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Interview with Jaron Lanier

A cyberspace Renaissance man reveals his current thoughts on the World Wide Web, virtual reality, and other silicon dreams
Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier is probably best known as a pioneer of Virtual Reality technology but is probably best described as a modern Renaissance man--an eclectic mix of computer programmer, inventor, musician, artist and futurist. He divides his time between California and New York (where he has positions as a visiting scholar at Columbia University and as a visiting artist at New York University), but he can always be found in cyberspace.

Scientific American editor Corey S. Powell caught up with Jaron Lanier in the summer of 1996, to hear some of his current thoughts on the World Wide Web, synthetic worlds and other silicon dreams.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: I'd like to start by asking you about the video feedback waterbed [a project exhibited at the Exit Art gallery in New York]. It seems to show your interests in art, music and technology all blurring into each other. There it is in a visual art gallery, but it is also a clever piece of video feedback equipment and a music machine.

JARON LANIER: Well, the theme of the Exit Art exhibition was environments meant for listening to music, so I conceived it to fit into that theme. The waterbed is bit of an experiment in several areas. One of them is in social spaces, as you pointed out; you enter this environment of ambiguous intimacy. I feel drawn to experiment with ways that technology can interact with notions of intimacy, because so much of technology is done in a way that's very cold and has such an opposite affect.

Another part of what I had in mind really was sort of as an antidote to cutting-edgism. Sometimes I think it's important to work explicitly with technologies that are a little out of fashion and a little out of date. It' s the only way to get a perspective that's a little bit higher than you get at the cutting edge of technology. There are no degrees of freedom when you're constantly moving in one direction: more-advanced, more- advanced, more-advanced. Everything about this waterbed piece is very retro. Waterbeds are sort of a 1970s thing. Video Feedback is sort of a '70s, maybe a '60s thing.

SA: Does that mean you see sort of a retro, video-feedback element in Virtual Reality (VR)?

JL: No, no. Actually, VR is just the reverse. Virtual Reality, if anything, hasn't quite happened yet. We still need more computer power, better-quality displays, better sensors. We're still very much at the edge, and even the very best Virtual Reality systems that can be built today with an unlimited budget are not quite what I want them to be. So in the area of Virtual Reality, I am constantly working in that world of the cutting edge. Which is very exciting--I am not putting it down.

I've been thinking about this a bit lately, that in the history of Western art--or at least in music, since that's the art I know the best--being on the edge has been an incredible driver for people. There's always been this very special charge associated with coming up with a new musical chord or a chord progression that people haven't heard before, or a new musical instrument. Hearing a contra-bassoon for the first time was a huge thrill for people, I'm sure.

SA: In one of your essays, you describe musical instruments and warfare as two of the main drivers of technological progress.

JL: Right. This notion of constantly pushing forward with better and better technology and more advanced science is very dear to me, but I do think that it's too constricting to spend one's entire life in that mode. Sometimes you have to be able to work outside of it.

It's a bit of a challenge. If you can come up with a new idea using new technology, the results come almost automatically. For example, the first person who develops a Virtual Reality--which in this case was me!-- automatically gets to do original work with it. But coming up with something original to do with an old technology, now that's really a challenge, because it means you have to come up with something that nobody else has come up with before. That's what brought me to the waterbed. It's just a normal video camera and some big mirrors and a waterbed--that's it!

SA: You've been mixing art and technology since a young age. How did that come about?

JL: I think it's the world I grew up in. Kids growing up today are even more immersed in a world of technology. The mass culture of childhood right now is astonishingly technical. Little kids know their Unix path punctuation so they can get around the Web, and they know their HTML and stuff. It's pretty shocking to me.

But I've always loved traditional media, too. I do real paintings, you know. I'm a little messy in the studio, so I'm a bit of a danger. But I just adore it.

What I am hoping to do with my career is promote a sort of a balanced attitude towards technology and aesthetics, in which you neither shy away from nor worship technology, but enjoy the rush of being able to create entirely new things with it, and also be able to appreciate its potential for bridging the gaps between imagination in ways that not could be done without it. I think that makes it a wonderful thing, but its only value is in its ability to bridge gaps between people. All the ultimate value comes from people still.

That's where I think the relationship between artists and technology goes wrong so much. People try to treat technology as an object, and it can't be. It can only be a channel.

SA: A lot of the exhibits that are specifically supposed to showcase computers and art, or holography and art, are usually awful.

JL: Yeah. There's this certain feeling you're used to of seeing something that's supposed to be technological art that just feels meaningless and kind of dry and pretentious. It's really a great shame. People are trying to treat technology as a center of attention in its own right, when it should never be. You should only pay attention to how it connects people together.

Also, there has been a problem in 20th-century art, that artists are seeking novelty on a constant basis. When the novelty starts to run dry, any new well that might have some novelty in it immediately attracts hordes of customers. Technology is, by its nature, persistently novel-- there always new technologies coming down the road--so it's a very bounteous well for this community. But people who are artists or art theorists, art critics or curators are generally not very well educated in the technology. So there is this very sad lowering of standards.

For instance, at the Guggenheim-Soho in the last year there was a technological art exhibit called MediaScape. One of the entries was a Virtual Reality demo, where two people at a time would go into Virtual Reality systems. It was very conventional, with absolutely nothing of interest either from an artistic point of view or a technical point of view. It would work equally well in a trade fair as in a museum. It's inconceivable that, for instance, a company that makes oil paints would be able to show up at a museum to demonstrate their paints. But an industrial demo can show up if it's very high-tech, and I think that's very sad.

There's also an economic issue: many of these technologies tend to be quite expensive. And this, of course, is the real reason why that VR thing was there; it had a corporate sponsor, an Italian communications company. Usually in the art world, sponsorship is happily accepted, but there's at least some attempt made, perhaps not successfully, to exert a curatorial vision that's not entirely driven by the source of funds. In the case of technology, that's usually compromised.

The notion of getting established artists and giving them technology also hasn't worked out very well. As a practice, it seems to be insulting both to technologists and artists, because it's telling the artist that their value is more as a celebrity than as someone who has done a particular thing. Then also, it treats the technology as something that doesn't require any craft or any devotion or any time to understand.

I'm sorry, I realize I'm talking a lot, but suddenly I'm feeling the need to say many things.

SA: No please, go on.

JL: One more thing. There's been an idea in 20th-century art that craft shouldn't be given any sort of explicit prominence, and that other factors should be valued in art. In the new technologies, however--and in particular Virtual Reality--antiquated attitudes of respecting craft above all else seem appropriate for some period of time. But instead, art theorists, as well as artists and critics and curators, are trying to look at the new technology from the point of view of criticism and social theory, when there isn't even a craft of using it yet.

I've been designing virtual worlds for art probably longer than any other individual, and I consider myself to still be a beginner from a craft point of view. To my knowledge, on the whole planet right now, there are perhaps only a dozen people who have undertaken a serious enough study of this matter to become craftspeople. We need to go through a Renaissance before we can have a modern art movement with this stuff. Virtual Reality is genuinely new and different. One of the overwhelming problems right now when you look at Virtual Reality in the art world is that it tends to look ugly. And it's not an intentional ugliness; it's the kind of ugliness that results from the lack of any tradition of craft.

SA: Kids today are growing up in an environment that is very rich in visual technology. Maybe they are picking up some respect for craft?

JL: Yes, but they don't have much of a sense of visual aesthetics. They tend to make Web Pages that may be interesting from an interactive point of view but viciously ugly from a visual point of view.

There's kind of a symmetry of ignorance here. People in the visual art community have an attitude that there's no need for them to spend years understanding interactivity in a deep way. They can hardly expect the kids who are growing up surrounded by interactivity to take any more of a sophisticated attitude towards understanding the visual heritage that they might otherwise enjoy. It has to go both ways.

SA: Do you think technology can help the creative world?

JL: I'm an optimist like this, although I think a lot of outcomes are possible.

First of all, the economics of art might change in a way that I think would be very healthy. Music, in contrast to the visual arts, made a transition in the 20th-century, through the commodity of recordings, to becoming a popularly supported art-form. In the past, before recordings, musicians who survived off the public were impoverished, traveling gypsy-type musicians. Then musicians who were considered 'high art' musicians lived off of the patronage system in one way or another. But now we have the ability to sell records and to book large concert halls. This has created a world of musicians who can live at an intermediate stage where they have an audience of, say, ten thousand people instead of just a few patrons. You don't have to either starve in the street or be patronized by some king. You can be like a modern jazz musician, selling 10,000 copies for each record and going around to clubs. That intermediate level is very healthy. It allows an honest interaction between a public and a musician.

In the visual arts there's never really been anything like that. We have the superstars, who are able to attract the collectors and the curators, and then you have the world of amateurs. There's not anything in between. I would love to see the Internet supporting an economy for art at an intermediate level, which could support a much more honest life for visual artists. I think there's a possibility that could happen. Exactly how, I can't tell you. Perhaps there will be digital canvases where you rent images for a month at a time for your home, and you can select them over the Web and this sort of thing. If it's done as an open system in which people could rent paintings from artists all over the world, it could be an extraordinary thing. If it turns out to be something that Bill Gates puts together where you rent from his curatorial collection, then nothing much will have changed.

SA: So if you're hoping for the economics to change, technology is one way to change it.

JL: Perhaps the only way. Remarkably, people have been able to change their society through pure thought and communication. Even in political revolutions, there was always a technological component that enabled them, and technology can change society so much more dramatically and quickly. So for better or worse, technology is going to determine the future of art--hopefully, for the better.

SA: What sort of role do you see for art on the World Wide Web? Is it mainly a promotional tool, or do you see something beyond that?

JL: The Web was not created by business, it wasn't created for business, it wasn't created even with business. The Web is something genuinely new, genuinely wonderful and revolutionary. As much hype as there's been associated with it, the real news hasn't been articulated often enough. In all of history, there's not another example of millions of people doing something suddenly together, not because they are forced to, but simply because they wanted to--without advertising, without compensation, without lines of authority, without any celebrities. The only thing that happened here was that millions of people thought this was a good idea, enjoyed the notion of participating in it, and the Web couldn't have existed without them choosing to cooperate together in a pleasant, friendly way. And they simply did it. And that is huge news.

SA: And where do you see the Web heading?

In the near term, if you want me to put on my business hat for a second: making money on the Web is not too likely. Promoting things on it is possible. Saving money is enormously likely. I think the possibility of distributing movies and music over it, and all that, and indeed visual art (if there is ever a transducer on the other side that's good enough), the digital painting I was hypothesizing before -- you know, that's going to save enormous costs.

In the long term, what I hope the Web will become is this fundamental new type of communication between people.

SA: What kind of communication might it become?

JL: I have this notion we could be headed toward post-symbolic communication. If kids are growing up with an ability to program and make little virtual micro-worlds according to their own thoughts, perhaps some day another generation of kids will grow up with a similar skill but with tools that are much better, so that they can invent the contents of virtual worlds very quickly, at an improvisatory rate. If they can do that, and if they have a shared virtual world interface that's wonderfully inexpensive and of high quality, that they can all participate in, then, as they grow up, they have a possibility to invent among themselves a new form of language. It's really something different than language. It's a new way to communicate, where people would directly create a shared world by programming it, by modeling it in real time, as opposed to merely using words, the intermediaries that we have to describe things. So it's like cutting out the middleman of words, and finding a new form of communication where you directly create shared reality--real-time, waking-state, improvised dreaming.

That to me is really a very exciting frontier. Think about the frontiers that are open to us. We can explore space, which might be very boring--and since it seems to have a pretty severe speed limit, it could be dull for a long time. We can explore the Brain, which would be very interesting.

But I think the most vivid, interesting frontier is exploring the potential of human relationships, particularly in this way I described. We can ask, "Well, what if we can communicate without symbols by directly creating shared objective reality in real time? What would that be like?" That's the most intense conceivable frontier, because it's built out of the stuff of experience and communication and self.

SA: You have an idea of vision as something very active. That notion seems deeply ingrained in everything you do.

JL: Yeah. Well, it's an interesting idea, because it's one of those ideas that has simultaneous scientific and aesthetic and clinical implications.

Scientifically, I think that there has been a lack of realization of the potential of cognitive science, because there have been overly reductive ways of understanding human sensation. A great deal of the literature of human sensation has involved discrimination studies in which you try to isolate the ability of a person to perceive one particular thing, such as a number of shades of red. In working with Virtual Reality systems, we had for the first time a way to make objective measurements, in a controlled environment, of how the brain uses the sense organs together to perceive in a holistic way, and to perceive far more than you would believe if you read the results of all those discrimination studies. That's one part of it.

Then another part of it has to do with the aesthetics of Virtual Reality itself. In the first decade or so of Virtual Reality systems, I frequently heard people talking about it in cinematic terms. They could not grasp that in Virtual Reality the viewer is utterly in charge of their point of view, and the profound implications of that.

In the Entertainment Industry, when companies try to do Virtual Reality, they still haven't been able to quite accept this. You still see Virtual Reality systems that might be quite excellent in many ways but that create astonishing artificial constraints on what a person can do. This is true, for instance, in the Disney Aladdin ride, in which everything from the scenario to the physical design of the device to the art itself is designed to keep people from being able to look where they wish. It's really quite an extraordinary, limited aesthetic, which I think can't be pushed very far. I think ultimately, the dike will break, and Disney and other cable companies will be forced to acknowledge that, indeed, people will be in control of their own vision in the new media.

SA: A lot of the new, interactive media are still built around strong narrative.

JL: Yeah. Virtual Reality, and probably other interactive media as well, are somewhat at odds with the idea of narrative. There's no reason that narrative has to go away. I don't see any reason for movies to cease to exist, or novels, or any other form that makes use of narrative. But I think that these new forms are likely to be more based on other precedents, such as ritual, social interaction, music improvisation, perhaps even prayer. There is a whole range of human activities that are different from narrative that are probably the more appropriate precedents for what's happening with new media technology.

SA: You're working on a project that you call Virtual Puppetry. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JL: Sure. That project is transforming now; it might start to be a little bit less of a puppetry project and more of a sort of complete Virtual World that's controlled by musicians simultaneously with a concert. I was trying to create something that's like halfway between a live music evening and a movie, where you would have visual characters...they don't exactly go through a narrative, but interact according to what musicians do. It's still a very formative project. Working with my collaborator, BigTwin, we've done some political stuff--we had, for instance, a keyboard and a saxophone controlling a two-headed puppet which was a sort of cross between Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. The keyboard controls what the character does, and the saxophone controls the flight of a flock of birds that leave their droppings on the puppet.

And there's one scene with puppets from the Day of the Dead, which are based on Oaxhacan skeleton puppets. There are also some very abstract puppets that maybe should properly be called something else. I've always been interested in using the performance of music to create architecture in real time; to play cathedrals with a piano, as it were.

I've also been doing a lot of work with dance. I have a ballet in progress now which is called The Thinning of the Veil. I'm using some of the same techniques with dance. I'm working with puppets that dance with the dancers, or have the dancers be able to use virtual props as part of the dance--that sort of thing.

All this is extraordinarily craft-intensive. I'm just starting to learn about the art of movement dynamics in a Virtual puppet, for instance. Because where there's a joint in a puppet, the way that joint moves is not a simple matter. You're simulating the muscles and tendons. The details of the motion have an enormous effect on what the sensibility of that puppet is, and what it feels like.

I suppose what I'm doing with the puppets is developing an art of creating new creature motion, of invented movement dynamics of imaginary creatures. This kind of thing has been done a little by special effects people, but in working with real-time creatures I think it's pretty new territory.

SA: A recent movie, "Synthetic Pleasures," made the case for a link between VR and body piercing, citing them as two ways that people are reshaping themselves. I notice that piercing imagery shows up in some of your art--does this idea ring true to you?

JL: I was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute at a time of exceedingly pierced pupils. There was one class where every student was radically pierced. One time, a student stood up and proposed that Virtual Reality is connected to piercing, in that both involve both a malleability and an increase in willful control of the nature of one's own form. She blurted out, "Like, let's talk about my labial piercing." And I remember saying, "No, let's not; that's really okay."

One of my long-term collaborators in scientific work is a plastic surgeon named Joe Rosen. We've talked about sort of possible futures of plastic surgery. One of the things that I had imagined is that sometime in the future, instead of just piercing themselves, kids would be able to change their bodies enough to invent new genders entirely. They might invent a new set of genitalia that can only join in threes, for instance.

It's a funny time we live in. That sort of thing is going to be a real possibility, and at the same time we're starting to understand more and more about the biological origins of human behavior. So we are moving in both directions at once. We're uncovering more of Nature's construction in ourselves even as we're deconstructing our own constructions that were on top of it. Sadly, if those two processes were taken to their conclusion, there wouldn't be much of us left!

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