Jaron Lanier is one of the most fascinating figures to come out of Silicon Valley. His first claim to fame was the invention of the modern VR headset, the prototype that today’s popular models are based on. Many people even credit him with coining the phrase “virtual reality.” Since that time, Lanier’s opinions and ideas about Silicon Valley and big tech have evolved a lot. He offers dire warnings about the effects of social media on our lives but brilliant economic ideas and hopeful philosophies. He’s been interviewed in countless publications and on many TV shows, has delivered talks at institutions around the world, and has authored several books. Lanier is also a research scientist and musician in the “new classical” genre.
Lanier was born in New York City and raised in New Mexico by his Austrian and Ukrainian parents. His mother survived a concentration camp, and his father fled the Ukrainian pogroms. After losing his mother to a car accident when he was 9, Lanier spent seven years helping his father to design a geodesic dome home. He then enrolled at New Mexico State University at age 13 and began taking graduate-level classes. He received a grant to study mathematical notation, which led him to learn computer programming.
In the 1980s, Lanier worked for Atari, where he met George Zimmerman. After Atari was split into two companies, Lanier lost his job, and he then focused on working on the coding language for a VR headset. He teamed up with Zimmerman, who invented the “data glove” controller aspect of VR, and together, they formed VPL Research. VPL Research developed the prototypes for today’s commercial headsets. After VPL Research filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and was eventually sold to another company, Lanier went on to work as a lead scientist at several different Silicon Valley companies and as a visiting scholar at many different universities, including Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and the University of California at Berkeley.
VPL Research, co-founded by Lanier, was the first company to produce commercial virtual reality headsets. His invention included the first avatars used in a VR system, and his research contributions include wide-ranging VR applications like surgical simulation and vehicle prototyping. He’s pushed VR to be used as a research tool that’s been applied to studies in the fields of AI for medicine, fundamental physics, and biomimetic information architecture.
Lanier does not have any social media accounts, and his views on social media are quite negative. In books and talks, he’s highlighted the ways that social media manipulates the user for commercial and even political gain, and he regularly urges people to delete their social media accounts until these platforms change their tactics.
According to Lanier, social media companies research how their algorithms can change human behavior, have seen their negative effects on users, and continue to use these methods anyway because they’re extremely profitable. In other words, social media platforms intend for users to be addicted to using them. They intend to use behavior modification to influence how people spend money and time, and they spread harmful rhetoric and misinformation more effectively than facts and positive information. Lanier warns that as a result of social media, we no longer live in a shared reality of reason and truth, and as the world faces problems like climate change and regimes that thwart democracy, this is a very dangerous situation.
“You can’t make a society wealthy by making it crazy.”
“It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering.”
“If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.”
“If we allow our self-congratulatory adoration of technology to distract us from our own contact with each other, then somehow, the original agenda has been lost.”
“Facebook says, ‘Privacy is theft’ because they’re selling your lack of privacy to the advertisers who might show up one day.”
“Services like Google and Facebook only exist because of the social acceptance of a mass amount of distributed volunteer labor from tons and tons of people.”
“People have to be able to make money off their brains and their hearts, or else we’re all going to starve and it’s the machines that’ll get good.”
“I’d much rather see a world where when you make some quirky comment on a blog or news story or you upload a video clip, instead of just a moment of fame for your pseudonym, you’ll get 50 bucks. The first time that happens, you’ll realize that you’re a full-class citizen. You have the potential to make money from the system.”