Jaron Lanier discusses virtual reality & music

The man who coined the term ‘virtual reality’ discusses art, science and life in the post-Sept. 11 world

jaron_lanierJaron Lanier — artist, scientist, visionary, and coiner of the term “virtual reality” — spoke by cell phone with J.D. Lasica from a café in Tribeca, New York, on Oct. 4, 2002, in advance of the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

The PopTech program teases us with your presentation by saying only, A Musical Experience With Virtual Reality. What should we expect?

Oh, my, that’s news to me. There is a thing I do sometimes which involves using some of the equipment from virtual reality research and stage performance, and I try to make virtual worlds that are themselves musical instruments in some way or have instruments in them. It’s fun, and it works on stage, but I’m struggling with this question of how to make creative tools for invention inside virtual worlds, and these instruments are, for me, the most familiar and appropriate metaphor to start with. However, I was not planning to do it in Maine, the reason being that it’s kind of a big production, and it’s expensive and involves a lot of equipment, and I had been thinking of this as a much simpler affair.

Some of the PopTech people saw me play my music at the World Economic Forum, the Davos meeting that was held in New York this year, where I played a duet with a wonderful percussionist named Will Calhoun. We’re trying to perform music that takes some of the elements of jazz, with extended instrumental improvisation, and combining that with some elements of electronic club music, but trying to get away from that genre’s repetitiveness. But let me say that that has nothing to do with virtual reality. I’d like to give a talk as well as perform, so maybe you could pass that request along.

I’ll do that. I know you’ve dabbled in Asian instruments as well. What other musical approaches have you tackled lately?

Unfortunately, to be a successful entertainer, you have to reduce the number of things you do so you can be described quickly and fit into people’s brains quickly so people know who you are. I have not made a decision to be an entertainer, I’m doing the artist thing more. I’ll have fewer people interested in me, and they’ll have to do more work to understand me. I play piano concerts, I do orchestral music, opera, soundtracks, really a wide variety.

“If there's a world in which my personal details are more available to people and I have less privacy, I'm willing to accept that if the same standard applies to corporations and the government and celebrities and whoever else is in a protected status right now.”
— Jaron Lanier
I read in a postscript you added to an interview conducted just before the Sept. 11 attacks that you’re now more willing to live with surveillance. How have your attitudes about transparency, privacy or civil liberties changed as a result of Sept. 11?

My feeling is that it’s possible to have varying levels of transparency in society, and what makes a society both democratic and desirable is not so much the degree of transparency but the degree to which it’s symmetrical and similar for everyone. So if there’s a world in which my personal details are more available to people and I have less privacy, I’m willing to accept that if the same standard applies to corporations and the government and celebrities and whoever else is in a protected status right now. We have three elites who are entitled to more privacy than you or I, certain Hollywood type people, certain aspects of government and of corporations. I’m ready to give up privacy if they are. I’m ready to do it in tandem with them.

How have you spent most of your time this year in your role as lead scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative working on Internet 2?

This year I’ve been working on thenotropics. I describe it in a chapter in a new book called The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. It’s a way of rethinking how we connect the idea of information to the physical world. The first generation of information scientists — people like Claude Shannon — used the metaphors that were available to them, which were all based on sending information on wires and the protocols that let you look at only one (pulse) at a time on a charged wire. … But if you contrast that to the way a human eye connects to world, where a bunch of points are stimulated at once, the eye, even in one instant, can see a whole pattern and can interpret a still image. There’s a real threshold of difference to being more oriented to pre-agreed formats of information, which is the protocol, vs. interpreting a signal even if it’s not with agreement on the format, and that would be called pattern recognition. Computer science as we know it is based on the extreme protocol side of the spectrum.

There are a couple of ways in which this could be highly significant. One is that right now we don’t have a way of writing giant programs. Humanity’s techniques for making software run out at a certain size. That’s a big problem, because there’s a lot of software that we should have that we don’t know how to have. But we have a lot of other problems as well: with software reliability, with being able to read old data that becomes illegible. The way software is today is not acceptable. And so this is an attempt to make a new kind of software that will behave in certain ways.

For the uninitiated, what is Internet2, and when is it expected to arrive?

Internet2 is a specific project of a coalition of more than 180 universities to build advanced network applications. There’s a physical network and infrastructure called Abilene, and there’s a whole lot of research in specific areas, such as quality of service and things like tele-immersion, which couldn’t be done on any other version of the network before. But Internet2 is not a particular technology or platform, it’s more of a distributed laboratory.

Are you familiar with the conflict between the entertainment and high-tech industries that may result in restrictions in the way people can use computers, the Internet, television and so on in the name of protecting intellectual property? Where do you come down?

I’ve thought about it a very great deal. I’ve put out records on major labels myself, so I’ve experienced it from both sides. It’s a torturous issue. If I have to choose between the positions of the record industry and Howard Rheingold, I would choose Howard. But what I would prefer to find is a middle path, a compromise. The truth is that finding that compromise is extremely difficult. By luck or fate, it’s just very, very hard to come up with a technological design that can support an in-between position on this, and it’s very easy to come up with a technological design that supports an extreme position in either one direction or the other. Today’s situation is not working for anyone. Everyone’s unhappy.

I have some ideas on what an in-between design would look like, but it would take an hour or so to describe it.

The entertainment business has problems. You have to say it’s an extremely corrupt, essentially criminal business sector. I mean that in a literal sense. Everyone knows and acknowledges that payola, which is supposed to be illegal, is universally practiced by the music industry for promotion now. So we have an industry in which criminal behavior is openly accepted and standard. There has to be fundamental reform of the media industry to bring it into some sort of non-criminal mode of action. Otherwise we’re going to wind up with a sort of totalitarian media regime where you just have a very small number of people who control the means of communication, and that will lead to catastrophe. You can’t have democracy under that kind of system, you can’t have art.

If we’re going to go in the direction of intellectual property rights as the principal legal concern, it simply must be coupled with a wholesale assault on the corruption that’s crucial to business practices in the entertainment industry. And that isn’t happening.

In an interview in 1997, you told me you believe the Internet is not simply another medium, like movies or television — it’s the future of all communication that’s not face to face. Do you still hold that view?

Well, sure. The future is ours to make. We can build whatever future we want.

That’s an optimistic view in light of what’s happening in Washington, where there are movements afoot to restrict the kinds of media you can receive over the Internet.

All that stuff is profoundly mistaken. The level to which it’s mistaken is sort of breathtaking. What’s going on is the government is acting as the whore for hire of the media and consumer electronics side of the aisle. So we have the law telling us that we’re going to have digital HDTV, the law telling us which streams of information can go where, we have the law telling us what information we can distribute to each other. Because of the high degree of corruption and criminality in the entertainment industry, it’s all for the protection and service of a tiny, tiny, tiny elite. It doesn’t protect small-time players at all. It’s infuriating, it’s revolting. This tiny elite makes us all stupider with the inferior quality of their products. It dumbs everything down.

The Hollywood elite is subject to the same law of unintended consequences that everyone is. If there’s a law that says, in the future we’ll only be allowed digital TV sets and TV can only go across end-to-end controlled channels to these digital TV sets, the question is, what will motivate people to buy these?

From a global perspective, isn’t it beyond the reach of the US government to control or hobble the Net?

It’s a mixture. For instance, China is a place of authoritarian capitalism. China is the wet dream of Hollywood. In China you have a central political police authority that’s willing to control the Net and shut down open things. But the whole society is structured that way, so it works. Of course, we all want China to become a more open, tolerant place. But at the same time, the particular strength of the United States has always depended on a kind of openness that the Chinese have not depended on. So you have different parts of the world trying to control Net access in different ways.

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JD Lasica
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