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Chapter 17

THE PRODIGY

Jaron Lanier



THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): When we get a century or so into this revolution, Jaron Lanier is going to prove to be one of the most prominent, deep thinkers. As brilliant as Jaron is, we only have a vague glimpse that there's somebody very special in our midst. This is an intelligence that comes once in a generation. It's not an exaggeration to say it's a little bit like meeting a Mozart.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL.


Jaron Lanier leads a curious, double life. First, he is a member of the computer-science community and computer industry. He is the best-known pioneer of virtual reality and the founder and former CEO of VPL, one of the first companies to develop this technology. Second, he is a composer, performer, and recording artist. In addition to playing the piano and other Western instruments, he plays ancient instruments from around the world. Jaron is "The Prodigy."

"There is something extraordinarily similar between doing science and playing music," he says, "but this is true only for playing music on noncomputerized instruments. When you play music on an acoustic instrument, there is a fundamental sense in which you are directly contacting the physical universe as a source of mystery. You can play the piano for twenty or thirty years and still learn new things about it. You become more and more sensitive to it. It is a bottomless source, not containable by any set of ideas. Every time you think you have completely contained it, something new is revealed." But science, Jaron feels, is an extraordinarily humble activity in the sense that you can never believe anything. The scientist builds up a very fragile and temporary island in the middle of the sea of mystery of the physical world, creating theories that are all temporary and subject to being disproved. "Both the scientist and the musician are in contact with this fundamental mysteriousness," he notes, "which I find very spiritual in its humility."

He asks us not to consider computers as things that exist in their own right, but to look at them as artifacts that allow us to understand the way in which we are all connected. "Computers make our abstractions real," he says. "The danger is that they can limit our interaction with the fundamental mysteriousness of the world, which is the source. A nice expression for this is drinking your own whisky. You can't simply be recycling your own ideas. You can't make music forever out of what you call notes or the notes cease to have any meaning." Jaron asks us in all interactions with computers to continuously go back to the source of the mysterious part of the universe. "We can't simply be reshuffling a deck of cards of ideas that we have already programmed into the computers," he says. "That's exactly the source of blandness and shallowness that you can see in computer content."

Blandness and shallowness are not words people use to describe Jaron. In fact, Ebony magazine once named him "Black Artist of the Month." (Jaron is white.) I saw him recently on stage in an avant-garde theatre in the SOMA district of San Francisco. He was performing with The Perks, a multimedia dance company, which is led by one of his close collaborators, the dancer Rebecca Stenn. Jaron, standing in the shadows seemed to be a modern-day Minotaur, swaying to and fro, the semi-nude Rebecca swirled around him. It was dazzling.

THE PRODIGY (Jaron Lanier): The new media are different from the old media, of course, but one of the primary ways is not just in content, but in the solidification of our method of thinking. What we see with interactive media like the Web is not only the end result of the creative process, but the creative process itself, set down for all people to see and to share. This is extraordinarily exciting. It is also scary, because software has an unfortunate quality sometimes called brittleness. Pieces of software work together only if they're compatible, and once a piece of software has become pervasive, it tends to persist eternally because other pieces of software have been built on top of it and rely on it. Therefore we might now be depositing a codification of our method of thinking, our method of doing culture, that could persist for many generations.

The main thing that computer-based media does that's entirely new to the world is to make abstractions real. Take music: If you play an acoustic instrument, you are essentially growing more and more sensitive to this piece of the mysterious physical world. It's the same mysterious physical world that scientists study without ever fully knowing, and approach with successively better theories but ultimately can never touch. Musicians approach a physical instrument in the same way, striving to learn it but ultimately never knowing it. In particular, the abstractions we associate with music, such as the existence of notes, don't have any objective reality; they are just interpretations. But when you use computers in music, for the first time notes actually exist. In a computer, the program must be built out of ideas. All of a sudden, instead of ideas being your interpretation of reality, they become reality. This can be very exciting; it can also be very scary.

One of the processes that concerns me is what I call the "Karma Vertigo Effect." We have an extraordinary amount of what you could call karma in this generation, because this generation is creating the computer network and the infrastructure of computer software that will be running for a thousand years. I call it the Karma Vertigo Effect because when you realize how much karma we have in this generation, you get vertigo!

Can this solidification of abstractions affect us in ways that might be even more important to us than the nature of musical notes? Can they affect the future politics of commerce? Yes, they can. A good example is the recent controversy over the Clipper Chip and related issues, in which privacy would be determined by the layer of technology created for future layers to be built on top of. The Clipper Chip was a proposal from the intelligence communities for a chip that would be used essentially universally for digital communications, to provide a reasonable degree of encryption security between civilians communicating with each other. You could send a confidential message, a cash transaction, or something of that sort to another person, but a back door would give the government universal access to the information for itself. The argument in favor of the chip is that it would help with the capturing and prosecution of child pornographers, terrorists, and other bogeymen. The argument against it is that the whole idea in American government is never to trust the government that much. The proposal has been defeated, although the idea behind it has certainly not been defeated.

Perhaps the area in which this process of abstractions being made permanent by computer technology could have the most profound effect lies in our definition of who we are, our definition of personhood. This is where computer science intersects with spirituality and politics, in a curious way. I hold an opinion that is not in the majority in the computer community. Many people active with computers believe that the world simulated inside the computer eventually could have the same status as the physical world, once computers get good enough. Many people would think that I was one of the originators of that idea because of virtual reality, which might at first pass seem to suggest that kind of equivalence. That is not at all what virtual reality suggests.

What I love about virtual reality is the notion that computers could provide a way for people to share their imaginations with each other in new ways. I am not interested in replacing the physical world or creating a substitute for it. I am excited about the notion that you could get beyond this dilemma that we all live with; namely, that we have infinite imaginations and are completely free so long as we retreat into our heads, into our dreams, into our daydreams, and make everyone else disappear, but as soon as we want to share this with other people, we become very much not free. I would like virtual reality to provide a way out of that dilemma, where you have a world that's fully objective like the physical world, but also completely fluid like the imagination.

The strongest statement of that idea is artificial intelligence, the idea that a computer and a person are essentially the same thing, except that a person is better, and once computers get better, once they get faster and the software is worked out, they can essentially be the same. It is profoundly important to get to the core of this idea, because one's whole aesthetic in using computer media flow from where you stand on this issue. The notion of artificial intelligence first conceived in 1936 by English mathematician Alan Turing, who in 1950 wrote a paper, known as the "Turing Test," in which he proposed that if a computer and a person are both trying to convince you that they're the same, and you can't tell the difference, then you have no basis for believing they're different, and you have to decide that people and computers are the same. The flaw in the idea is that even though it is true‹that if a computer and a person become indistinguishable, it might mean that the computer has become very smart and humanlike‹another equally good interpretation is that the person has become stupid and computerlike. That's what I see as the danger. If people believe in computers too much, if they believe in computer simulation, if they believe in the ideas and abstractions of the computer as being fully real, then people will have a tendency to reduce themselves to support that illusion.

Do we think of computers as things that exist in their own right, or do we think of them as conduits between us? We should treat computers as fancy telephones, whose purpose is to connect people. Information is alienated experience. Information is not something that exists. Indeed, computers don't really exist, exactly; they're only subject to human interpretation. This is a strong primary humanism I am promoting. As long as we remember that we ourselves are the source of our value, our creativity, our sense of reality, then all of our work with computers will be worthwhile and beautiful.

The key to the Web is that the market itself built it. It wasn't created by studio moguls somewhere who said it was what everyone wanted. The Web was created by the users. This is a hard thing for traditional media businesses to get used to. But if they do accept it, the benefit is going to be a huge business.

The Web has taught us some amazing things about what content is going to be like in the next century. Before the Web arose so suddenly, people were promoting the idea of online content, but America Online, CompuServe, and other online services were doing it completely the wrong way. They thought that you should package a bunch of services with practical value, "entertainment value," and people would pay for them just like they pay for cable TV. A few people did. But all of a sudden, after the enormous amount of money spent promoting these online services, the Web arose and instantly surpassed the online services, without any planning, without any capital, without any marketing, without any advertising. Why did the Web succeed so quickly? What created this explosion? The answer is simple: the Web allowed people to be creative. This is what people want. People derive an existential pleasure from being their own guides, from being their own stars.

One of the metaphors I use when talking about this is Californians and cars. If you give Californians the option to take a bus between locations, which would be faster, cheaper, easier, they'll still take the car. Why? Well, because there's an existential pleasure to the car. It's your car. You chose it to express yourself, it has your stuff in it, and you feel free and in control in it even if you're not. It's a powerful force that is hard to give up once you've tasted it. The Web gives people that same pleasure for the first time in computer media, and now they can't give it up. The key to the Web's success is that people can go where they want, when they want, and they can even put their own stuff up. Equally important is that there is a freedom about the Web that is created by the mystery or lack of knowledge about what's there. The Web has a very erotic quality. You know that just around the corner, just around the next link, there might be something amazing, and so you're driven to explore, to keep on tracking that next link. That self-sufficiency makes the Web so intoxicating.

The worst thing in the world would be to try to turn computer networks into movies-on-demand, to say that cable TV is what people want. We can view the Web as a market test that already proves that this is not what content means in the future. It is the first true anarchy in history; there's never been one before. This comes as shocking information. It turns out that, free from the constraints of real estate, people actually can live in an environment of anarchy and mysteriousness and lack of known boundaries‹and thrive. It's quite wonderful.

One of the ways to make money on the Web is by helping people connect with each other in an easy-flowing way. The world is so large, so diverse, that merely providing a connection over a network is not enough. You also have to provide community. It is also a bit like real-estate development. A good piece of real estate, developed well, has a kind of magic that attracts people, businesses, and the right kind of traffic. Good developers have a touch that not-so-good developers don't have. Cyberspace is similar. If you can create meeting points, where people of like mind and like spirit want to connect with each other, they'll pay to be there. You are like the MC. The crowd makes the party, but without the MC the party doesn't get started. People are willing to pay at the door to go to a party with a great MC, even though they themselves are making the party. They are the cocreators. It is exactly the same principle.

Web-site creators are going to become the talent on which new media empires are created. They are analogous to the "tummeler" from the old borscht belt, the people planted in the audience to rile folks up and get them happy. People will be paid to be out in the interactive world as moderators or entertainers, or to serve some other spontaneous, live, real-time, and very human function. That is a step removed from where we are now because it assumes a higher bandwidth network than we currently have. Even the old content is going to be mediated by the live communities that I have been talking about. The community becomes everything; it becomes all important.

Another aspect to content, which is harder to talk about because it is unfolding before us, is what we call interactivity. We don't entirely know what interactivity is yet. We know that the experience of playing with interactive machines brings an unexpected pleasure. We know that when people are, for instance, surfing the Web, they are experiencing an existential pleasure. We have traditionally thought of content as being things like text and pictures, which are somewhat solidified in form and might be accessed interactively. But people who had the opportunity to grow up with computers have a much deeper understanding of what interactivity means.

Interactivity is a style of concrete conversation with the media. It is a way that you dance with the computer. For instance, the fact that the Macintosh is visual is not important. What is important is the rhythm of interaction; there is a feeling to it that ultimately is quite hard to articulate. The creation of that feeling is not easy. Certain people can do it, rather like artists. There are no textbooks that explain how to do it. It is a new art form. I'm convinced that the next generation of folks, the generation that grew up with computers, is going to be more sensitive to the flow of interactivity.

As the channels for getting information increase, another issue is the critical need for confidence in the information that you get. The current notion of how you get that confidence is by branding: this information is from a well-known consultant or analyst and therefore is reliable. That will not be sufficient in the future: there will also be a desire to get other kinds of information‹factual information about the world, statistics, and so forth. There will be so many channels to get it from that some channels will have false information. Being able to provide people with a basis for believing in what they get over the network will become important. The challenge of providing information reliably and with confidence is not going to be easy to meet. A news or information-gathering organization will face the same problems that an individual will. People will pay to know what is real.


THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Jaron is a case of childlike genius. He's incredibly good at stating the previously unconceived obvious in simple, elegant terminology. Jaron is the person who said to me what is probably the most important thing anybody ever said to me in defining my digital mission‹"information is alienated experience." Suddenly a lot of things became clear to me.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): It was 1982 or '83 when I met Jaron at a consumer electronics show. He had licensed his [VR] glove to a small software company. I can't remember the company name. They were going to sell this thing for around forty-nine dollars, and, of course, the product never got beyond the price point. But I remember him. Once you meet him you'll never forget him.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Jaron Lanier is one of the oddest people I've ever met. Really interesting ideas. It seems that he's unable to translate them into business practices.

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): Jaron's mind is omnivorous. He seems the utter brilliant dilettante, and then he bears down and makes fine music or a whole genre (virtual reality).

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Jaron is right about so many things, but who's listening? The problem is that he's not just a little bit ahead of the curve; he's created his own curve.

THE CONSERVATIVE (David Gelernter): Jaron Lanier is a fascinating guy. The virtual reality he pioneered is a lovely technology, but the people who designed and built it better get out into the real world and start learning what people actually do with computers. The technology is beautiful but it's going to be dead and buried fairly soon unless they come up with interesting applications. The most exciting ones have to do with visualizing the internals of software itself, and they've barely been touched.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): I often think Jaron is too far out, but I don't argue with people I don't respect. I love arguing with Jaron, because he's worth fighting with.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): Jaron Lanier? He's a wacky guy. What can I say?

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold):
The most interesting things Jaron Lanier does haven't been done yet. He created the virtual reality industry as we see it, by recognizing very early what its potential was and by bringing his unique kind of entrepreneurial business spirit and his deep technical knowledge. He got sucked into the celebrity of being "Mr. VR" and it spun him around like a whirlpool and spit him out. Somewhere down the line, five years from now, my wish is that he's going to do something very interesting that has nothing to do with virtual reality.

THE EVANGELIST (Lew Tucker): I have always been intrigued by Jaron's view that technology changes the way people relate to each other. Even in virtual reality, it is the interaction between participants that brings life to an artificial world.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): I still remember the first time I saw Jaron I couldn't believe it. I remember the last time I saw Jaron‹I still can't believe it. My memory is caught up with what seems like the innocent and poetic truth of what he says, covered like a sesame bagel with bits of twinkle, humor, and creativity.


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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.