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The Father of VR On the Future of Tech and How We Live Now

Jaron Lanier’s astonishing foresight is forged by a most remarkable life.

To understand how best the father of virtual reality hopes the future of VR turns out, you have to think drink.

“It’s going to go one of two ways,” says Jaron Lanier, who is known as the father of VR because of his work in the field since the early 1980s. “An example of something that’s gone the wrong way, in my view, is music. We got used to the idea that there should just be music ‘on’ all the time. You go to a pub and there’s music on. In a way, that’s ridiculous. I think it’s regrettable how often we take in music as something that’s wallpaper. What I prefer to see is a world where there either isn’t music on, or there’s a live band that you care about playing their hearts out.

“Then, an example of something that’s gone the right way is the culture around alcohol. My sense is that there are fewer drunks today, but more people who are wine snobs, or beer snobs or liquor snobs, who care about quality and are very discerning about their drinking. Society has taken it upon itself to reduce ambient drunkenness, but on the other hand, celebrate the art of alcoholic beverages.
That’s the right direction for virtual reality.”

So, VR will be a special treat, upgrading human experience and understanding through short bursts of focussed, high-quality material. The opposite, more widely held view – a human race mindlessly consuming easy entertainment through a billion VR headsets – is something most tech evangelists and VR industry backers would never mention. But Lanier is a singular voice and presence, and does nothing by the rules.

Think how society has taken upon itself to reduce drunkenness, but celebrate the art of quality alcoholic beverages. That’s the right direction for VR

Born in New York City in May 1960, his parents moved to New Mexico and Lanier went to a progressive school across the border in Mexico. School was where his life’s two great passions of music and learning were forged, reading art books while listening to Bach on the classroom record player. School was also where he was informed one day, aged nine, that his mother, Lillian, had been killed in a car crash, which left his father, Ellery, badly injured. Lanier then suffered a year of serious illness, most of which he spent in hospital reading even more voraciously: philosophy, jazz biographies, books and more books.

While in hospital, his parents’ new home had burned down, and with no insurance pay-out, Lanier’s father instead bought an acre of land, with the intention of building a house. So father and son lived in old Army tents, with most of their possessions, Lillian’s baby grand piano included, wrapped in plastic on wooden pallets.

Feeling that a big project was needed get his son back on track after the trauma, Ellery handed over the designing of the new house. Lanier, driven by his reading, of course, chose a geodesic dome, like those of the Eden Project. A design of two connected domes and a pyramid was settled upon.

It took two years before enough dome was built for the Laniers to live inside, and a further seven to fully complete. (Lanier’s father lived in the house until his late eighties.) About the time Lanier stopped living in a tent, when he had just turned 14, attending a summer camp for chemistry at the nearby New Mexico State University put him, he remembers, “in a constant state of awe… At the end of the summer it was unthinkable that I’d return to high school. I just stayed in college.”

At college, he discovered the Terak, an early graphics workstation computer, and a music department full of instruments. (Today, Lanier’s house, in Berkeley, California, is full of instruments: over a thousand rare and mainly non-Western instruments.) He paid his tuition fees by selling homemade goat’s cheese, from milk on a herd he kept near the dome.

For a fuller, equally remarkable story of what comes next, there is Lanier’s new book, Dawn Of The New Everything, half memoir, half history of VR. The short version: Atari after college; founding one of the first VR product companies in 1985; work for internet companies, high-end computer pioneer Silicon Graphics and at universities; and since 2009, a research position at Microsoft, where he has fully reconnected with virtual reality technologies, including the HoloLens, which has a head-mounted display for mixed reality, combining VR with the user’s real-world view.

That childhood, though. As Lanier writes in the book, “years later, I would realise what a leap of faith Ellery had taken to let me design our house. He could have intervened more, but I think he wanted me to learn to take risks and make mistakes.” As preparation for a life on the cutting-edge of tech it could not have more perfectly, uniquely formed, but Lanier does see it as clear-cut as that.

“I find it hard to settle on a position about these questions about whether my childhood was really that unusual or not,” he tells THE STAND, when one such question is posed. “Also about this question of how unlikely things are. I’ve heard a range of opinions on it. I suspect that if someone else wrote about their childhood in the same way, there might be aspects of it that emerge that also seem unusual, and after that happened enough we might not view it as being so unusual. I really have a hard time getting a feeling for that.

“Similarly, the question of what role chance plays in our fate is very hard to figure out. Among successful people in general, and especially in Silicon Valley, there is a feeling that chance plays no role, that we are successful because we are superior. I think chance plays a far greater role than we let on, but on the other hand, I think it’s possible to go too far in that direction and view life as totally random, which I also think is false. I think it’s somewhere in the middle, and it might never be possible to determine exactly where in the middle.”

Whatever the balance, Lanier has never sat still at Silicon Valley’s top table. He has carved out a parallel career as a kind of tech philosopher, giving talks, which he often opens with some live, rare-instrument music, and writing essays. As far back as 1992, he was explaining how software would likely end up manipulating human behaviour, and the fall-out from an algorithm war, as products battle for consumer attention would “make the world crazy.”

He speaks out against how Google, Facebook and Wikipedia promote information above humanity, despite moving in the same circles as the people who run them. Two previous books, You Are Not A Gadget (2010) and Who Owns The Future (2013), are not so much anti-technology, as pro-human. He cherishes the human creativity in creating new tech, and bemoans the increasing lack of it. Plenty of critics agree with him and have expanded on his ideas. He alone continues to highlight tech’s dark side from the inside.

“Well, I’ve been experimenting with trying to be a full spectrum person, and still be a Silicon Valley person,” he explains. “I’ve been expressing my doubts about the direction of Silicon Valley for a long time. You know, whenever one writes something that’s pessimistic or cautionary, the very thing you want the most is to be wrong, right? You would like to be incorrect in your darkness, and you’d like to be correct otherwise.”

So what of VR? He can see both futures, good and bad, but which one does he think will come to the fore?

“I’m cursed by being good at predicting things,” he says, matter-of-factly. “So, on those occasions when I predict that something I hope will happen will actually happen – I don’t know if I will, of course – then I hope that at least in that case I’ll also tend to be right.”