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Jaron Lanier is a humanist
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Jaron Lanier is a humanist
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"If you don’t treat people as special, if you don’t create some sort of a special zone for humans—especially when you’re designing technology—you’ll end up dehumanising the world."
1 October 2013

Jaron Lanier is a humanist

Interview by Oscar Schwartz
Photography by Mark Lobo

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.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

OSCAR SCHWARTZ: What do you think led you down the path of becoming a technologist?

JARON LANIER: It’s hard to say exactly. I do have a memory of something amazing that happened in the town in southern New Mexico where I grew up. It was a pretty remote place. Maybe not by Australian standards, but, you know, pretty remote. The phone system in the town broke one day, and all of the phone lines crossed. I don’t know how it happened: maybe someone dropped a screwdriver and shorted some of the lines. But when you picked up the phone you could hear everyone’s conversations at once. In the middle of the night, it became this children’s universe. You could hear all of these voices. It was a really interesting experience and really unique for that time. It would have been in the 60s. I think I’ve been interested in the idea of social networking ever since.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

I learnt how people change in social environments mediated by technology. Some of the kids got meaner on the phones and some of them got more accessible and nicer—which I think is what has been happening on the internet.

Speaking of the internet, you were instrumental in helping set up its infrastructure, and now that it’s successful you’re very critical of it. Has the internet changed or have you changed?

Well, it’s important to understand that I don’t think the internet is entirely bad. I think there are lots of great things about the internet. Overall I’m pretty happy about it. There is a triumph, in that it works. That was the challenge: figuring out how to make it work. The fact that it’s happened, and I got to help out with it, I think that’s great. But I think the problem with it now is that it is designed to act as if people are machines, as if we are building a giant electronic brain of a planet and that people are just components of that brain.

What do you mean?

Let me give you an example. When you use the online tools to translate from one language to another, like Google translate or something, it seems to work like magic, doesn’t it? It seems like there is this smart electronic brain in your computer that can translate a text.

It does seem almost magical, yes.

Right. What people don’t understand is that the translation is really just a mashup of pre-existing translations by real people. The current set up of the internet trains us to ignore the real people who did the first translations, in order to create the illusion that there is an electronic brain. This idea is terribly damaging. It does dehumanise people; it does reduce people.

So you want an internet that puts humans first and computers second. Is this what you mean when you write about a new type of digital humanism?

Humanism is rejected by many people as being a bourgeois or egotistical thing. It is an interesting term because it has been dismissed for a long time. Throughout history there have been all kinds of non-human-centric ways of thinking about the world that are thought to be “enlightened”. Cyber thinking, for example, or Marxism, can sometimes be a little non-human in the way it perceives the world. I’m trying to revive or, if you like, resuscitate, or rehabilitate the term humanism…

[An eavesdropping bellboy at the hotel interrupts Jaron mid-sentence: “Humanism is humanity’s adulthood. Just thought I’d throw that in.” He walks away.]

Do you agree with the bellboy?

I would agree with our interloper, but many don’t. But I’m not dogmatic about my ideas either. The difficulty with describing human experience is that we live in a mysterious way. It isn’t entirely clear what is going on with reality. We have this strange set up where we’re conscious even though we don’t need to be. Everything would function just fine if we weren’t conscious. Because of all of this uncertainty, I believe there’s no absolute truth to any philosophy. So I tend to try and move to pragmatic ways of deciding what’s real and true. And pragmatically, if you don’t treat people as special, if you don’t create some sort of a special zone for humans—especially when you’re designing technology—you’ll end up dehumanising the world. You’ll turn people into some giant, stupid information system, which is what I think we’re doing. I agree that humanism is humanity’s adulthood, but only because adults learn to behave in ways that are pragmatic. We have to start thinking of humans as being these special, magical entities—we have to mystify ourselves because it’s the only way to look after ourselves given how good we’re getting at technology.

How have your life experiences influenced these ideas?

I always think of a few experiences in childhood as having affected me a great deal. By far the primary one was my mother’s death by car accident when I was around nine years old. I was in a very bad state after that. I was in hospital for a year, just getting disease after disease, and not really being ready to keep on living. I somehow made the decision to choose life. I came out of it a very awkward kid. I might’ve been awkward anyway, but I came out super awkward. That’s kind of why I’m a weirdo to this day. But I had to learn—or relearn at an older age than other kids do—just how to relate to other people. I think I became a little bit more aware of it than other people, for whom social things are just like breathing. I had to learn how to re-enter the world.

Did you find it difficult to make friends?

Definitely. I was different. I used to build weird big high- tech haunted houses when I was a kid out of spare parts from military bases. They were pretty cool, like little virtual-reality prototypes or something. But the other kids in my town were too freaked-out by them to come and visit.

When you eventually moved to Silicon Valley you would have met like-minded people. Did it feel like an exciting place to be at that time?

It very much felt like the most exciting place in the world. Being in Silicon Valley can be a bit of an ego boost. It is true that petty projects can change the world there; you can come up with some little design or piece of software, some little idea, and it’s just adopted by the world so quickly. I think that can happen from anywhere in the world now, but it happens the most from Silicon Valley. What’s strange though, is that the community in Silicon Valley has so much influence on the world but is so unrepresentative of the world. It’s getting a little bit better. When I was living in Silicon Valley, there was very little diversity. Now it’s becoming a more international zone. People come from everywhere. But all the people who come are kind of similar. They are these geeky, young men for the most part.

What about women?

Well, there is a world of Silicon Valley women and the history of their culture is fascinating. When I was there in my twenties there was a really fascinating phenomenon where there were these super-networked women who knew everyone in the community. They almost ran the scene from behind the curtain. There were not a lot of them, maybe a few dozen, but they knew everybody and had unbelievable influence in deciding who worked where, what companies got off the ground—not through any stated authority, but just because they knew everybody and could make it happen. They were like the human form of the internet before the thing was actually working. This hyper-networking role was made obsolete when the internet started working, but it’s an interesting lost chapter in our history. Things have definitely changed.

During your years in Silicon Valley you were building a prototype virtual reality. What are some of the most memorable experiences you had during those early experimental years?

I had many profound experiences in virtual reality on many different levels. I think for me the most profound ones involved the non-human avatars, where we would use virtual reality to turn into non-human creatures.

How does this work?

An avatar is a movable representation of yourself in cyberspace. Right from the beginning, I was interested in figuring out how strange an avatar could get before a person could no longer control it. The answer turned out to be a big surprise. The famous example is of an experiment with a lobster avatar. A lobster is interesting as an avatar because it has more limbs than a human. But I found that by mapping values from the body, I could move the extra limbs on the lobster avatar body in virtual reality, even though I didn’t actually have those extra limbs in real life. There are a lot of experiments like this lobster one going on right now. There is a whole community researching the potential of inhabiting non-human bodies in virtual reality as a way of learning about other forms of life, or as a method of pedagogy.

It’s really interesting to experience controlling your body as if you were a different creature, because you really start observing your mind functioning in a different way.

It’s a really vivid, interesting experience. I’m sure it’s going to evolve into a new art form that means a lot to people.

To inhabit the body of another creature must be extremely intense. Was it an emotional or an intellectual experience?

It’s definitely not intellectual because the feeling it gives you is deep in the gut. But I don’t know if emotion is the right word either. It’s more like an elemental profundity. I think you touch places that are older than emotion. You’re going back even further than emotion in evolution when you play with this stuff.

Virtual reality sounds like an incredibly creative place to play.


And one of your criticisms of Web 2.0 has been that it doesn’t encourage enough creativity on the part of its users. How should we use the net more creatively?

Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of creative people online. I just think there has been a strange effect recently, where people sort of get this ego boost as if they’ve achieved something when they really haven’t. It’s very fleeting, and there’s so many other people doing similar things. After a few years no one will remember what they did. Nothing sticks except for the power of the giant computers run by Google or Facebook or the NSA, or whatever.

But let’s say I’m an amateur film maker, and I post a video online and get millions of hits, aren’t I achieving something through internet media I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve? Doesn’t it assist my creativity in the real world by giving me a massive distribution channel?

Let me put it this way: There are many people who have a cool website or a cool video or something. And that’s cool. But the problem is this: Because all these videos and images are being aggregated by big services like Facebook, and distributed by Instagram or Twitter, or whatever it is, the glorification of the big server eventually overwhelms whatever cool thing is being distributed.

The creatives become subservient to the structure of these giant computers. So in a way, human expression becomes a peasant activity.

The filmmakers and photographers and writers become like peasant farmers instead of being chefs de cuisine, you know? It doesn’t seem that way because the surface experience of participating on Twitter or whatever is that you are constantly being ego-stroked: ‘You have all these followers, isn’t that fantastic!?’ But in truth, that doesn’t really last.

So how can we escape this cycle of ego boosting?

What I recommend is to go cold turkey on these sites, but not forever, and not out of some disgust or determination. You shouldn’t treat it like becoming a vegan or something, but more just as an experiment. The point is not to become adamant and extremist and purist, because I don’t think there is anything useful in that; but I think people should challenge the world they’ve inherited, and push against it. Particularly if there is something that is stroking your ego, something that is making a deal with you. Many aspects of the new design of the web whisper in your ear, ‘We’ll make you feel good if you cooperate, and we’ll make you feel lonely if you don’t cooperate. You won’t be appreciated, and you’ll disappear.’ I think it’s worth everyone testing this for themselves, to see if that deal is really true. I think people will discover that it’s not really true. If you go off Facebook for six months the world won’t end. And then if you go back on Facebook you’ll have more knowledge about yourself. The right approach is not judging or moralising. If Facebook is working well for someone, that’s great. I think it can work for some people. But the notion that it’s mandatory for other people to participate in someone else’s scheme in order to build their fortune for free—that seems really stupid. I think all of us should try not being on them.

Do you use Facebook or Twitter or any of the social networking sites?

I don’t use those ones. It’s possible I could find a little bit more success as a writer if I was using Facebook and Twitter, as one is supposed to do. But I don’t feel like I have a lack of success because I don’t use them. I just feel less beholden, less drawn by consensus, less drawn by weird ego trips or desires to be popular. That trade off is the right one for me.

You speak about how these sites stroke our egos, but they can also destroy self-esteem by enabling trolling. Do you think trolling is facilitated by Web 2.0, or is it just a reflection of something deeper in human nature?

Well, different designs empower different trolls to different degrees. My view is that trolling is probably a residue of something very deep in the human character. My hypothesis is that we are a species that can exist either as loners, or as pack animals. I think trolling has to do with being a pack animal. It’s the way the pack unifies itself by identifying who the common enemy is, and who the alpha and omega dogs are. I think that is deep within us. A lot of the art of making stable societies, of making good politics and economics and religion, all of these things are about how not to fall into that trap too badly. It is absolutely true that trolling does come up in internet design, but it’s different in different designs. It’s worse in some than others. It’s worse on 4chan than it is on Facebook, though it’s still pretty bad on Facebook. But the really important point is that both trolling and ego boosts encourage conformity; that’s something people don’t understand.

It seems like there is all of this individuality and freedom, but really these systems are actually just designed to herd you into the service of advertisers.

Inevitably, there is a slow type of behaviour modification that encourages conformity and reduces diversity in the way that people think and feel.

So if virtual reality could provide a more creative alternative for us to engage with each other, why aren’t we all plugging in?

There is one very simply reason: The gear isn’t good enough yet [laughs]. Actually, the gear has been good for a very long time, but only if you’re willing to spend a whole lot of money on it. The set up cost was one million dollars in 1985, and it was pretty good. And it costs around $10,000 today or something. I think pretty soon that price will come down a lot.

One thing I feel instinctively when I think about virtual reality is that if it becomes mainstream and popular, people will just use it as a sort of escape from reality. What’s to say that virtual reality technology won’t lead to more alienation between humans in the “real world”?

This is where the architecture matters. Just like the World Wide Web, or any other digital platform, it can be built in all kinds of ways. We happened to design the World Wide Web to destroy middle classes and empower whoever had the biggest computers. That design is not intrinsic to networking, it’s only intrinsic to a design layer we’ve slapped on top of it. A lot of people don’t know this, but there were other designs for the internet that were completely different. So yes, for sure, virtual reality could just become another form of escapism. It could also further destroy middle classes and concentrate all the money to people with the biggest computers. Or it could be something different. I believe that it could. We just don’t know yet.

Outside of your work as a technologist you are also a professional musician. What type of music do you play?

I play all kinds of acoustic instruments, all kinds of obscure ones.

Always acoustic instruments?

No, not exclusively. I mean, I did write the first MIDI sequencer so I’ve contributed to computer music and electronic music. But as a musician I’ve always preferred the analogue stuff.


When you interact with acoustic instruments you are interacting down to the quantum level. When you interact with digital instruments you’re interacting with a software maze that sets down the path you can travel. Even if you write the software, you are still in a world that is bound by the limits of the software instead of in this world of acoustic mystery that we will never be able to fully understand. That’s not to say that there can’t be good electronic music. Of course there can be. But just for me, I find a little bit more depth in acoustic instruments.

Just to get a little bit sci-fi for a minute: Do you think we will ever reach a level of technological advancement where computers are writing symphonies or pop songs for us humans to listen to? Do you think machines will ever be creative?

It depends on you. As I was saying, you can never tell the degree to which the computer has become more human-like, or intelligent, or creative, or the degree to which your standards have gone down. You are the only measure. If you’re worried that your standards as to what constitutes creativity might be lowered by listening to music written by a computer, then you’re probably better off not treating the computer as something that has become an entity in its own right. For any given algorithm, for any given technology, you have a choice about how to think about it. You can think about it like it’s a new entity, or you can think about it like it’s just a tool that you use. It can function fully either way. It’s just that your way of interacting with it will change. I just think it’s a better idea to treat this stuff as a tool.

The key idea is that the only way we can test intelligence or spirituality or creativity is by comparing it to ourselves.

But you do acknowledge that there are other types of intelligence, not just human intelligence. In fact, you’ve written extensively about your admiration for the intelligence of the octopus, and how much we as humans can learn from it.

Yes, I went through a period in the 80s and 90s of extreme cephalopod obsession. In fact, just off the south-west coast of Australia is where you can find some of the hottest cuttlefish action. Cephalopods are interesting to me because, like humans, they are another type of creature that gave up their shells and have soft bodies, and like humans, during the course of evolution, they invested in brains in order to be able to manipulate the world to survive. They have tentacles instead of hands, but they do have tentacle-eye coordination. And they have big brains and can solve problems and do a lot of incredibly intelligent things. But the amazing thing about them is that they have more symmetry in their visual systems than us. For example, we can hear sounds and mimic sounds, to an extent, but we can’t see images and mimic images straight out of thought. We can craft an image by drawing it or something. But cephalopods have evolved to be able to make images instantly from their minds. They have the ability to project directly from their brain onto their skin surface and also change shape and texture. It’s like a really sophisticated form of camouflage: They look at their environment and then become their environment by reproducing the image on their own body. This fascinates me because I see this behaviour as a naturally occurring form of virtual reality. You can think of virtual reality as being a way of making people a little bit more like cephalopods.

This question might seem obvious to you, but in what way would virtual reality make humans behave more like the octopus?

[Laughs] it has to do with the way people will be able to communicate in virtual reality. I call it post-symbolic communication: where two people could talk by conveying experiences directly to each other through images instead of using a set of symbols to reference ideas. It’s a tricky idea and people have a little trouble grasping it at first. The basic idea is that the use of symbols and abstraction is not the only way to convey the kernel of what needs to be conveyed. I can imagine an alternate means of communication through the depiction of direct experience. Exactly how that would work is not entirely known.

There have been times where I’ve been working with people in digital design, and we are able to communicate to each other by designing little worlds instead of talking, and it’s really cool. One of the areas in which this works is in surgical simulation. I’ve worked a lot in this area. Sometimes working with surgeons we can enter a world in which we’re not being verbal anymore. We invent tools and ways of visualising scan data that isn’t really abstracted symbols. But this is just the edge of what post-symbolic communication could become.

These ideas are a little bit frightening because they force us to imagine a future completely different to our current realm of experience. As a technologist, you must constantly be thinking about the future. Are you optimistic?

Oh yeah, totally. People often say to me after they hear me talk, ‘Oh, you scared me’ or ‘you’re so pessimistic.’ And I say, ‘No, no, no, no, no! Trying to make things better is how to be an optimist.’

The people who think that things are as good as they could possibly be, those are the pessimists, because they think that things can’t get any better.

They believe that to be an optimist means that everything is perfect and you’re crazy if you would want to make it better. But that’s just not true. To believe that things could be better is to seek to make them so. To me, this is optimism.

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a writer, researcher and teacher from Melbourne, Australia. He writes about technology, culture, literature and politics for a number of publications in Australia and overseas.

Photography by Mark Lobo

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