Oscar Schwartz on Jaron Lanier
Before he became a shepherd and a midwife, before he became an expert in ancient and obscure acoustic instruments, before he invented virtual reality, before he turned against the current set up of the internet, before all of this, Jaron Lanier was a sensitive, precocious, painfully awkward 12-year-old living in a tent with his father somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico.
His mother—a gifted pianist who moved to America after surviving the Holocaust—had just died in a tragic car accident. Jaron’s father, consumed by grief, retreated into isolation with his son, giving him the task of designing a house for them both to live in. Eccentric and imaginative, Jaron proposed a geodesic dome, decorated with gemstones, crystals and metallic spires. They lived in a canvas tent next to the house as slowly it took shape.
A couple of years later, when the project was finally complete, Jaron was restless and ready to explore new intellectual frontiers. At the age of 14 he talked his way into New Mexico State University, where he was drawn to mathematics and the rapidly transforming field of computer science. He spent two years learning how to program computers, but then grew bored with the endless abstraction; he yearned for a more direct experience of life. He hitchhiked to New York City, and embraced a Bohemian existence, scraping together a living as a musician—a gift he inherited from his mother.
A few years later, Jaron was broke and sick of the city. He returned to the house in the desert, cared for a flock of goats, and made money by selling goats’ cheese at the local farmers’ market. He also worked as a midwife, assisting poor Mexican farmworkers deliver their babies. One of the farmers gave Jaron an old beat-up car as thanks.
In his early twenties, Jaron drove west to the burgeoning technological oasis of Silicon Valley, where he met other young, intellectually brilliant, yet socially isolated young people. Within a few years he had made a small fortune designing games for Atari, and started building a prototype virtual-reality machine. He was a rare breed among the Silicon Valley crowd; he had a poet’s sensibility and wanted more than anything else to make technology that would eventually deepen the way humans understand their world. His creativity was infectious and other brilliant mavericks gravitated towards him. He quickly became a key figure in the digital revolution.
Considering Jaron’s central position in this revolution, it comes as a surprise that he has spent the past 10 years developing a philosophical position that strongly refutes the idea that we should follow the path that technology is leading us down. Jaron believes that the current design of Web 2.0—especially sites like Facebook and Twitter—have demeaned personal interaction and reduced individuality, creativity and diversity. If things continue the way they are, he is worried that we will start attaching more significance to interaction with our computers than with each other.