Jaron Lanier: “VR Should Be About Live Connections with Real People”
A Pioneer of Virtual Reality in Conversation with Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers: Your new book, Dawn of the New Everything, which is about the birth of virtual reality, is also an intimate memoir, detailing your unusual upbringing. To tell the story behind VR, did you have to tell your own story, too?
Jaron Lanier: We, meaning centuries of technical people, have made up this supposedly dispassionate voice from above who speaks about technical things. I don’t think that voice has served us well. We have to be precise to talk about technical subjects, of course, but precision doesn’t have to mean personal erasure.
For instance, students used to be taught about the work of someone like Alan Turing without any reference to his personal story. When I first learned a little about Turing the person, suddenly his ideas made sense. He popped into three dimensions for me. Turing made up the idea of artificial intelligence, but he did it in the weeks before committing suicide under the burden of torture for his sexual orientation. Knowing that puts his ideas in an entirely different light. Artificial Intelligence is not a sterile, objective idea that makes sense according to universal standards, but a human idea that was part of a response to prejudice and cruelty. It might have been a fantasy to escape the human condition, but it was part of the human condition.
In the same way, it would be absurd to talk about the constellation of ideas I brought to virtual reality as transcendent or purely abstract structures. I am a person, the reader is a person, and technology is something that people do. We must understand it that way in order to be sane.
DE: There’s an image from your book that I can’t get out of my head, and that’s of you and your father constructing a giant three-dimensional version of a fantastically shaped house you designed when you were about 11. I think of that as your Rosebud—a key to the alternate-world building you describe with VR. Is there a connection?
JL: The house was made of triangles, including geodesic domes. The computer graphics objects that one sees in VR are usually made of triangles in the same way, even though the triangles are often obscured, so there is a similarity.
Beyond that, it stunned me in middle age to realize how my childhood had provided the vocabulary of my life. It was something I knew intellectually, from reading other peoples’ books, but that’s different from feeling it. When I was a young adult, I might have been too proud to accept that I was also still the child.
If that house was my Rosebud, I am grateful it was not severed from me completely, like the sled in Citizen Kane. It’s best when childhood isn’t entirely lost.
DE: VR, it seems to me, has been on the verge of widespread use for about 20 years. Compared to some technologies, it seems to have had a very slow journey from its initial stages, and public awareness about it, to mainstream use. Why do you think that is?
JL: There are a lot of opinions about that. My point of view is that the tech companies, and tech culture in general, have tended to bring out versions of VR that miss the point.
For instance, you can buy headsets for visual VR experiences that include almost no ability for you to do anything within a virtual world. VR is all about doing things, and becoming different versions of yourself. Becoming a flying crawfish who designs houses on an alien moon is more engaging and interesting than peering inside someone else’s canned design of an alien moon, but unfortunately there’s been such a rush to provide the visual illusion that the interactivity, the possibility of action, has been almost an afterthought.
Another problem is that the industry is patterned after what came before, either video games or movies, but neither is much like VR. Most of the stores that offer VR experiences expect people to download an experience, and then use it in the same way someone gets a movie on Netflix. That seems terribly lonely, dry, and unappealing to me.
VR can be more like a cross between Skype and a costume party. It should be about live connections with real people. We should be creating new economic opportunities for real time performers within VR.
I realize this might sound strange to people who haven’t experienced much VR. The appeal of VR is that it celebrates imagination and creativity. It reminds us of what it was like to be a small child, when anything seemed possible. Canned experiences in downloads kill that appeal.
DE: I tested a few VR experiences a few years ago. One was a standard sort of CGI movie which was very beautiful but a bit like the video games that I’d expect to come via VR. The other was more powerful. Someone had filmed a New York Black Lives Matter march, and with the VR headset I could experience it with extraordinary vividness. It was extremely powerful—ten times more so than a standard 2-D video experience. But I do fear that that kind of use of VR won’t be profitable, and so won’t be developed nearly as much as the games-and-porn that many fear will dominate the VR market.
JL: Back in the 1980s I talked a lot about how VR could become a useful tool for positive social change. Hypothetically, it can be the most vivid medium, and can give you a concrete feeling for what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Artists like Chris Milk have used VR to document the experiences of refugees in a new first hand manner, for one good example.
For now, though, movements like Black Lives Matter are doomed to fail catastrophically, and that’s because of structural problems in how social media currently operates. Note that movements with a positive feeling and a strong social media presence, like the Arab Spring, the sudden sprint in LGBTQ rights, the drive to make gaming less male-dominated, and Black Lives Matter all resulted in preposterously vicious backlashes that were unexpected and not historically typical. Backlashes are typical, of course, but these backlashes have been vicious and cruel in a way that has interrupted the arc of history.
The Arab Spring turned into networks of nihilist terrorists. The drive for women in gaming turned into GamerGate, which was the prototype for the alt right. Black Lives Matter as well as the Obama presidency, which relied more on social media during campaigns than any previous administration, engendered a sudden, inconceivable resurgence and normalization of white supremacy.
All these cases followed the same pattern. Social media as we know it must optimize “engagement” above all else. Unfortunately, negative emotions like anger and fear are more potent for that purpose than positive ones.
The energy people put into social media is its only fuel, so to use that fuel with the greatest efficiently, social media naturally routes positive energy from well meaning people into negative purposes.
People who are annoyed by Black Lives Matter, for instance, were identified, connected, and stirred in a pressure cooker automatically, because that is the most efficient path to engagement.
I can’t describe the whole process in this brief interview, but so long as social media works the way it does currently, it is structurally hopeless as a component of positive social change. It is an efficient machine to turn love into hate.
#MeToo will meet the same fate in the same way because it is too social media-centric. There’s no fundamental reason for new media to be this deadly. I dream of better stuff.
DE: You were one of the first people to have come from within the tech world to criticize many of its outcomes—in your books You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future. Recently, other insiders, from Facebook and Google, have exposed the ways many companies purposely create addictive technologies, often while knowing they’re of dubious social value, and oftentimes demonstrably harmful. Do you think we’re getting any closer to the major companies being more self-aware, better regulated or even self-regulated? How many apostates will it take?
JL: In my experience, most people in the tech world have good intentions. It might be that tech culture will grow and change and correct itself.
The core problem, however, has uncomfortable origins that will require a reckoning from some very sweet people, including many in the Left. Back when the Internet was starting up, there was a tremendously strong movement demanding that everything be free. Free email, news, and particularly music. But at the same time, there was a lot of admiration for tech entrepreneur hero figures like Steve Jobs.
If the people demand a combination of capitalist entrepreneurs and free things, then the only solution available is advertising—but advertising turns into something very different when everyone is constantly connected to digital devices in a global network. It turns into continuous incremental behavior modification. When that kind of service is out for hire, it makes society absurd. Furthermore, negative emotions like fear, hatred, envy, and insecurity are more powerful fuel for such a scheme, so society becomes mean, dark, and dangerous even as it becomes incoherent.
In order to fix it, there will have to be a change in the underlying incentives. What I think would be the best outcome is that you have a chance to make a living for yourself if you’re contributing a lot to companies like Facebook or Twitter with your posts, but at the same time everyone pays a small fee to use those services. When companies like Facebook and Twitter make money that way instead of through hiring themselves out for mass behavior mod, then there won’t be a welcome mat out for foreign information warriors to destabilize our society.
It might sound impossible to make that transition, but I can’t see any other way to shut down the phenomenon of behavior modification empires. Regulators will never be able to keep up with hackers if the incentives remain perverse.
“If the people demand a combination of capitalist entrepreneurs and free things, then the only solution available is advertising”
DE: I’ve been alarmed by the recent studies showing skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among teens, especially young women, with an almost direct relationship to the rise of smartphone use among teens. Do you think tech companies will care? It seems like a moment where they could truly show their conscience . . .
JL: Tech people have a bad habit of pretending to understand everything, since we can spy on everything. In this case, I have to admit my limitations. I don’t claim to understand what’s going on here.
That said, I’d like to offer some tentative speculation. Techies designed the new world to favor techies. If you’re good at tweaking digital designs as they exist today, then you’ll have an advantage over people who aren’t as good at it.
I must emphasize that there’s no fundamental reason for digital designs to be as they are, though some of the designs have gotten “locked in” to the point that they’ll be hard to change, and that can feel fundamental.
The current designs tend to favor a cognitive style that’s good at details, repetition, puzzles, abstraction, and shutting out ambiguities. We used to think of it as being a little bit “on the spectrum”, though that characterization has fallen out of favor, maybe with good reason. It’s a cognitive style that doesn’t by itself constitute intelligence, though intelligent people can have it.
Anyway, whether it’s cultural and of the moment, or due to some more persistent cause, it’s a cognitive style that is more associated with young men than other types of people. An earlier generation of young men designed the digital world for themselves, and new generations of men treat that benefit as if it were a given.
The result is that young men are good at being anonymous and sniping, while young women tend to be placed on a constant stage in which they are judged for their sexual and social appeal from the point of view of those who are better at hiding.
The online services are designed to “maximize engagement” which is a sanitized way of saying that they’re designed to be addictive. They do this by providing “noisy feedback”, which brains find irresistible. It’s the same principle that leads to gambling addiction. Young women are drawn into obsessions with these systems just like everyone else, but cognitive style exclusion tends to put them in a more immediately vulnerable and cruel situation.
DE: Just today we see that Facebook is unveiling Messenger Kids, which targets kids under 13. In light of the very recent studies making clear the damaging effects of young kids on social media, and a month or so after Sean Parker said “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” this seems to be particularly tone-deaf and insensitive. It’s a bit like the tobacco industry making candy cigarettes for kids.
It seems that in the past few years, there’s been a turn in terms of public perception of the internet and tech companies. A few years ago, when the Circle came out, and I spoke at colleges about it, I felt a tension in many rooms—as if I were questioning a tool and a lifestyle the students held dear. Now, the students I see—most recently at Auburn University last week—are almost uniformly wary of tech companies, and hugely conflicted about their own relationship to their phones. The atmosphere has changed drastically in the last 2 years. Last week, when I asked a few hundred students, “How many of you struggle with balancing tech and your lives?” I’d say about 90 percent raised their hands. I can’t think of a corollary to that—where the overwhelming majority of a product’s users don’t like the way they use the product. Again, I guess the product that comes to mind is tobacco—where the users feel addicted, want to quit, but can’t. I covered the tobacco industry in the 90s, and though I hadn’t seen many parallels before, they are becoming more plausible now.
JL: I’ve been warning about this problem for decades, and so have others in the computer science world, starting with Norbert Wiener. Yes, we have proven we can design addictive, manipulative gadgets using digital algorithms. When we do that we are simply repeating the behaviorist experiments of the last century and a half, though on a global scale, upon billions of people.
We must not lose the power of faith in our own imaginations. To assume that our technology can only be the way it is is a sin; a new kind of modern sin.
A better way must be based on better incentives. Right now the only prize ordinary people can get from the digital world is attention, which makes a lot of people into asses, while the only prize many of the biggest internet companies can seek is to maximize income from mass behavior modification for hire, which attracts the creepiest customers.
“We must not lose the power of faith in our own imaginations. To assume that our technology can only be the way it is is a sin; a new kind of modern sin.”
DE: You and I have talked a lot about ethics and tech, and I think we both agree that we have a lot of friends in tech who are very idealistic and moral people. We’ve talked a lot about what kinds of regulations the industry might need, and what sorts of mutually agreed-upon guidelines internet companies and smartphone makers might agree on—some kind of Digital Bill of Rights for the users and makers. These guidelines would declare that spying on users without their consent is a moral wrong, for starters. And that companies should not seek to create purposely addictive tech and market it to young people. If you were sitting down to write such a Digital Bill of Rights—and I think you’re the one to do it—where would you start?
JL: I’ve participated in an effort of this kind in the EU already, working on principles of data ethics. There are a few tricky problems. One is that hackers move faster and with more wicked tools than lawyers, and the other is that if the underlying economic incentives promote a certain kind of outcome, laws can’t thwart that outcome. This is the problem with prohibitions. There needs to be at least a moderate alignment between the incentives that exist in a society and the laws of that society. That’s why I feel the initial priority must be to promote online business plans other than mass behavior modification for hire. Subscriptions, anything. If the incentives can become less awful, then we at least have a plausible situation to support talk about ethics and laws.
DE: You know, I remain optimistic. I have met so many thoughtful people in tech leadership that I can’t help but think they want, in the end, to do the right thing. But then things like Messenger Kids happen and I feel a growing despair. If a company like Facebook doesn’t know that marketing addictive tech to kids is inherently immoral, then we’re in trouble.
JL: One of the tragedies is that “tech” was perhaps the last god that had not failed. People were until recently finding hope for the future in tech, but now tech feels like a trap. I hope that an honest confrontation with the nature of tech helps. I still believe that tech can—that it must be part of a way to a better future, but we have to be tough-minded to get there. Dawn of the New Everything is my project to reconcile my love of tech with my disappointments in how it’s turned out so far.
Dave Eggers is the author of The Circle, among other books. He is founder of McSweeney’s Publishing, and the co-founder of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.
Jaron Lanier is a scientist, musician, and writer best known for his work in virtual reality and his advocacy of humanism and sustainable economics in a digital context. His 1980s start-up VPL Research created the first commercial VR products and introduced avatars, multiperson virtual world experiences, and prototypes of major VR applications such as surgical simulation. His new book is Dawn of the New Everything. Both of his previous books, Who Owns the Future? and You Are Not a Gadget, have been international bestsellers.