He’s the Sil­i­con Val­ley vi­sion­ary who gave vir­tual re­al­ity to the world – and even a demo to the Dalai Lama. Now, in a new mem­oir-cum-man­i­festo, Jaron Lanier re­counts his sad, un­usual child­hood and calls for a re-eval­u­a­tion of our ties with the dig­i­tal en


Tech pi­o­neer Jaron Lanier tel tells Tim Adams about his dif­fi­cult ch child­hood and the fu­ture of VR

Jaron Lanier has writ­ten a book about vir­tual re­al­ity, a phrase he coined and a con­cept he did much to in­vent. It has the heady ti­tle Dawn of the New

Every­thing . But it’s also a tale of his grow­ing up and when you read it, what you re­ally want to talk to him about is par­ent­ing. Lanier is 57, but his child­hood as he de­scribes it was so sad and so cre­ative and so ex­treme, it makes him al­most seem fated to pur­sue al­ter­na­tive worlds.

Lanier’s par­ents met in New York. His mother, Lilly, blond and light­skinned and Jewish, had some­how talked her way out of a “pop-up con­cen­tra­tion camp” in Vi­enna af­ter the An­schluss, aged 15. The fam­ily of his fa­ther, Ellery, had es­caped a mur­der­ous pogrom in Ukraine. They met as part of a cir­cle of artists in Green­wich Vil­lage in the 1950s. Lilly was a painter and a dancer, Ellery an ar­chi­tect, but when Jaron was born in 1960 they moved to El Paso, Texas, right on the bor­der with Mex­ico. Lanier was never sure why, but he be­lieves it was an ef­fort, given their own child­hoods, to “live as ob­scurely as pos­si­ble”, off grid. His mother did not trust Amer­i­can school­ing, so he went across the bor­der to a Montes­sori school in Mex­ico each day; then, af­ter a change of heart, to a Texas pub­lic high school, where he was bul­lied.

When Lanier was nearly 10, his mother was killed and his fa­ther se­verely in­jured in a car crash. The ac­ci­dent hap­pened af­ter his mother had seen Lanier as­saulted by bul­lies on the way to school. He feared the two events were con­nected, that she had been anx­ious or dis­tracted; much later he learned the car she was driv­ing most likely had a fa­tal fault. Af­ter his mother’s death he fell ill with a suc­ces­sion of in­fec­tions, in­clud­ing scar­let fever and pneu­mo­nia, which kept him in hospi­tal for a year.

Dur­ing this time their house in El Paso burned down and, un­em­ployed and griev­ing and vir­tu­ally pen­ni­less, his fa­ther bought a par­cel of un­in­hab­ited land in the New Mex­i­can desert for them to live on. Ellery al­lowed his son to de­sign their new house, which he based on the ge­o­desic domes of R Buck­min­ster Fuller, all the rage with hip­pies. This was 1972. The dome took two years to con­struct, and in the mean­time fa­ther and son lived in an army sur­plus tent, bone cold in win­ter, deep fried in sum­mer. They never talked about his mother. Lanier still hated school, but de­vel­oped a pas­sion for mu­sic, and for tech­nol­ogy.

Their clos­est neigh­bours worked at the White Sands Mis­sile Range, out in the desert. One was the as­tronomer Clyde Tom­baugh, who had dis­cov­ered Pluto as a young man and who taught Lanier to grind lenses, and let him play around with the home­made tele­scopes in his back yard. Al­most un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with strangers, but with a pre­co­cious tal­ent for maths, Lanier took classes at New Mex­ico State Univer­sity aged 15 or 16, and then at 17 trans­ferred to Bard col­lege in New York, pay­ing for tu­ition by sell­ing goat cheese from a herd of goats he had bred.

Re­turn­ing to New Mex­ico, he fell in love and fol­lowed his girl­friend (whom he had ser­e­naded on their first date, in a laun­drette, with a Ja­panese bam­boo flute) to Cal­i­for­nia, where she fin­ished with him. He found him­self alone in the start-up land of Sil­i­con Val­ley, with a head full of equa­tions that didn’t all add up and a han­ker­ing for dif­fer­ent worlds. At this point in his mem­oir, not sur­pris­ingly, Lanier turns out­ward to the reader: “You might be think­ing by now that this book is a work of mag­i­cal re­al­ism,” he sug­gests.

Talk­ing to him on the phone last week, I ad­mit that I did have my doubts. He hoots, with his high laugh. “At the time,” he says of the desert years, “it felt al­most as if we were liv­ing in the frame and not the paint­ing of the world. My per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence was so dif­fer­ent from any­thing else, I couldn’t even com­pare, re­ally.”

Lanier now lives in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, with his wife, Lena, a child psy­chol­o­gist, their 11-year-old daugh­ter, Lil­li­bell, and more than a thou­sand mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, an­cient and mod­ern, all of which he tries to play. Hav­ing made and lost a pa­per for­tune with his pi­o­neer­ing vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets, he sold an in­ter­est in an­other com­pany in­volved in face recog­ni­tion soft­ware to Google in 2006. Since then he has had an in­no­va­tion lab at Mi­crosoft, and be­come a prom­i­nent critic of the ways in which tech­nol­ogy and so­cial me­dia have shaped our world (a crit­i­cism “driven more by fear than love”), most no­tably in his best­selling book You Are

Not a Gad­get . One as­pect of that lat­ter ar­gu­ment is a be­lief that we should never sep­a­rate a dis­cus­sion of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance from its hu­man ef­fect. In his pre­vi­ous writ­ing, Lanier says, he has some­times adopted a the­o­ret­i­cal or ab­stract tone, as if is­sues around vir­tual worlds and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence had an in­de­pen­dent life of their own. He has used the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal voice in the cur­rent book partly as a state­ment of in­tent. It wasn’t easy for him.

“I kind of coped with my mother’s death and lots of other things by putting them out of [my] mind,” he says. “Hav­ing to en­counter that again was dif­fi­cult. But I am un­happy with the way that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy is in­flu­enc­ing the world, and I think the so­lu­tion is to dou­ble down on be­ing hu­man…”, which leaves Lanier no choice but to put him­self all the way into his book.

Per­haps one of the ef­fects of that is to root his ad­vances in vir­tual re­al­ity in very hu­man psy­chol­ogy. At one point in the book, he re­calls how he and his geeky friends used to fan­ta­sise about putting a “4D head­set” on a baby im­me­di­ately af­ter birth and imag­ine the strange­ness of the world it would ex­pe­ri­ence. I won­der if his own par­ents had some­thing of the same ex­per­i­men­tal im­pulse with the sim­pler tools they had to hand. He gig­gles again, but says that was prob­a­bly down to the trau­mas of their own child­hoods. “I think that peo­ple who have suf­fered hor­ri­ble things do have some ex­tra – al­most mag­i­cal – in­vest­ment in their chil­dren,” he says.

Even so, he is not sure that his fa­ther al­low­ing him to de­sign their desert home was the great­est idea. He ad­mits he is a lit­tle ner­vous that some­one will read his book and see it as a chal­lenge: “I do want to re­mind peo­ple that the dome did sub­se­quently col­lapse.”

He also says that when he ar­rived in Sil­i­con Val­ley he found like-minded twen­tysome­things among tech en­trepreneurs and hack­ers: the chil­dren of com­mune dwellers and peace pro­test­ers, who had been brought up with the lib­eral regime of the child­care guru Dr Spock and who recog­nised no lim­its to imag­i­na­tion, and of­ten ego. Coun­ter­cul­ture fed di­rectly into plu­to­cratic tech cul­ture.

Lanier is of­ten asked whether his in­ter­est in mu­si­cal in­stru­ments came from the same place as his in­ter­est in vir­tual worlds. He has no doubt that it does. “I still just get a tremen­dous joy from learn­ing new ones,” he says. “I have been work­ing just now with an Ethiopian in­stru­ment called a be­gena, an old harp. Prob­a­bly sim­i­lar to the one David played in bib­li­cal times. The way you have to hold it is in­ter­est­ing. That kind of thing en­thrals me. It is like time travel… it brings your body’s move­ment into some kind of a con­nec­tion with peo­ple who lived many cen­turies ago.”

In vir­tual re­al­ity terms, Lanier would per­haps call this con­nec­tion “hap­tic”, a way of be­ing in in­ti­mate touch with frag­ment­ing ex­ter­nal re­al­i­ties. One thread that seems to con­nect all of his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions over the years is a rest­less ef­fort to find new are­nas in which to com­mu­ni­cate with other peo­ple, as if the con­ven­tional ones are not enough. Bluntly, I ask whether he traces this im­pulse back to the trauma of los­ing his mother, and his sub­se­quent iso­la­tion.

“Yes, ob­vi­ously so,” he says. “But then im­me­di­ately af­ter that I would say: ‘Does a de­sire to com­mu­ni­cate make me dif­fer­ent from other peo­ple, or does it ex­pose a com­mon­al­ity?’ I think it is more the lat­ter. I think we all want some­thing deeper.”

In the early 1990s Lanier ap­peared to be­lieve he might find that depth in the com­puter-sim­u­lated en­vi­ron­ments he tried to cre­ate. He be­came friends with the likes of Ti­mothy Leary, the philoso­pher of hal­lu­cino­gens, and though he never took any drugs him­self, Lanier was stand­ing by in case of ac­ci­dent when the No­bel prizewin­ning physi­cist Richard P Feyn­man first ex­per­i­mented with LSD in a hot tub in Big Sur, Cal­i­for­nia.

Lanier be­lieved that vir­tual re­al­i­ties could have an im­pact on the doors of hu­man per­cep­tion com­pa­ra­ble to that pro­moted by the early dis­ci­ples of psychedelia. He was not alone in this cu­rios­ity. On one mem­o­rable af­ter­noon he gave demos with his first head­sets to Terry Gil­liam, the Dalai Lama and Leonard Bern­stein. The tech­nol­ogy was not with­out its con­straints, how­ever. One early pro­to­type set of gog­gles had to be bal­lasted with sand­bags to al­low the viewer to re­main up­right.

Lanier hasn’t lost all of that faith, but he de­spairs of how the utopian vi­sion of that early hacker cul­ture was so quickly cor­po­ra­tised. He says he was al­ways alive to those dan­gers.

“In 1995 I wrote this es­say called Agents of Alien­ation, about the dan­ger that one day com­puter net­works would have these au­to­mated agents, what we call bots now, which could be used to ma­nip­u­late ad­ver­tis­ing and pol­i­tics, and every­thing would be­come un­hinged.” Trump, he sug­gests, is a symp­tom of that proph­e­sied re­al­ity. “Go­ing back to the 80s and 90s… there were these vivid ar­gu­ments about the na­ture of truth made by peo­ple I like and re­spect, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Den­nett. Their ar­gu­ment was that we al­ready have the ba­sic out­line of un­der­stand­ing how thought works, and so we can cre­ate al­go­rith­mic sys­tems that cap­ture knowl­edge, that ex­er­cise wis­dom. I thought that was a huge trap – that it would turn into this house of mir­rors that could be ma­nip­u­lated by who­ever was the big­gest ass­hole.”

Given that we have ar­rived at some­thing like that fu­ture, what does he be­lieve our re­la­tion­ship should now be with the re­al­ity-cre­ators in Sil­i­con Val­ley? “My in­cli­na­tion is to say that peo­ple should be­come ac­quainted enough with what the tech­nol­ogy can do so that they are less likely to be fooled by it. If you have learned a lit­tle bit of magic, you are less likely to be tricked by a magic show, but you still might en­joy the per­for­mance a lot.”

And does he still be­lieve that Vir­tual Re­al­ity worlds – he was a fan of early ver­sions like Sec­ond Life – can take us out of our­selves, be a civil­is­ing force?

“There is a funny thing when a new medium shows up,” he says. “It takes a while to find it­self. Early cin­ema is pre­cious, but we couldn’t watch it now. With vir­tual re­al­ity, I think there are cases where it has al­ready demon­strated its value, in treat­ing post-trau­matic stress, for ex­am­ple, or help­ing peo­ple over­come ad­dic­tions. I think it will even­tu­ally be­come a proper medium of art and cul­ture, but you can’t put a sched­ule on that.”

On the one hand, I say, his book is an in­volved tech­ni­cal in­sight into those fu­tur­is­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties, but it also reads a bit like an old-fash­ioned myth

‘Vir­tual worlds can be a part of real life, but this no­tion that they could be on an equal foot­ing is ab­hor­rent’

of seek­ing out new worlds and find­ing them at home. To­wards the end of the book, set­tled with his wife and young daugh­ter, he ad­mits to some­thing that hasn’t been so ap­par­ent in the quest­ing that has gone be­fore: hap­pi­ness. Did he come to the con­clu­sion that real life was more im­por­tant than other worlds?

“That pri­or­ity was al­ways clear to me,” he says. “Vir­tual worlds can be a part of real life, but this no­tion that they could be on an equal foot­ing is re­ally ab­hor­rent to me.”

At the very end of his mem­oir he writes about his fa­ther, Ellery, dy­ing in 2014. Given that it seems Ellery set a lot of his am­bi­tion in mo­tion, I ask him what his dad made of his achieve­ments. He chokes up on the phone, be­fore an­swer­ing.

“It is not a con­ver­sa­tion we had,” he says. “I think he was proud of me. And I think he was re­lieved, be­cause you know, when you have a weird kid, who knows what is go­ing to hap­pen? But I don’t know. As a par­ent, though, I have found that a poi­sonous thing is to try to im­pose your own hopes on your child. I have been haunted won­der­ing if I would have pleased my mother, but it is so hard to imag­ine what she would have been like had she lived…”

We’re at the end of our al­lot­ted hour on the phone and it seems a good point at which to close. Be­fore he goes, Lanier says, point­edly, that he wants to note that we “haven’t re­ally talked about vir­tual re­al­ity, which is the theme of my book…”

I’m sur­prised he thinks this, and I make noises about how I’m not a spe­cial­ist and wouldn’t feel qual­i­fied to chal­lenge him on the specifics of the science. But also, in my mind, I feel we have talked of lit­tle else. Dawn of the New Every­thing: A Jour­ney Through Vir­tual Re­al­ity by Jaron Lanier is pub­lished by Bod­ley Head (£20). To or­der a copy for £17 go to book­shop. the­ or call 0330 333 6846

Jaron Lanier at home in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, where he has more than 1,000 mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

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