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Technology Quarterly: Q3 2010

Brain scan

The virtual curmudgeon

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual-reality technology, has more recently become an outspoken critic of online social media

FROM “Wikinomics” to “Cognitive Surplus” to “Crowdsourcing”, there is no shortage of books lauding the “Web 2.0” era and celebrating the online collaboration, interaction and sharing that it makes possible. Today anyone can publish a blog or put a video on YouTube, and thousands of online volunteers can collectively produce an operating system like Linux or an encyclopedia like Wikipedia. Isn’t that great?
No, says Jaron Lanier, a technologist, musician and polymath who is best known for his pioneering work in the field of virtual reality. His book, “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto”, published earlier this year, is a provocative attack on many of the internet’s sacred cows. Mr Lanier lays into the Web 2.0 culture, arguing that what passes for creativity today is really just endlessly rehashed content and that the “fake friendship” of social networks “is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers”. For Mr Lanier there is no wisdom of crowds, only a cruel mob. “Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks and lightweight mash-ups may seem trivial and harmless,” he writes, “but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned personal interaction.”
If this criticism of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia had come from an outsider—a dyed-in-the-wool technophobe—then nobody would have paid much attention. But Mr Lanier’s denunciation of internet groupthink as “digital Maoism” carries more weight because of his career at technology’s cutting edge.
Mr Lanier was born in New York City in 1960, but his bohemian parents upped sticks and moved to Mesilla, New Mexico, when he was young. His mother died in a car accident when he was nine and he was raised by his father in difficult financial circumstances. Their house was repossessed and for a long time the Laniers lived in tents. Eventually they built a “strange house” that the young Mr Lanier helped design. It took seven years to complete and gave him a taste for creating fantastical environments. He also collected bits of discarded technology from the nearby White Sands missile base and built contraptions, including a haunted “house” that he describes as “too strange and terrifying for even a single kid to visit”.
But he had few friends of his own age in any case. The young Mr Lanier was far more comfortable in the company of adults and had a talent for befriending clever people who acted as mentors. Clyde Tombaugh, the head of optics at the missile range and the discoverer of the dwarf planet Pluto, took him under his wing and helped him build telescopes from cast-off technology. Mr Lanier also had access to the well-equipped computer centre at White Sands.
Mesilla was a rough town back then, and not an easy place for a sensitive, intelligent young man to fit in. “I was very intensely lonely and very disconnected,” says Mr Lanier. “It left me with a profound awkwardness that I haven’t fully overcome.” His sense of alienation gave him an abiding fascination with what it means to be connected to other people. “What does it mean to not be alone?” asks Mr Lanier. “I’ve approached that question through music, technology, writing and other means.”
After dropping out of both high school and art college, Mr Lanier tried his hand at goat-herding and midwifery. His anti-establishment tendencies prevented him from doing the obvious thing and taking a job at the White Sands missile range. Instead, he hopped into a bullet-riddled Dodge Dart and drove to California in pursuit of a girl, characteristically hanging out with the Nobel prize-winning physicists, Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, along the way.
It all started with Atari
California in the early 1980s proved to be more accepting of bohemian inventors than Mesilla, New Mexico, and Mr Lanier felt at home. Via a circuitous route, he went from busking on the streets of Santa Cruz to working for Atari, a video-games firm, as a researcher. At his new home in Sausalito, he also busied himself developing a video game called Moondust, which he demonstrated to his new employers. Tom Zimmerman, a co-worker, recalls the game being a “visual orgy” where the player has to move a cloud around. Move the cloud fast enough, and you are rewarded with a surge of light and sound. “Everyone else was writing shoot-’em-up games, so I knew this guy was different,” says Mr Zimmerman.
In 1984 Atari’s fortunes changed for the worse and Mr Lanier and Mr Zimmerman found themselves without a job. For Mr Lanier, unemployment simply meant more time to work on pet projects. Having made some money from selling Moondust, he continued to work on a “post-symbolic” visual programming language (VPL) for manipulating objects in three-dimensional space. What was missing was an interface device to move the objects about. As it happened, Mr Zimmerman had developed a “data glove” some years before, with the intention of using it to mould virtual pottery. But programming was not Mr Zimmerman’s forte. “Jaron was looking for a more interesting interface technology for his programming language,” says Mr Zimmerman. “You could characterise it as software looking for hardware. I was on the other side. I had this rich interface device, but no application for it.”
In 1985 Mr Zimmerman, along with Chuck Blanchard, Young Harvill and Steve Bryson, joined Mr Lanier’s recently formed company, VPL Research, that would pioneer virtual reality. “Jaron was picking up these fantastical ideas of virtual creatures you’d inhabit through your body, and people would be interacting in this virtual world, and I was doing the interface hardware, building these gloves for him,” says Mr Zimmerman. “We were basically creating this industry, although we didn’t know it at the time.” VPL created the first software avatars, the first multi-person virtual reality, the first commercial VR equipment and its first application, to surgical simulation. VPL thrived for a while, selling 1.3m basic data gloves to Mattel, a toymaker, and a smaller number of high-end gloves to NASA and IBM. But the firm filed for bankruptcy in 1990, and all its patents were sold to Sun Microsystems, then a rising computer-maker.
Looking back, 20 years later, it is hard to say whether Mr Lanier’s VR dream has been realised or not. In a sense, it has become commonplace in the form of video games, which routinely feature avatars and have controllers that sense movement and provide vibrational feedback. But VR in the precise form that Mr Lanier originally conceived it, with head-mounted displays, data-gloves and immersive environments, is used only in obscure corners of industrial design. The field that has benefited most from the technology is probably medicine, where VR is used for surgical training and planning. VR can also be used during surgery to enhance the surgeon’s vision, increasing the number of non-invasive procedures that can be performed.
One problem in assessing the success of VR is that the term itself, coined by Mr Lanier, has come to mean many things. “The original term meant a shared experience of a virtual world in which a computer simulation intervened in the sensory-motor loop,” says Mr Lanier. “These days, it means just about anything.”
Carry on connecting
Oddly, in 1996, when Allan Weis had a “crazy idea” to create distributed virtual reality, he hadn’t heard of Jaron Lanier. At the time, Mr Weis worked for Advanced Network & Services, a non-profit organisation that built and maintained a large section of the internet under contract to the American National Science Foundation. The NSF provided Mr Weis with a grant of several million dollars to develop his crazy idea, known as tele-immersion. His first move was to hold a conference at the University of Illinois and invite everybody he knew who was involved in virtual reality and computer graphics to join him in his new venture—the National Tele-immersion Initiative.
Each person Mr Weis recruited said Mr Lanier should be running the project. Mr Weis eventually tracked him down and offered him the job of lead scientist. “He was able to get a lot of people with very large egos working together on a joint project and accomplished an enormous amount in just a few years,” says Mr Weis. “He doesn’t let his ego get in the way of working with people. And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t really respect him.”
Mr Lanier’s ability to connect with people, in order to connect people, is possibly his greatest asset. When describing him, his friends use terms like “huggable”, “jovial” and “humanist”. It is easy to see why the collectivism of Web 2.0 irks Mr Lanier. He regards it as impersonal, passive, anonymous and less than the sum of its parts, and calls it a “hive mind”. He has described VR, by contrast, as “the first medium to come along that doesn’t narrow the human spirit”.
“You Are Not A Gadget” is a pessimistic book, but Mr Lanier argues that it is optimistic about humans. “It says that humans are special, they’re not computers,” he explains. He does not just rail against Web 2.0. He also decries the lack of ambition in computer science, and worries that there is less experimentation than there was in the past. To criticise computing for a lack of innovation sounds odd. But when computer-science students dream of being the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg they are all thinking within the confines of narrow engineering and commercial strategies, Mr Lanier argues. “We’re losing track of the vastness of the potential for computer science,” he says. “We really have to revive the beautiful intellectual joy of it, as opposed to the business potential.”
“We have to revive the beautiful intellectual joy of computing, as opposed to the business potential.”
So it is perhaps surprising that Mr Lanier has collaborated with some of the very firms he criticises. He has done business with Google, which has acquired a couple of the firms where he has worked since the collapse of VPL. He has been an adviser to Linden Lab, the makers of “Second Life”, an online virtual world. More recently he has worked as a “partner architect” with Microsoft on Kinect, a camera that attaches to its Xbox 360 games console. Kinect enables full-body motion capture, voice recognition and face recognition, allowing gamers to use their bodies, voices and faces instead of conventional game controllers. When asked to justify biting the hand that feeds him, Mr Lanier observes that Microsoft is “the only institution in the world for doing this type of work” on a large scale.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, describes Mr Lanier as “a lovely guy”. “We may have some disagreements about Web 2.0,” says Mr Wales, “but I consider his criticism to be generally thoughtful and always honest.” Running Wikipedia means that Mr Wales is all too aware of the pitfalls, as well as the advantages, of mass online collaboration. “We may not be as far apart as people might imagine,” he says of Mr Lanier.
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