A Conversation with Jaron Lanier, Computer Scientist, Composer, Artist & Author.

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier is a renaissance man, and one of the most profoundly important thinkers of our age on the relationship of technology to humanity. He is a computer scientist, composer, artist, and author who writes on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technology, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism.

Jaron Lanier has been on the cusp of technological innovation from its infancy to the present. A pioneer in virtual reality (a term he coined), Lanier founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products, and led teams originating VR applications for medicine, design, and numerous other fields. Officially, Jaron is Microsoft’s “Octopus”, which stands for Office of the Chief Technology Officer Prime Unifying Scientist.. He was a founder or principal of startups that were acquired by Google, Adobe, Oracle, and Pfizer.

He was concerned about how the internet was turning out from way back before it was popular to do that; has written a number of bestselling books on the topic.  His work has gained him plenty of awards and accolades, including an IEEE Lifetime Achievement Award, the German Peace Prize for Books, one of the highest literary honours, and multiple honorary PhDs.  In 2018, Wired named Jaron one of the 25 most influential figures in tech from the previous 25 years.  Jaron’s also a musician specializing in unusual and obscure instruments; in the last year, he played with Sara Bareilles and T Bone Burnett on a #1 single, appeared on Colbert playing with Jon Batiste, and collaborated with Philip Glass.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Jaron Lanier about the very essence of the relationship between technology and humanity, and why we need to evaluate the ethics of our platforms and our relationship to social media.

Q: What is the relationship between technology and humanity?

[Jaron Lanier]: Humans haven’t been able to survive in any of our environments ‘raw’ – we’ve made fire, made shoes, made hunting tools… we’ve never had to experience being adapted to an environment ‘as it is,’ and so there’s no sensible definition of people without technology.  Our relationship with technology is complex and helical. As technology changes over time, so do we, and we have a situation therefore where we develop technologies, adapt, and then need new technologies to solve the side-effects of the first. Technology is never sustainable in any instant state, it’s always in the process of requiring additional revision and improvement.

I didn’t sleep last night because we’re under evacuation orders here in California because of fires which are driven by climate change, caused by perfectly reasonable desires to have things like refrigeration on demand and energy from fuels.

Technology also creates options for people that enable things to happen which couldn’t have happened before that technology existed. We can live in places we couldn’t, we live longer, we engineer and create things… we have become a danger to ourselves and others (obviously) but we’re also now able to improve ourselves ethically and morally.

My hope is that the future will be one where we’ll take advantage of the opportunities to become more decent and more meaningful, that’s what keeps me involved in technology.

Q:  What has been the relationship of social media to humanity?

[Jaron Lanier]: Social media was kind-of created to destroy humanity, in a literal sense. The first notion of the implications of such networks was provided by B. F. Skinner (well before even the earliest technologies we now call the ‘internet’) who spoke of the dangers of people who- on networks- were too free, too creative and too uncontrolled. The first portrayal of what social media might be like was from E. M. Forster in The Machine Stops which was a reasonably accurate portrayal of what we’re seeing today.

Idealists had hoped that the internet would create the technologies of deep truth as opposed to the deepfakes that have taken over. There are some technologies of deep truth available. As I mentioned, we’re under potential evacuation orders here in California because of severe weather events. The fact that we can actually have real-time views of what’s happening with the weather is recent and extraordinary. The technologies around (in this case) weather prediction and reporting are supported by the social structures that motivate truth and with our capabilities, are generating deep truth. If the internet can function that way, creating these new kinds of deep truths instead of deep lies, it could be beautiful.

People often summarise my position on social media as being that I think social media is bad, but that’s not exactly right. I actually think social media can be fine, and in fact if you look at the first year or two of any particular social media, they often start out quite charming before the stupid business model kicks in where companies can only make money by having third parties inject money into the system, thus meaning it has to become manipulative to benefit those third parties. If that incentive structure wasn’t there, I don’t think social media in itself would be a bad thing.

Technology isn’t a ‘thing,’ it’s a social structure that people act upon the universe through. The social structure has incentives, roles and governance which determine the meaning and effect of the technology, not the engineering itself.

Q:  Do we need a new economic model for technology?

[Jaron Lanier]: The glimmers of a plausible new economic model exist; this is sometimes called data dignity. The easiest way for me to explain this is through a parable I’ve been telling that involves gardening robots. It’s often low-paid and undocumented people who are at the front-line – whether it’s gardeners or health workers. Here in California, it is the gardeners who are the ones creating fire safety in our neighbourhoods and saving our lives quite literally. I’ve been thinking a lot about these people and getting to know them. Imagine a few years from now, there’s a van that pulls up alongside where gardeners are working, it’s painted like a preschool classroom (as most Silicon Valley brands are) and it’s got a forest of cameras and sensors. One of the gardeners looks up and says, ‘woah, I guessed our data had been gathered and robots would replace us soon…’ and sure enough this bright device was from one of those very tech companies who had been testing it out, and found it was as good as an undocumented gardener and much cheaper. All of a sudden, all those people are out of work. That’s one plausible scenario. Another equally plausible scenario is where that van pulls up and the gardeners say, ‘okay… we’ve been waiting for this…’ and they unionise, using their collective bargaining power to ensure their data is licensed to the tech company. The company could never own it, the gardeners have the moral right to it, but they have the freedom to make an arrangement. The gardening robots still function as they would have, but the gardeners enter the new creative class, they are the example providers, the data providers, the designers, almost the guardians of the quality control of these new robots. These people who were living marginally become acclaimed and gardening changes from being static to dynamic with waves of culture enabling creativity and opportunities to tackle erosion, climate change and food poverty. This creative class is not temporary, it’s perpetual like music. Gardening, which has always been a form of human expression becomes a form of mass expression like music and film. This second scenario has the same hardware, the same software, the same technology, but a different philosophy.

Economics is like artificial intelligence, it’s not really there… there’s no physical invisible hand…. It’s about people interacting with people against a social order, a set of ethics, principles and practices.

Q:  How can we defend truth in our current society?

[Jaron Lanier]: If every individual is just shouting into the Agora and seeking attention, what will happen is that the most obnoxious individuals will get the most attention and you will end up with a crappy Agora. That’s happened repeatedly in our society and a common impulse is to say that some authoritarian will come in and fix all this bad speech from these bad people. There is another way…. And that is through societal institutions… the idea being that instead of everyone being an individual in the Agora that through free association, confederacies are formed around a brand and become somewhat responsible for and to each other. The brand might be a university, a sports club, a newspaper or even a band. As people form together and make a brand, the incentives turn away from being awful attention grabbing, but turn towards building persistent reputation. This creates a quality that you don’t see in a random mash-up of individuals… it’s coarse grained.

From a mathematical perspective, you can’t have complex systems that ‘learn’ and ‘adapt’ unless they have coarse grained structures inside that can accumulate results from complicated experiments, in evolution we call these structures species. You can’t just have a bundle of genes floating around randomly, they need structures and selection and eventually these structures form things like you and I. What are commonly referred to as ‘neural networks’ simply will not work without these hidden layers which are analogous to species which- in turn- are analogous to societal institutions.

Another example can be found in the work of Prof. Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. The idea is that if you want a market economy, you have to have some form of credit for people to be able to do anything. If you have a large population of people who are impoverished and have no credit histories, it becomes infinitely expensive and essentially helpless for a bank to evaluate all those people and issue credit, thus everything gets stuck. Yunus formed people into confederations through free association and those confederations took mutual responsibility of and for each other. All of a sudden, these little collections of people did repay their loans on time and with lower defaults than the banking industry was typically used to. Grameen distributed the task of quality promotion to these societal institutions.

This idea of having societal institutions has come up in essentially every observer piece on society since ancient times and is no less relevant today for the challenges we are facing.

Q:  What are your fears, and hopes for the future?

[Jaron Lanier]: You can never really peer into people’s souls en-masse, though social media gives you the illusion of doing so. I do feel that there is less hope now than there has ever been during my lifetime and- it would appear- for centuries. When you speak to most young people, they don’t have an articulate sense of the future, of what they’re looking forward to and how the world needs to be. We only see correctives that need to take place, we have to fix climate change, we have fix policing. This corrective posture leads to a faux nostalgia and I’m deeply concerned about that. The future isn’t written, and so whether it’s too late to fix this is not determined but it has on many occasions this year in particular felt that we’ve crossed the point of no return. That said, most of our ancestors have lived through far worse that we have and faced far greater threats… indeed the lives of our ancestors were filled with plague, famine and massacres on a scale that most modern societies will never have to endure. I don’t think there’s any objective reason for exceptional pessimism right now – we have a lot of puzzles to solve, but we need to be optimistic to do so, pessimism serves nothing. As technology advances, it becomes notionally harder for us to distinguish between pessimism and nihilism. There is a built-in preposterousness to pessimism, and I am not going to indulge it.

We do have a lot of exciting things on the horizon too. I think a small, safe version of fusion power may be coming and that will be extremely helpful for the world. There’s also a revolution coming in biotechnology as it relates to food and the challenges we have of overpopulation, land and freshwater availability. There are some incredible innovations coming in vegan cultured meats and different ways of creating nutrition which will make a huge difference for our world. I also have friends who are creating amazing hardware that can non-invasively read and write to the brain which could have applications in translation, and perhaps even communicating with your pets.

There’s also a lot of fun technologies on the horizon. I’ve dreamed a lot lately about safe forms of giant dirigibles that could get around the world faster than their historic counterparts and would be safe and green. We’re also going to see virtual worlds where people can co-invent the world whilst immersed inside – a form of communication and expression.

I think it’s right that we look to imagining a future world in which there are new possibilities that are delightful to explore, not cruel, stupid and self-destructive. So much of our future is imagined through science fiction, and it’s interesting to note that there’s almost no science fiction now that isn’t terribly dark. We have to get away from that narrative.

[bios]A Renaissance Man for the 21st century, Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, artist, and author who writes on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technology, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism.

Lanier’s first book, You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto, is held dear by readers as an expression of spiritual sensibility in high tech times.  It was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and international bestseller.  It was chosen as one of the best books of the year by Time Magazine and The New York Times. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times called it, “Lucid, powerful and persuasive….Necessary reading for anyone interested in how the Web and the software we use every day are reshaping culture and the marketplace.”

His next book, Who Owns the Future?,  provided a foundational critique of internet economics and one of the only frameworks for reform.  Another international bestseller, it continues to shape ideas for tech regulation and economics.

In 2015 Jaron Lanier published a collection of essays entitled Wenn Träume Erwachsen Werden (When Dreams Grow Up).  Then came, Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier’s memoire of his unusual childhood, early Silicon Valley, and the origins of Virtual Reality.  In addition to a tender memoire, it also serves as a science book for general readers and a historical dissection of the origins of tech culture.

The fourth book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, is another international bestseller, synthesizing what we know about the new technology of tricking people with algorithms.

Lanier’s books have won varied awards, including the 2014 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, one of the highest literary honors in the world, Harvard’s Goldsmith Book Prize, and best book of the year at book festivals such as the San Francisco Book Festival.

Jaron Lanier has been on the cusp of technological innovation from its infancy to the present. A pioneer in virtual reality (a term he coined), Lanier founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products, and led teams originating VR applications for medicine, design, and numerous other fields. He is currently the “octopus” (which stands for Office of the Chief Technology Officer Prime Unifying Scientist) at Microsoft. He was a founder or principal of startups that were acquired by Google, Adobe, Oracle, and Pfizer.

In 2018, Lanier was named one of the 25 most influential people in the previous 25 years of tech history by Wired Magazine. He’s also been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine, top one hundred public intellectuals in the world by Foreign Policy magazine, top 50 World Thinkers by Prospect magazine, and one of history’s 300 or so greatest inventors in the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 2009 Jaron Lanier received a Lifetime Career Award from the IEEE, the preeminent international engineering society.

Lanier’s writing appears in The New York Times, Discover, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harpers Magazine, Atlantic, Wired Magazine (where he was a founding contributing editor), and Scientific American. He has appeared on TV shows such as The View, PBS NewsHourThe Colbert Report, Nightline and Charlie Rose, and has been profiled on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times multiple times.  He regularly serves as a creative consultant for movies, including Minority Report and The Circle.

Jaron Lanier is also a musician and artist. He has been active in the world of new “classical” music since the late ‘70s and writes chamber and orchestral works. He is a pianist and a specialist in unusual and historical musical instruments; he maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played instruments in the world. Works include a choral symphony about William Shakespeare’s contemporary and friend Amelia Lanier, commissioned for the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park a symphony commissioned by the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, and a symphonic cycle commissioned by the city of Wrocław, Poland. He has performed or recorded with a wide range of musicians, including Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, T Bone Burnett, Steve Reich and Sara Bareilles. He composes and performs on film soundtracks. Credits include composer on Sean Penn’s 2010 documentary, The Third Wave, and principle instrumental performer for Richard Horowitz’s score for Three Seasons (1999), which won both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at Sundance. Lanier’s paintings and drawings have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe.[/bios]

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.