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Jaron Lanier Got Everything Wrong

Jaron Lanier helped create virtual reality, all the way down to “VR” headsets and handgear. Smithsonian Magazine called him an 1980s “Silicon Valley digital-guru rock star.” Lanier was regularly featured in Wired Magazine, particularly during its early, glory days. Nearly 30 years before the introduction of Google Glass, Lanier saw deep into a future where individuals could access virtual worlds. Lanier’s sizable vision, however, appears to have resulted in few actual usable products – nor much in the way of human advancement.

In 1985, Jaron Zepel Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left their jobs at Atari and founded VPL Research. VPL was the first company to sell VR goggles and accessories. (The company filed for bankruptcy in 1990.) Lanier was later a “visiting scholar” at Silicon Graphics, served as an advisor to Linden Lab – makers of “shared creative spaces” and the much-hyped Second Life virtual world – and has also worked as “scholar-at-large” on Microsoft’s Kinect controller. With the possible exception of the Kinect device – which actually has been linked to virtual reality efforts – it’s difficult to view any of Lanier’s efforts as a success.  

Big Thinker

In 2010, Lanier was named to the Time 100. He was listed under the “Thinkers” category, along with Steve Jobs. Time described Lanier this way:

In the 1980s, Lanier’s pioneering work on virtual reality reshaped our concept of how sensory interfaces enable human-computer interaction. As a musician, he has fused Eastern and Western traditions with artistry and technology. His ability to synthesize these forces — so often held in opposition — is the hallmark of his mind and the guiding philosophy of his book, in which he celebrates the potential of the Internet but also laments the way its misuse can suppress the individual voice.

Comparing anyone’s accomplishments with Steve Jobs may be unfair, but unlike the late Apple co-founder, Lanier’s pioneering work hasn’t amounted to that much. Moreover, Lanier’s strident warnings of giant mainframes run by a few to control the many missed so many critical trends that it now sounds like 1980s science-fiction. 

Giant computer brains aside, the 52-year-old Lanier has often come close to the truth – yet was never able to fully capitalize on his insights. His efforts in the 1990s promoting “telepresence” and “tele-immersion,” for example, no doubt spurred innovation in the field. But the real work of bringing such technologies from vision to product has been left to others. Many of whom, Lanier has found time to criticize. 

Writing for Wired in December 2000, Lanier lambasted Ray Kurzweil, so-called father of “the singularity,” and others for their “cybernetic totalism.” Lanier expressed grave doubts that humans should or could be replaced by computers within a few decades – though in large part because of his belief that software grows increasingly more bloated and complex over time. Lanier did not foresee the rise of small stripped down apps and the mobile operatings systems on which they run. 

Lanier’s oft-expressed view that our machines could make us less human seems to have utterly discounted the truly empowering aspects of the merger of man and computer – the ability today for children to learn on their own using an iPad, for example.

The Bad Collective

Lanier appears to have repeatedly discounted the power of the collective Web to enhance individual power and connectivity. 

In his 2006 essay, “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” Lanier came close to foreseeing the global rise of Twitter and Facebook. Instead of being awed at how this new level of connectivity might improve humanity, however, Lanier railed against those who “start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say… and making ourselves into idiots.” Lanier sounded an alarm that not only fell on deaf ears, but suggests that the “collective” – basically, masses of people – are what we should fear most. From his essay: 

What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallcy of the infallible collective.

Lanier continued, revealing his perception of the so-called wisdom of the crowd:

The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

Perhaps Lanier believes we have always been stupid. In his 2006 essay, “Beware the Online Collective,” Lanier stated:

I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob.

The man who once sought to alter our very reality, create new worlds and prevent an anonymous cabal from controlling the masses, seems to possess a deep distrust of most people. Perhaps Virtual Reality was Lanier’s escape from this world?

What’s to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It’s amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It’s time to think about that power on a moral basis.

It’s a valid concern, but Twitter-enhanced protests during the “Arab Spring,” for example, reveal that an “online mass” can be a force for liberation, not just a “mean mob.” Nonetheless, in his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier returned to the theme of anonymous groups manipulating the masses.

Much to Criticize

Lanier has claimed that real-time, social sharing platforms, which he groups under the term “Web 2.0,” has glorified the collective. He has labeled Facebook and Google as “spy agencies.” Lanier has criticized aspects of open software. He suggests that collective-generated content, such as might be found today on Wikipedia or Quora, for example, “removes the scent of people,” whatever that means.  

Over and over again, Lanier has not only missed the rapid growth of the future just as it was about to strike, he also badly misunderstood the disruptive power, creative ability and even wisdom it confers to the very people he reputedly sought to protect from its rise.

The Lawnmower Man As Prophecy?

Here’s the perfect example. Lanier’s home page lists his books, musical works and upcoming speaking engagements and includes such “Celebrity Fluff” as:

The 1992 movie Lawnmower Man was in part based on him and his early laboratory- he was played by Piers Brosnan (sic).

In The Lawnmower Man, an exceedingly not-bright man is befriended by the brilliant, handsome scientist (Lanier?). By integrating the dolt with virtual reality tools and linking him with a singularly giant computer, the subject gains incredible mental powers. But very quickly, he – and everything – goes terribly wrong.

Lanier foresaw the rise of computing power, even if he whiffed on its actual execution, with a deep-seated fear that, well, ignorant rubes would use it to muck everything up. Perhaps what held Lanier back was his deep-seated fear of what would happen if and when the power of the technologies he worked on reached the masses.

Lanier can be lauded for his concerns that giant computer companies may harm people, or that we may lose our humanity by merging man and machine. Too often, however, Lanier seems to be repelled by the thought of these grand technologies flowing to the very people he claims to care about.

While technology, computing and the “mob” mind have moved forward so quickly, Lanier appears to be standing still, seemingly content to speak at TED, SXSW and other events. Lanier’s VR dreams were a shockingly intriguing experiment in the 1980s. Some 30 years later, however, while virtual reality remains mostly vapor, the world has changed in dramatic ways Lanier never saw coming.

Note: ReadWrite reached out to Mr. Lanier via the email provided on his personal website. He did not respond. 

Top image of Jaron Lanier courtesy of Flicker/vanz

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