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VR pioneer Jaron Lanier on dystopia, empathy, and the future of the internet

VR pioneer Jaron Lanier on dystopia, empathy, and the future of the internet

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Jaron Lanier is one of virtual reality’s most recognizable figures. He’s credited with popularizing the term itself, and he co-founded VPL, a short-lived but groundbreaking company that built some of the first commercial VR headsets. Since then, Lanier has been better known for his writing on digital ownership and internet ecosystems, with the books You Are Not A Gadget and Who Owns the Future? But his most recent work revisits the world of ‘80s and ‘90s VR, as well as the rest of Lanier’s life — including his early years on the Texas-Mexico border, his childhood living in a self-designed geodesic dome, and the tumultuous process of founding VPL.

Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality debuted last month, and we met up with Lanier to talk about how first-wave VR intersects with present-day reality, why empathy is a double-edged sword, and whether we’ll have to burn down the internet.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You had a childhood you describe as almost magical-realist. A lot of parts feel like they couldn’t happen now.

“That ability to move through different cultures was very important to my early life.”

Well, it certainly couldn’t happen in the same geographical place, because I grew up on the border with Mexico, which used to be this very sweet open border between two very different cultures. And I think that ability to move through very different environments, different cultures, easily was very important to my early life. I think it helped shape my sense of what’s possible with people. And I think if you grew up along that border today and there’s this huge military-scale barrier, you’d probably get exactly the opposite impression of the world: that change is impossible and things can only be as they are.

Can online communication offer that kind of openness?

Well, that’s what we’d like. Unfortunately, what’s happened is that the online world has been structured by what I view as the perverse financial incentives of the advertising model into exactly the opposite, where people are corralled into these groups that are made to be as annoyed as possible with each other. So we’re effectively creating a wall between people that’s analogous to the big wall going up with Mexico now.

I’m curious whether you think virtual reality promotes empathy, something you mention in Dawn of the New Everything.

“Empathy should sometimes be angry.”

If you were interviewing my 20-something self, I’d be all over the place with this very eloquent and guru-like pitch that VR was the ultimate empathy machine — that through VR we’d be able to experience a broader range of identities and it would help us see the world in a broader way and be less stuck in our own heads.

That rhetoric has been quite present in recent VR culture, but there are no guarantees there. There was recently this kind of ridiculous fail where [Mark] Zuckerberg was showing devastation in Puerto Rico and saying, “This is a great empathy machine, isn’t it magical to experience this?” While he’s in this devastated place that the country’s abandoned. And there’s something just enraging about that. Empathy should sometimes be angry, if anger is the appropriate response.

There’s also a larger case against empathy, which argues it can be used for terrible ends.

Empathy can be turned to terrible ends because people behave like jerks when they turn into tribes or packs. The problem with the online world today is that to maximize engagement, you need to maximize emotional engagement, and the emotions that are most engaging are the negative ones.

I think a lot of people perceive a sort of arc of improving empathy and ethics in civilization. Recently, it’s been reversed. The Arab Spring turned into this terrible wave of terrorist nihilism. When women got together to try and improve their lot in the gaming world, it turned into Gamergate, which turned into the alt-right. Black Lives Matter preceded this normalization of racism and white supremacy that was just unthinkable a year before.

All of these movements, that are so social media-centric, provide the fuel to the social media system. But to maximize the value of that fuel, it’s routed into negative purposes, so the people who are the most irritated by whatever is going on that’s positive are introduced to each other. The backlash is vastly more powerful than the initial attempt. My prediction is that #MeToo will create some kind of horrible social event through social media in about a year.

You do touch on imagining optimistic futures in Dawn of the New Everything, including a great anecdote where you told William Gibson to stop making his stories so depressing.

“It just seems as though cautionary tales don’t work.”

One of the themes in this book is the sort of futility of trying to warn about dangers. I had this crazy idea when I was in my early 20s that maybe just through trying to imagine a better world instead of dystopias, maybe it would just happen through that process of articulation. So when the cyberpunk movement started up, I did have these preposterous arguments with Bill Gibson, saying, “Oh my god, you’re making it so dark! You’re going to curse it!” And of course I was being ridiculous. I completely acknowledge that now.

But I should say, it’s a bit of a problem, because I’ve tried it both ways. It just seems as though cautionary tales don’t work. I think straightforward rational argument is still the best tool to make a better future. I feel like storytelling for some reason doesn’t rouse people from their immediate attraction to coolness, and that actually turns out to be poisonous.

Back to VR, the book has some interesting little details. Like, you said you were working on a VR sport for the Olympics?

It’s funny, I think I’m still under a contract where I’m not supposed to talk about it. There had been a lot of interest in VR in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the Olympics Committee had said yeah, could we do a sport in VR? It was like a cross between some of the NASA training systems that simulated antigravity, and some other things. It was quite unlike things that are supported by current commercial VR. I still think it’s a really cool idea, and I think a lot of people would enjoy it.

There was also a bizarre prototype of a VR taste simulator.

“We have developed the ability to disgust you.”

I’d given a talk in Japan, where I said we could imagine this robotic chemical emitter thing that would simulate the textures and flavors of foods. My joke was that it was too disgusting to contemplate. And then I got this very formal letter from one of the wonderful VR labs in Japan, saying, “We are pleased to announce that we have developed the ability to disgust you.”

It was like this rubber thing with all these little robotic effectors inside it that could collapse or move, and it had all these little nozzles that would squirt flavors out of little holes. You would stick it in your mouth and start chewing on it. It was really hard to sterilize between users, and really hard to initialize, and really kind of crazy. But yeah, it’s one of the many wonderful VR devices lost to the sands of time.

That does sound really disgusting.

It is absolutely the most repulsive user interface item I have ever seen. Well, it’s got some competition. But it’s up there.

You describe a lot of interesting VR worlds you created that are now lost. Do you wish you’d preserved them, or is it better that they disappear after a while?

That’s a really good question. Is it good that we’ve lost some of past culture? Would it be worse for us if we preserved every masterpiece from the ancient world? It good that there’s kind of some entropy, when we have a certain amount of memory but we have to make up new things?

There’s actually one of the few surviving videos of an ‘80s virtual world on my website, and it’s of me playing virtual musical instruments of a live performance. When I look at it I think, “Wow, that was actually pretty cool.”

Digital media as a whole is a big problem for preservationists right now.

Of course digital was sold to us back in the day as an infinite memory. Like when something’s digital, it lasts forever; it’s not like paper. But in fact, exactly the opposite is true.

There’s a section of the book on what you call phenotropic computing, which touches a little on how fragile digital systems are.

“We thought we were doing the best possible thing for the world.”

A little bit. Phenotropic computing was the vision I’ve had for virtual reality architecture, and it was this idea for a kind of programming that you could change while it happened. These really ambitious visions for computing tend to obsess a lot of people who’ve been really productive in computer science. We hang onto these things, and we keep on working on them, even as the world settles on what seems like this encrusted mundanity.

Do you imagine starting fresh with them? Like, we shut down the internet and rebuild from the ashes, or set up a parallel system?

I sometimes wonder if that’ll happen. I’ve been actually going through a bit of a crisis of conscience lately, and I think a lot of people in my generation are. In the ‘90s I was the chief scientist of this consortium called Internet2, trying to figure out how to make the internet scalable, and we thought we were doing the best possible thing for the world. And I just wonder, what did we achieve with all this work? All of these lives that were devoted to this thing, and it sometimes seems to be tearing the world apart.

We might have to start over. It might really be that bad. But I really hope not. I really think that if we can just change the financial incentives so that somebody like Facebook is making money from helping people do creative and wonderful valuable things, rather than from being paid to manipulate them by third parties, it might correct itself. I think there’s still hope for that.