaction against you, particularly if you start out in a minority position or in a relatively unempowered position. It’s a fundamentally impossible game.
Now, I hope that that’ll be proven somewhat wrong in the American elections. That it’s just so outrageous that we’ll be able to gather enough steam, but I’m not sure. This mechanism intrinsically undoes and inverts social progress. It’s a social progress inverter, and it’s built in and there’s no way to fix it without changing the business structure.
Mason: Well this time around, Jaron, reality is at stake because it may go into these virtual reality realms. And we look at things like Facebook social VR and I have to ask what did you think of that when you saw Oculus purchased by Facebook in 2014? Did you go, “Great! They’re buying these companies. My dream will come true.” Or did you go, “Oh god, no. Hell no.”
Lanier: Yeah. I had really mixed feelings. I mean, I was kinda happy in a way because it’s was… I mean, I like to see people enjoy VR. I like to see people feel that it’s worth investing in. Oculus in particular was students of a friend of mine who created a startup out of his class, Mark Bolas? Are you aware of him? Mark Bolas was then a professor at University of Southern California. And his student projects included creating the cardboard viewer that Google advertises as Google Cardboard or whatever they call it, and the Oculus Rift. And I thought you know, this is cool. Like, VR’s fashionable and people like money so this’ll— I mean obviously I was enthused about that. I thought I thought then and I still believe that Facebook will change its business plan before it’s too late. So I still kinda believe that, you know. I really do.
Mason: Most people have their first virtual reality experience with the Oculus. They lose their VRginity to the Oculus Rift. But you lost your VRginity back in the 1980s. There was the early days when you were dealing with these very very clunky devices. What was it like to create those sorts of brand new virtual reality devices?
Lanier: Well I mean, just to be clear. Like the EyePhone… The better of the two EyePhone models was every bit as good as a current Oculus Rift or Vive or something. They were just super expensive. But yeah, we had to make them. We had to think about like how do you actually manufacture this thing? How would you… Nobody had ever made anything like that before. Nobody had made the wide angle optical thing and figured out how to mount it on a head and how to mount it on different kinds of people’s heads, and just the whole business. We had to invent a product category.
Mason: And then you say in the book the wonderful thing about these big clunky pieces of hardware is it makes the VR more ethical.
Lanier: Yeah, absolutely. So the deal here— So what is the difference between a magician and a charlatan? The difference is that the magician announces the trick, right. And in fact you can even know how a trick works and appreciate a magician even moreso, right? So the deceit isn’t the core of magic, right, it’s the artistry.
And so I think the question is how do you announce the trick in virtual reality? You must announce the trick. And this inclination that many people seem to have to want to make the devices as invisible as possible, or even to sort of just be in VR are all the time, strikes me as being both preposterous and missing the point, and also unethical because it it then fails to announce.
I call it preposterous because like, to me VR is beautiful. Like, a well-crafted virtual world experience can be extraordinary. And then to say, “Oh, this should just be on all the time,” it’s like somebody telling me, “Oh, you like classical music? We’ll just leave it on all the time.” And, “Oh, you like wine? Well you should drink it alll the time all day long.” I mean it’s just like, not the way you treat something you love. It just makes no sense at all to me.
Mason: A lot of people fear that virtual reality is going to diminish their experience of the world but you believe that it’s going to heighten perception.
Lanier: Right. Well, back in the old days…I’m so old. But back like in the 80s, my favorite trick in giving a VR demo was to put like a flower out on the table while somebody was in the VR experience. And then when they’d come out they’d look at this flower— You should try that. There’s this way that it sort of pops into hyperreality because you start— You’ve given your nervous system a chance to adjust to something else, so it re-engages with this physical world freshened. And I think that’s the greatest joy of virtual reality, really. That’s the very best thing there is.
Mason: But the sorts of VR experiences that we’re getting today and the sorts of things that people think of virtual reality such as 360 video, that’s not really VR, is it?
Lanier: Well, 360 video, which is another thing by the way we were doing at the time. We had a product called VideoSphere that achieved that back in the 80s. Although analog…tape…it was all very hard to do, but anyway. I think the spherical videos might turn into a genre of their own. Like that might be something that persists but it’s important understand what it is and what it isn’t. I’m a little sad that it doesn’t have its own name and that it’s being called virtual reality because the problem of course is that it’s not interactive and it doesn’t— I think it really doesn’t get to even the beginning of the core of the beauty of virtual reality.
But on the other hand, some of them are very…they can be very good for what they are. And they can also be important. I mean I think as documentary and empathy-generating mechanisms they have been important. There’ve been some very good ones made.
The problem is they could also be very effective at lying. So once again we have to get the underlying economics and power structure right or whatever good they can do will be nullified. But I’m not willing to just diss them. I think they’re a thing in their own right. I think they’re important. It’s like saying oh, forget that black and white photography, it’s just a passing phase. I actually think black and white photography is a thing that persists because it has its own beauty, and some of these things have integrity and we shouldn’t just think of them as only having value because they’re on the way to something else.
Mason: I mean, what is the sort of virtual reality experiences that you are at least hoping for? What sort of words do you want to build?
Lanier: Well, for me… First of all let me mention there’s a lot of great work being done now, and I like to take the opportunity to mention younger designers. And so I’ll mention for instance Chris Milk, who did a work called [“Life of Us”] which is really a lot… It’s a lot like the sort of thing I used to love the best. Your body morphs through evolutionary phases where you turn into different creatures. And it’s social with other people and it’s got a lot of energy to it. He had to do it in a way that it’s a sort of a timed, sequential experience because it’s intended to be shown with docents in public places. So it’s not the sort of thing where you explore at your own pace. But I think it’s a successful… People have tried it? No, okay. Well, anyway I think it’s a really good one.
As far as things I want to build, there’s… Oh god, I can mention something. I’ll mention some other things as we go through the conversation. But what I notice now is that the small independent designers are in my opinion doing the best work. Although, some of the big studios do good things, too. But a lot of the best qualities of VR come out in the smallest details that can be done by small teams working with very little expense, actually, if they’re careful.
For myself, the goal I’ve always dreamed of the most is some sort of improvisatory system where you’re inside and you play like virtual musical instruments or some other sort of thing. And by doing that you can change the world in any way and invent the world while you’re in it, and co-invent it with other people so it becomes a shared intentional waking-state dream, as one used to say.
And the method of creating tools that are capable of that is still elusive. I’ve tried a lot of different ways to do it, and I still believe it can be done. And I actually have a whole thing in the book about that and the prospects for it. But that’s the thing I’d most love to see.
Mason: You talk about that problem with the software that’s used to create virtual reality is often on a laptop, on a two-dimensional laptop, you can’t jump into VR and create just yet.
Lanier: Yeah, this thing of designing it in some programming language and then jumping in is…ridiculous. I mean that’s completely missing the point.
And I should mention something else. The way a lot of the companies have set up stores where you download an experience and then you’re experiencing it, is also wrong because it should be closer to like Skype than to Netflix. There should be live interactions, but also there should be a role for live performers in it. There should be a whole new world of people who are sort of like puppeteers, or dungeon masters or whatever you might call them who are improvisatory performers within virtual worlds, where that’s actually the main point. Because that’s just much more appropriate to the medium than thinking of it as a download. And I think that there’s been a real category error in the nascent virtual reality industry on that point.
Mason: Well why do you think we’ve run down this path of trying to re-present reality as it is and turn it into virtual worlds? Why do all these virtual worlds looks so familiar? Why aren’t we creating othered experiences?
Lanier: Well, I mean some— There are— As I say, I mean I think there are really good designer, so I should focus on them rather than the crap, of which there’s a lot. So I’ll mention Vi Hart. She does math explication virtual reality experiences, but they’re extraordinary for learning how to walk around in four-dimensional spaces or something. And she has a wonderful group of people who build these things and they’re just fantastic.
So I’ll mention another one. The thing is, let’s focus on the good stuff. I mean, why are there so many bad movies? I mean my god. I don’t think there’s any like, explanation needed for why there’s so much crap in any given medium. I think that’s kind of—
Mason: But what I worry—
Lanier: Or maybe there is but it’s an old mystery, not a new one.
Mason: But where I worry is people are coming to virtual reality and having these very kind of vapid experiences where the agency is—especially in a 360 video—the agency is that of the director. They don’t get to have this kind of elating, individualist—
Lanier: I know. It’s a big problem, you know. I’m really kind of bummed about that. I’m really kind of bummed that a lot of people think they’ve experienced virtual reality, and what they’ve actually experienced is something that was pretty shoddy. And that’s a drag.
But you know what? I mean… I just think that that’s what it’s like when a new medium comes along. I mean I think when cinema started there was a lot of stupid stuff that people saw first, you know. I mean that’s honestly true. We like to remember the high points but, there was actually a lot of crap.
For one of my earlier books I started looking at what books other than the Bible were printed when the printing press became available, and it was not all great. There was a lot of really stupid stuff. So you know, I don’t know what motivates people to put all this work into making something that’s really shoddy and stupid. But that’s true for like— You know, you look at a movie and like why—they had all this money. And then they threw it into this thing that you could tell that everybody who’s making it knows it’s a piece of crap. Like why? Why not to stop and say, “Hey, we’re making a piece of crap. Let’s spend this money on making a better thing.” Like, why don’t they just stop for like— I don’t know why. I mean it’s like one of the great enduring mysteries. I just— I don’t get it but that’s what happens.
Mason: Well there’s truly great virtual reality. And not great in terms of the content but great in terms of what it’s able to do to the human individual. So we’ve already seen that virtual reality can be effective at helping cure PTSD. It can be effective as morphine at pain treatment. You can create empathy—
Lanier: Can I comment on both of those for a second?
Mason: Please, yeah.
Lanier: Yeah. Those are interesting to me in different ways. On the PTSD treatment, this is a case where I was initially really cynical about it. When people started doing research in that I thought, “Oh this is just too cute.” This sounds like somebody just wanting headlines. It’s like, it’ll be really catchy. Oh yeah, we’ll use VR to treat these things. But the clinical results came in and they were replicated, and it turned out to be a real thing. So that was a case where I was a little too cynical.
And then the other one you mentioned on pain relief. One of my students who’s now—she’s just become a professor in the medical school at Cornell in New York, Andrea Won, came up with an amazing thing. Can I tell you about it?
Mason: Please. You can’t set it up like that and not tell us.
Lanier: Well I don’t know. So, everybody here will know the difference between what we can now call classical occlusive virtual reality and mixture—also known as augmented reality. So what she did is she took a population of people who had chronic pain but localized, and put them in social settings with mixed reality headsets. Meaning that they still saw the physical world but with extra stuff. And then they would paint on their bodies where the pain was. And it could look like a virtual tattoo or a Band Aid or something. And then it actually stuck with them. And to get that to happen is a whole tech problem. It’s not gonna happen with an off-the-shelf HoloLens. But anyway, it happened in the laboratory setting.
And so they had these artificial tattoos that were persistent. And then gradually, over weeks and months, they started to dissipate, and we didn’t tell them it was going to happen. And then a statistically significant number reported their pain dissipating. Isn’t that cool? Yeah.
And then just as a reminder, every time somebody identifies a technique of that kind, precisely the opposite horrible, sadistic version of it is also hypothetically available. So it all comes down to incentives, power structures, ethics, society. Like, there’s no such thing as a computer that’s going to be ethical on your behalf, or kind on your behalf. That’s up to you—it’s up to all of us. So this is not like some panacea story. It’s actually a challenging story if you understand the whole dynamic.
Mason: I was going to ask, if we’ve proven that virtual reality has these wonderful egalitarian uses and changes the mind and changes the body, then can it be used to inversely not just cure trauma but invoke trauma?—
Lanier: Hell yes.
Mason: Could reality be the ultimate mind control device?
Lanier: Yeah. Virtual reality has the potential to be the creepiest invention. That’s absolutely correct. This has also been studied. So I have a co-researcher and friend named Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford. And we’ve been studying how changing avatars changes people. So here are some things that have been not only published in peer-reviewed journals but replicated in multiple places.
One is you can make somebody more racist without them realizing you did it to them. You can make somebody less confident in a negotiation without them realizing you did it to them. You can make somebody more likely to buy something they don’t need without them realizing you did it to them. And the list goes on.
Mason: So this sounds like Facebook again.
Lanier: Well see that’s the thing. That’s what must not be allowed to happen. So Facebook simply has to change its business plan before Oculus gets any good.
Mason: So what’s the solution for that? Is it government regulation of VR and…?
Lanier: Well, I mean I think the solution is just to talk like this until they’re shamed into doing it. I know that sounds crazy. But I think that’s— No, look at look at—you know Sean Parker is with the program. And I’m working on Peter Thiel and we’ll eventually, like this thing is going to crumble. Because it just makes sense. It’s just like what’s happening is too stupid for people of good will who are not stupid to endure. Like they have to just change it.
Mason: I want to talk— Yeah, right. And the fact that there was silence is slightly disturbing, especially from this audience. I was expecting everybody to leave and riot now.
Look, this other thing about VR… Do you think… The folks who see how effective it is, they go back and say, “You know, it’s just like…this thing like psychedelics.” You spent a lot of time I know with Timothy Leary, and they were talking about cyberdelics. And that term is coming back into fashion recently because it kind of proves the efficacy of VR. People say oh, it’s like a cyberdelic experience. And what you actually get is like, 60s visuals with 90s rave music over the top. [Lanier laughs] Well it’s…it’s terrible.
Lanier: That sounds like Burning Man.
Mason: Do you think Timothy Leary would be disgusted by the sorts of VR experiences today? Would he go, “This is not what I meant when I said cyberdelics! This isn’t a psychedelic experience, this is someone’s bad fucking trip.”
Lanier: Well, I have some funny stories about Tim in the book. I knew Tim pretty well. I used to— We had a lot of different— We disagreed a lot. I mean, in a way I had a dialogue with him that was a little like the one with Bill Gibson, where I… I kind of felt at the end of the day that the way he’d presented psychedelics maybe had backfired, and maybe wasn’t so great. Because he was just super utopian about it. And…
There’s a funny story about how I met Tim. so, I’d been complaining to Tim about— I’d been complaining but we’ve been communicating indirectly, mostly through rants in like underground zines, which is what people used to do before there was an Internet, and there’d be like this zine in the back of a book store like this and it’d be terribly printed and it would have like some poetry and weird art and stuff, and then…anyway. So we’d been complaining to each other. And so finally he said, “Okay, lets meet.”
I said, “Great!”
And he said, “Well, I have to teach this course in something or other in Esalen Institute.” Do you all know what that is? It was this super influential kind of very utopian—it’s still there—sort of New Age institute that’s located in the world’s most beautiful location on these cliffs above the ocean with natural hot springs. And it’s where a lot of cultural trends started that are associated with 60s or alternative culture. And it’s been around for for quite awhile. But just a lot of little things like workshops you might go to, or yoga, or food you might eat. A lot of stuff started there. So it’s a really big formative place, culturally.
Anyway. So I said, “Great. I can drive down.” He was coming up from LA. “I’ll drive down and meet you at Esalen, and we can meet.”
And he said, “Well, actually… I really don’t want to teach this workshop. So what I’ve done is I’ve hired this Timothy Leary impersonator [audience laughter] and I’m going to smuggle him in. He’s going to—” The guy who used to run it—or still runs it—is Michael Murphy. He’s a friend of mine still. “And as as soon as he’s gone, I’m going to just have the impersonator do the rest of my workshop. And what I want you to do is smuggle me out in the trunk of your car past their guard gate so that I can get out of doing this thing. And then smuggle me back right at the end so I can get paid.”
And I was like, “Suuure,” you know? Like, fine. Like, the stuff we do for money in Silicon Valley is a lot less dignified than that… I might as well go for it. So.
I had this really super beat up jalopy that I’d had forever from New Mexico that… Oh, this is a whole— These stories go on and on. But this thing, it was really messed up. It didn’t have back seats. It had hay in the back because I used it to move goats around and stuff. But the trunk was completely filled with early computers, so I had to gather with a friend of mine at Stanford and we were like, dumping these computers that’d been worth a ton today. Like all these really—just to create enough space for him to sit there. And we were like well, would that fit Tim where we created this hole…
And so I went down there and sure, he fit. Although these computers fell on him and he was like, “Oh! Oh!” I think an old Apple Lisa fell on his head is what happened, if you know what that is.
Anyway. So I’m like all tense and like, I’ve never smuggled something past a guard gate before. And I’m like, oh so like I’m gonna be in jail. This is going to be horrible. I’m going to be a party to fraud and some felony and my future’s gone… So I’m driving up and there’s this guard gate and we’re driving up to it. “Hello, hello.”
And then there’s this totally stoned hippie guy who like can’t even look up, just like, “Uhhhh…”
But like, [makes zooming noise] Anyway, that’s how I met Tim.
Mason: So from that meeting you had, you know feelings for how he felt about VR.
Lanier: Oh oh oh. That’s right, you asked a serious question. You’re confusing me.
Mason: I’m about to give up and hand it to our audience in a second, but—
Lanier: That might be wise. I mean, it’s hard to really know what Tim would have said. I know… Tim was a good guy. I mean, he wanted the best for everybody. He um… I mean, I really don’t know what— I think what he might say now is that boy, all those just, you know… I mean, the really interesting questions’s like, what would somebody like William Burroughs say. Because we’ve entered into a period of such darkness. It’s… I don’t know. I mean I think he’d be heartbroken the way we all are.
Mason: But is also a real opportunity with VR to imagine some of these alternative business models that you’re talking about. So the thing with the virtual reality platform is that its reliant on capturing a degree of human data. And we may get to the stage where we’re creating these experiences through capturing neuro data and bio data. Could virtual reality be the platform that reimburses the individual in exchange for that sort of data?
Lanier: I’d like it. I mean…so here’s the thing. If data comes from you, and you’re in control of it, and it has an influence on what you experience, that’s one thing. If that is meshed with influence from some unseen paid person who gets in the middle of the loop and influences what comes back to you as a result of your own data, that is manipulation and that’s the end of humanity. We cannot survive that.
So one of the things that’s fortunate is that it’s very easy to define where the problem is, because it’s an information flow. There must not be an information influence from unknown third parties on how the feedback loop works—that must be up to you. So that’s the first thing to say.
And then there’s a very nice fallout from that, which is that’s also a path to enduring human dignity as the technology gets better and better. And I’d just like to explain maybe a bit about that before we take questions? Is that okay?
Mason: Please, yeah.
Lanier: Right. So what’s been happening now is we steal data from people, and then we use the data to feed artificial intelligence algorithms. But because we call them artificial intelligence algorithms instead of just algorithms, we have to create this fantasy that these things are alive, that they’re free-standing. And so then we give this message to the people we just stole from, that they’re no longer needed and their only hope for survival as the algorithms get better is that they’ll become wards of the state on basic income or something. And it’s a very cruel, stupid, demeaning lie.
The clearest example I’ve found for introducing this idea to people who haven’t heard it before is with language translation. So the people who translate between languages, like between English and German let’s say, they’ve seen a drastic reduction in their life options. It’s similar to what’s happened to photographers, to recording musicians, to investigative journalists, to many others. And the reason why is that the stupid little translations, like translating memos, can now be done automatically. And by the way I love these automatic services. They’re not great. I don’t want to see my book translated by Bing Translate. But on the other hand I’ll use it for a memo or something.
But here’s the thing. In order for these automatic systems to work we have to steal tens of millions of example phrases, from all over the world, in all the languages, from people who don’t know they’re being stolen from, who are never acknowledged and never paid. And we’re telling those people that they deserve to not be employed anymore because they’re no longer needed because they’re being replaced by automation, when in fact they’re still needed and they’re still the basis of everything and it’s not an automation, it’s just a new, better channeling of what they do.
So the dishonesty in that is cruel and horrible but it’s also creating an absolutely unnecessary pessimism about the future, that people won’t be needed when in fact they will be. It’s one of the things that gets me really angry. Because there’s this dogma “oh, it’s AI, we’re creating AI.” That’s been at the root of my hostility towards like artificial creatures and stuff, because it ultimately does destroy not just human dignity but just the basic mechanisms of humans being able to make their way.
Luke Robert Mason: And on that note, we’re going to hand this back to some humans. And I’m going to do two things. I’m going to hand you a different mic, Jaron, so you’re a little more comfortable.
Jaron Lanier: No no no, I’m good. I’m good. Is this—can you hear me? Yeah yeah, okay. Everything’s working.
Mason: Alright. The one next to you’s a little louder. I might transfer you over. So are there any questions? Eva.
Eva Pascoe: Hi. Thank you very much for fantastic stories. We had the pleasure of hosting you at Cybersalon a good few years ago when one of the early Aibo dogs had just been released. And I remember you took a strong dislike to the Aibo dog.
Lanier: Mm hm.
Pascoe: What’s your view of Sony bringing it back, as they just announced?
Lanier: Well, um…I think they should be smashed. They should all be destroyed. I mean— No, this is really a bad thing. I… If you believe in a robot dog, in the same breath you’re believing that you’re worthless in the future—that you’ll be replaced. It’s a form of suicide for you, for the reasons I just explained. It’s economic suicide and ultimately it’s spiritual suicide. And I feel that strongly about it.
Now, that said there could be special cases. So if there’s somebody that for whatever reason is made happy by this device and it helps them because of their very special issues or problems, of course I’m not going to start judging people on an individual basis.
But overall it’s a really bad idea. It’s a bad idea in the sense that… I don’t know, it’s just like— It’s truly a…it’s an anti-human idea. I expressed a theory the other day in a piece in The Times that the reason cat videos are so popular online is that cats are a special creature in they weren’t domesticated by us like dogs. They’re not obedient. They’re independent. They came along and demanded that they live with us, but they’ve kept their independence. And there’s this kind of self-directedness of cats which we love, and we see it in the videos. And it’s exactly the thing we’re losing in ourselves. So when we see cat videos online, we’re looking at the part of ourselves that’s disappearing. That’s the longing that’s expressed. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have a robot cat.
Audience 2: Jaron, could you talk—
Lanier: Oh is that Kathlyn? [sp?]
Audience 2: Yes.
Lanier: Oh hey!
Audience 2: Hello! The musical instruments, and the user interface, and the future of art in a positive evolution of technology.
Mason: Wonderful question.
Lanier: Well, I have an addiction problem with musical instruments. I have… I don’t know the count but it’s well over a thousand. And I play them. And I’m just a nutcase about it. And I’m not bragging, I actually am confessing. Because it’s really a sickness and it reduces the amount of air there is for my daughter and wife to breathe in our home. And it prevents us from ever being able to walk from one point to another in our home in a straight line.
But I love them for a bunch of reasons. One of them is they’re the best user interfaces ever designed. They’re the most eloquent, highest acuity, of things you can really become virtuosic on. Not just at performing a particular task but at improvising in a broad palette. They’re by far the most expressive and open things that have been designed. That is to say compared to like a really good surgical instrument, which is really designed for a particular thing, a saxophone is designed not for a particular thing. In fact it’s mostly played in a way that has nothing to do with what it was designed for.
So they have this incredible open potential inside them, and people can spend their lives getting better and better and deeper and deeper with them. And that’s what I want most for computers. And I could go on and on about many other qualities of them, but what I hope is that eventually computing will be like musical instruments. It’ll be this thing that people can get deeper and deeper with, that is an open window into a kind of an infinite adventure that is so seductive that it doesn’t have an end. That people keep on growing and growing.
This is a really important point to me. One of the old debates in virtual reality is whether you could ever make a virtual reality system that’s so good that you’re done. That it fools you and that’s it. And I always said well no, you couldn’t. And the reason why is that people are not fixed. That as the VR systems get better, people learn to perceive better. And so it’s not so much that the people are just like these fixed objects, then the VR gets better and then you’re done. No, the people change in response to the VR.
And that process of people growing through their perception of technology is… Well, I used to frame it in almost apocalyptic terms. What I used to say is our job as technologists is to kickstart adventures that are so seductive that they’ll seduce us away from mass suicide. That’s the way I used to talk in my twenties. But I still think something like that’s approximately true. That if our motivation is just more and more power, or more and more efficiency, or more and more optimization, we’ll somehow just destroy ourselves. But if our adventure’s one of ever greater beauty and connection and going deeper and deeper, then actually that’s survivable. That can go on forever. So that’s the one that has to win.
Mason: Question just here, Vinay Gupta.
Vinay Gupta: Hi, this is me calling in from the gods. So, I’m one of the blockchain folks. Although in the 90s I spent my time as a graphics programmer waiting for VR to arrive. This is your fault. What do you think of the blockchain, both the hysteria that surrounds it and also maybe the potential for long-term mature technology. How does that intersect with things like the story about payments will remove the misaligned incentives that produce surveillance capitalism?
Lanier: So. Blockchain, yeah that’s been a question lately, isn’t it? There are a few things to say. The first thing, I’d like to draw a very sharp distinction between blockchain and cryptocurrencies. So let me deal first with one and then the other.
So with blockchain… This sort of thing could be very important. Let’s remember though that the way blockchain works is by explicitly being as inefficient as possible, alright. And so if that really scaled up to run everything, it would be an unconscionable crime against the climate. So the only way to use blockchain as we now understand it, at the scale of computation that would be needed to scale it, would be to find some survivable way. And in all seriousness maybe the blockchain servers have to be on the moon. Or somewhere, you know. And of that might be a good thing to do with the moon. And I’m not being flippant. I’m actually completely serious.
But the other thing is if you imagine some kind of nanopayment system on things like Facebook at a very vast scale, it’s possible that the blockchain idea is like…emphasizes rigor too much. And we need something that’s a bit more…statistical and much much much much much more efficient. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is the whole blockchain thing, as do many other structures, rest on what might be thin ice because we don’t have a formal proof that some of the encryption schemes are really going to withstand… I don’t know. [inaudible audience comment (from Gupta?)] Yeah, I’m a little nervous about that. But that gets to be a kind of a geeky topic, alright.
But now let’s move to cryptocurrencies. So here’s my question to you. Why is every fucking one of the cryptocurrencies that’s been launched to my knowledge a Ponzi scheme? Alright.
Gupta: But all currencies are Ponzi schemes.
Lanier: No, that’s not accurate. All currencies are vulnerable to being Ponzi schemes but they aren’t necessarily. And I’d refer you to Cain’s to understand that. If a currency can be well regulated by well-intentioned people it doesn’t have to be a Ponzi scheme. It can grow and change with a society.
But something like Bitcoin was precisely designed to be a Ponzi scheme. I mean it unfairly and vastly benefits the early arrivals. And then everybody who does well on it later, they have a lowered statistical chance of doing well. But anytime they do well they make the founders do even better. So it is totally a Ponzi scheme, but since it’s so global it just takes a really long time to break compared to like, a Bernie Madoff scheme or something, which is tiny in comparison. So, they’re horrible. And even the ones since Bitcoin that are sort of more enlightened in various ways are still Ponzi schemes. And there’s no like, difficult mathematical mystery to how to make one that isn’t a Ponzi scheme—but they’re all damn Ponzi schemes.
So, the thing is if we can’t get over the grandiosity and greed of people in that community, it’s not worth a thing. So the question is when do we start to make these things that are actually for real?
Mason: That’s what scares me about that community. They want to build Web 3.0, but they’re borrowing the language of Web 2.0? to make individuals believe it’s going to be an easy transition through, and I am deeply deeply concerned with friends and colleagues of mine who are investing in the currencies and not actually realizing that there’s real potential and opportunity in that decentralization, but it all gets thrown up into the memetic power of what day trading currencies is. It’s such a loss.
Lanier: And we might end up with a nasty surprise whenever the identity is revealed of the Bitcoin founder. I mean it could turn out to be Putin or something, so. I don’t know, I mean I think it’s perilous.
Mason: Any other questions at all?
Trudy Barber: Yes, it’s me, Trudy!
Mason: Oh, it’s Trudy Barber, the UK’s leading cybersexpert. [crosstalk] Make this a good one.
Barber: Sorry! In the early nineties as an undergraduate at Central Saint Martins, I created one of the earliest virtual sex environments, making a complete three-dimensional digital space, with floating condoms and all sorts of things in it. What I’m quite interested in is as we’re seeing ideas of you know, the 360 porn industry—which I don’t actually see as some kind of virtual sex experience, I see it as a bit of a gimmick. I’m quite interested in how we are perceiving our sexual identities, or the potential of perceiving our sexual identities, within a proper 3D virtual space where you have interaction, where you have immersion, and how we perceive kind of…that whole idea of the phantom phallus, or the phantom vagina. And the way that we perceive our gendered experience of the world, and how we could really experience and experiment with that in virtual spaces. So what’s your opinion on virtual sex in that context?
Lanier: Yeah. Well, alright so, this is another huge topic that could take a whole week or something so I can only barely prick the surface of.
Mason: Anything you say now, Jaron, this audience is a British audience. They’re going to read innuendo everywhere.
Lanier: I was told that Brits were very delicate and unable to…
Mason: You haven’t met this audience.
Lanier: Okay. So, I’ll say a few things. Let me start with this sort of… Just the— God, how do I even begin here? So what I— Just in the— Oh God. Okay, look. What I think has happened is our ideas about sexuality of the last…going back to the late 1900s, with the very earliest moving images, with heliotropes and all, is we’ve had this very strange kind of artifact orientation around sexuality that turned into porn. Which is… I think it’s hard to remember that things weren’t always that way, which is clear from historical reading.
Now, there’s been been literary porn going back to ancient times and all sorts of stuff and it’s very interesting to read some of that. But there’s this very particular reflection of cinema, which I think has narrowed people. I think it’s created a set of clichés that people grow up with that is unfortunately small, you know. It’s unfortunately limited. And I think in the future we might look back on the cinematic period as one that was profoundly anti-erotic. Because we were stuck in this feedback loop with the things that were easy to film that we would see when we’re young, and that sort of thing
Now, I’m not sure that’s true but I suspect that’s true. And I should also point out that in pre-cinematic literature, a lot of things about gender and sexual identity are in fact more fluid. In ancient literature and even fairly recent literature. I think that cinema had a sort of a cementing effect on us psychically, in a lot of ways. So that might be— I hope that doesn’t sound offensive to any filmmakers in the audience, but.
So when I was young, like in my twenties, I was really fascinated by erotic ideas in virtual reality. But I always thought that representation of like, body parts or something would be the least of it. And I was really interested in like, joining bodies with somebody interactively, trying to control a shared body and learning how to move together. Which is… You can do a little bit dancing and a little bit different ways, but not like this. This is something else, and it’s something really extraordinary that very few people experience these days because I just think for some reason they’re wasting time on stupider stuff.
Barber: Where would you see haptics engaging in this?
Lanier: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. You know, I was talking about the cinematic era having an effect on sexuality, and I suspect that that’s been somewhat more pronounced for male sexuality than for female sexuality. And there’s a whole long discussion one could have about why that might be so if it’s so and all that. And I think as far as the intersection of technology and sexuality, for women it’s already been more haptic. And I…
So one might predict that that’s likely to continue and… In general the haptic modality’s the one that’s the crudest and needs the most work in virtual reality. And it always— Like I’ve seen this again and again and again and again. Every time the stars line up and there’s a bunch of funding for virtual reality work, whether it’s in a corporation or university or something, the lion’s share goes to vision. And then the next biggest portion goes to sound. And then poor haptics, which is the hardest one that really should be at the front of the list, gets kind of like the crumbs. And it’s frustrating. It’s exactly backwards, [crosstalk] but that’s just a repeated problems.
Barber: There is the datafication of haptics starting to happen now, with the recording of sexual responses. And I think maybe that might be a different way forwards, combined with the virtual immersion, where the datafication of pleasure might actually expose different ways that we actually engage with our bodies. And also how it becomes like a commodity that is sold on. Which fits in with some of the other arguments that you say.
Lanier: Well, perhaps so. I mean, the concept of pleasure is one of the— Things like pleasure, and happiness is another one… I wonder if in the future we’ll understand these words to be…much broader and more process-oriented than we do now. Because I have this feeling that people tend to think of pleasure as a sort of…a destination, and happiness as a destination, almost like a formula that’s been fulfilled or equation that’s been solved. And I’m sure that that’s the wrong way to think. And so what I hope is that will expand into much more of an ongoing, infinite process.
One of the books I used to quote all the time in the 80s, and I think I still mention it in the new book—I can’t remember anymore—is called Finite and Infinite Games by James B. Carson. He proposed that just as a— In a first broad-brush way of understanding reality you can divide processes into finite or infinite games, with a finite game being something like a particular…well, a game of football, that has to come to an end. Whereas the overall field of football is infinite and need not come to an end. And so you have to understand which things are finite and which things are infinite. And right now the way we’re approaching technology on many levels is finite. It has to come to an end, which would mean our end. But if we can coax it into its infinite cousin, then we have a means of survival. And that’s true on every level—economically, aesthetically, and on every level.
Barber: Thank you.
Lanier: Sure, thanks for the question.
Mason: Any other questions at all?
Audience 5: Hi. I love the way your opening gambit was to ask us if you’d read a particular book. Which I had, by the way. And you were a bit disappointed that most of us hadn’t. And throughout your talk, actually you talked about books and reading a lot, which might come a surprise to people who think it was going to be much more visual-oriented—
Lanier: Well I am hoping you’ll buy a book. I mean, that’s why I’m— Like I mean. You’re witnessing abject corruption here. And you know, don’t don’t pretend it’s like some elevated state of consciousness. This is raw American salesmanship. [inaudible comment from A5] Yeah okay, go ahead.
Audience 5: So what I wanted to ask you, if it’s not too personal, is what are you reading at the moment?
Lanier: Um. Yeah no, that’s a great question. I’ve been just reading the Lapham’s Quarterly special edition on music, which has all sorts of really interesting ethnomusicology scholarship that I’d never run across before. All sorts of obscure things, and and those are really really fun. And I’ve been reading… Well, Masha Gessen’s book on the decline of Russia, which is a very very sad and terrifying thing to read. And you know, impressive and wonderful but not easy. And I’ve been reading… Let’s see. I’ve been reading Roger Penrose’s book on fads in physics. And I’ve been reading um… God, there’s so much stuff.
I mean, I love reading. I just—I adore reading. And the thing about, I mean… I sometimes wonder what—you know. We have a little bit in ancient literature about people who were skeptical of reading when it was still somewhat fresh and novel. That you know, we’ve been warned that it’ll ruin memory. That it’ll make people weak. And you know what, I think that’s all true. I think that there’s a dark side to reading. But one of things I love about it is people sorted it out. Like, there’s been Mein Kampf, there’s been horrible books, books have been used to manipulate people. And yet we’ve sorted it out, where overall books are this wonderful thing. So as with musical instruments they’re another inspiration for what must happen with computation.
Mason: We probably have time for one or two more questions.
Audience 6: Hello.
Audience 6: It’s great to be here. I want to kind of draw on something that you briefly mentioned, and that’s the idea of empathy, which is becoming particularly prevalent, particularly in the marketing of VR as an empathy machine. And I kind of wondered why you think we should kind of draw the line with that. For example, Mark Zuckerberg saying he felt when he went to Puerto Rico via VR, saying that he felt like he was actually there. And this kind of thing that’s kind of perpetrating in order to sort of market VR as a consumer product. So yeah, I was kind of wanting what your thoughts are on the rhetoric of the empathy machine.
Lanier: Well…sadly what happened in this case is he was, uh— They did this sort of pretty basic cartoonish thing where they had a circle video of being in a flooded and destroyed part of Puerto Rico, with a couple of Facebook executives in as avatars, talking about “how magical and amazing it was to be there and it felt like it was really there!” And then afterwards he apologized, saying, “Oh, I forgot to mention that this was supposed to be about empathy for the people there.” Like he just totally spaced that part out at first and then had to correct himself later.
So yeah, the whole empathy in VR thing used to be my spiel. I kind of started that language. And I mean it can go either way. The truth is there’s nothing automatically empathetic about VR technology. I mean like, what I’m concerned about with the rhetoric of selling it as empathy right now… I mean they stole my shit, that’s fine. But the thing that really bothers me is that it’s suggesting that the technology itself is going to provide empathy, which is…ridiculous. I mean, for god sakes it’s like a gadget you’re buying from some company. It’s not going to be empathic for you. Like that whole notion that empathy comes from the technology is wrong. If technology can help a little bit at the margins to help people express empathy or find empathy, that’s great, but it’s a human thing. And so that miscommunication is just stupid. And this Facebook thing in Puerto Rico was like a great example of how it can go wrong.
There are a few advantages and a few problems to VR as an empathy device. The advantages are that it can convey aspects of human experience that can’t be conveyed by other media. It can convey what it’s physically like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. For instance there’ve been virtual worlds to convey what it’s like to have different physical disabilities or whatever, and I think that that’s really interesting work.
The bad side of it is that if you capture the world suitably to replace something about it in virtual reality, you’ve captured enough of it that it’s easier to fake than if it was just a photograph. And so this is a bit of a subtle technical problem. But if you take a photograph and you want to fake it, if you Photoshop it, there’s some things that are very…there are traces that are very hard to fully cover. So you can write programs to find the little weird patterns that are left over from that operation. So there’s at least a little bit of a film of protection if you can get at the original digital file. Of course if somebody’s just done a low-res version of it or something, then at a certain point you just are stuck.
But if you’ve really captured a virtual world… Like, let me give you an example. Let’s say you take a photo of something and you want to change what appeared to happen so that you’re trying to generate an outrage machine based on shitposting fake news instead of something real. Which is the more typical thing these days. That’s more common than an attempt to tell the truth. Lying has been amplified like a million times while the truth has been only amplified by like three times or something. It’s like a complete inequity.
And so let’s say you’re trying to lie by changing a photograph. Well, you have to look where all the shadows lie. You have to make it consistent. And there’s not going to be any algorithm that does that completely perfectly. You have to sit there and look at it.
But if you’ve captured it volumetrically, then all you have to do is move the sun. I mean, you all of a sudden have turned it into a simulation, and a simulation is parameterized and so it’s easier to change. So suddenly you can lie with it better.
So, the empathy thing is real. I spent many hours promoting the idea of virtual reality as an empathy machine in the 80s. It’s legit in a sense, but it’s all about you. The machine can’t do a damn thing for you.
And I… I don’t know. This idea— I don’t— Techies just don’t seem to be able to…take a human-centric approach sometimes. They just really have to think of the tech as being where the action is. And it never never never is. It isn’t even real without us.
Mason: So, Jaron, I’m going to ask you one final question. Because the Virtual Futures audience span about twenty-five years. It’s an intergenerational audience. And how can we better work together to change some of the issues that you raised, and together create a more desirable future?
Mason: Or are we just…fucked? We just…there’s no hope.
Lanier: You know, the speaking truth to power thing is still legit. Like, just… I mean I think in a way it’s just sort of pointing it out, really helps, you know. I’d be either trying to stop using social media, or use it very carefully and differently than you have or something. All the people trying to change the world with social media, as I’ve explained earlier, are completely undoing themselves at every turn and you have to learn to overcome that addictive illusion. And I think you have to turn to other institutions that are still standing.
And I’m worried about us saving our governments. I’m just afraid that it’s become so distorted that it might—that we’re all falling apart here. So I think just trying to save governments is a good project right now. We used to worry about them being too powerful and now I feel like they’re so fragile they could just vanish.
Mason: Well is it a case of what expands contracts? I mean, the technocracy is the replacement of the government and we’re hoping that the government now is going to be the thing that fixes the technocracy, and we’re just going to continue to see this expansion and contraction between the government, technocracy, government, technocracy.
Lanier: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean it’s a funny thing. If we think of the tech companies as the replacement for government… Which a lot of people are doing. I mean it’s true to some degree already. I mean, the good news is that the people who run the tech companies are still kind of relatively young and they’re almost all really nice. I mean…they’re good people, you know. I mean like, in a choice between Zuck and Trump I mean obviously Zuck, right? I mean there’s not even a…
But the problem is that the amount of wealth and power that is concentrated in the tech companies is so great that we can’t just think about the current batch of cute kids there, you know. We have to think about who’ll inherit the power. And when power is concentrated it tends to be inherited by less attractive figures. So, Bolsheviks were cuter than Stalinists, let’s say, right. And so with Facebook, it’s the first large public corporation controlled by a single person, and that has to be inherited somehow. There has to be some kind of way that turns to something else. And there are all the scheming, horrible people in the world, you know, and who owns it like in a hundred years if it continues to be what it is?
So I think that the tech companies, as government, are the least representative governments ever, you know. I mean even less so than a royal—like a… I mean, I think even like someplace with a royal family like Saudi or something still has to be a little conscious of whether the people are going to totally revolt. Whereas something like Facebook has a kind of degree of impunity because everybody’s addicted. It’s a completely different relationship that favors them in a way that citizenship doesn’t necessarily favor a state.
Mason: Well, on that note I hope there’s at least a little hope. And hopefully—
Lanier: I’m full of hope. I just uh…I’m a realist, though. I mean I think you can be a hopeful optimistic realist, and it’s just…it’s just work, that’s all.
Mason: So, hopefully this audience will keep doing exactly what you said. Keep having these issues out in public. And on that note I want to have a couple of thank yous. Firstly to the Library Club for hosting us. The Library Club, they are a wonderful venue. They’re very kind to us for having us here.
And a massive thank you to Cybersalon and to Eva Pascoe. And it’s because of Cybersalon— This was a free invite-only event, and because of Cybersalon we’re able to cover our film costs. And everything that’s going to be produced and released under Creative Commons so you can remix however you like.
Lanier: Part of what’s destroying the world as I pointed out.
Mason: Really? Alright, I’ll stick it behind a paywall and you can all pay us more.
Lanier: No no no no. You’d have to pay them because they created it.
Mason: Alright, I’ll pay you to watch the video. [audience laughter] Ugh. So look, we’re entirely audience-funded, and I don’t know what you’re going to say about Patreon but if you like what we do [Lanier laughs] please support us. I don’t know, just…buy me a beer?
And you can find out more about Virtual Futures at “virtualfutures” pretty much anywhere online. And of course a massive thank you to Penguin Books who’re on the balcony. And Jaron’s signed a bunch of books that’re available for sale. So please don’t all rush up there because they’re gonna get hounded. But the books are available and for sale at the back. And thank you to the Penguin team for making this possible.
And I want to end with this, which is how we end every single Virtual Futures. And it’s with a warning. Because the future is always virtual, and some things that may seem imminent or inevitable never actually happen. Fortunately, our ability to survive the future is not contingent on our capacity for prediction, although, and in those much more rare occasions, something remarkable does come of staring the future deep in the eyes and challenging everything that it seems to promise. I hope you feel you’ve done that today, and assuming that this isn’t an impersonator, please put your hands together and join me in thanking the incredible Jaron Lanier.