'This Won't Be An Easy Message To Take.'
There's a term that appears quite often in the deeply moving autobiography 'Dawn of the New Everything', penned by tech visionary and godfather of virtual reality Jaron Lanier: it's 'Skinner box'.
A term used to describe the behavioural conditioning that takes place on animals in isolated environments – levers, switches, and rewards etc. He uses the analogy as a cautionary message to describe the damage that technologies such as VR have the ability to do if we don’t use them appropriately.
Virtual reality is the technology that Jaron Lanier helped bring to life and even gave it its name. That was over thirty years ago when Silicon Valley was just that; a desolate valley full of nerds and hippies changing the world. Lanier’s unusual backstory in this era includes everything from sitting in a hot-tub with famed physicist Richard Feynman on LSD to hanging with the likes of cultural geniuses Jim Henson and Steve Jobs.
Amongst all this, Jaron says VR is still in its baby phase, but there’s no doubt that soon it will reach critical mass. In these early days, the question remains; the Internet was once thought of as a tool of freedom, but do we have the foresight to put limits on how VR will be used before it’s too late? This frank and in-depth discussion with Jaron draws the conclusion of the stark realisation that virtual reality could effectively become the most powerful tool ever introduced to mankind.
“VR is young, still making shit that needs to get cleaned up.”
You saw a vague vision of the beauty and potential of an immersive experience very early on. Are you comfortable with the idea of being one of the pioneers of this field?
It’s an interesting question because I’ve never considered it. It’s like the random sequence of history that one doesn’t choose so I think it just worked out that way. The question of comfort doesn’t seem quite on the mark; I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and I feel lucky. I’ve enjoyed it a lot so I guess I am comfortable.
I tried VR for the first time this year, and it was a very strange experience, created by Jeff Koons, Marina Abramoviç, and Olafur Eliasson. The first thing I thought was this technology has the potential to do some real evil.
Virtual reality has unusually great potential to be a beautiful and meaningful new sort of bridge between people, a meaningful way of exploring oneself in the world, so it is a wonderful expressive medium.
The thing is, that is symmetrically matched with a potential for real evil; virtual reality has the ultimate potential to be used as the ultimate behaviourist toolbox. I’ve been hoping that what I view as a very negative consequence and problem of the current generation, social media, will prompt us to get our act together with digital technology before it gets really intense with VR. If we do with VR what we are doing now with something like a Facebook feed I think it would be really bad, and we might not be able to survive that because a large part of the population would potentially be swayed by whatever random actor had paid some company. I think that would create a really chaotic and difficult situation.
” Virtual reality has the potential to be used as the ultimate behaviourist toolbox.”
When the Internet came about a lot of theorists in media like danah boyd and Douglas Rushkoff thought it would become a utopia, it didn’t materialize, do you think VR will be the same?
I think what happened with the Internet was, as you say, there were very good intentions, and I think that there was a particular political project that backfired terribly and got us into the present situation. In the earliest phases of Internet culture there was a strong feeling that it should be the harbinger of a post-capitalist future; anything that you could get online, like music, they wanted it to be free. There were arguments against even the slightest postage fee for email. The thing with this is that if you are doing it in a society in which you can get an apartment, food, education or medical care for free then that’s great because there is coherence. But if you are doing it in a society that is still based on capitalism and markets then by default what you do is force anyone that is going to be in business online to do things that don’t involve selling. So the only business left at the end of the day is behaviour modification by measuring and tweaking people. So this project of the Left turned into the nightmare of the Right. We ended up with this online world where most people have no opportunity to benefit other than getting attention.
We’ve seen the dynamics of social media destabilise all parts of the world, rich and poor – from the election in the United States to the Rohingya crisis, destabilised by crazy paranoias driven by social media.
There isn’t a determinism in the broad sense that the Internet or any technology is destined to be evil, rather they have to be coupled with society and embedded in a society that has its own structures and principles.
Where is VR right now in terms of the timescale of a street technology that we use as we do social media?
I still think of it as in its baby phase; it’s young, still making shit that needs to get cleaned up.
I think the way the VR marketplaces are structured is based on a medium that’s not really fit for what VR is. The coolest thing about VR is the way you can do things with other people in real time, like co-inhabit an alien body or something like that. But the commerce is designed as though it’s a movie download sort of thing, where you download an experience. That’s a mismatch between how the experience is being sold and what the medium is actually good at, and that just happened because people knew how to make stores for movie downloads so they just did that for VR downloads, but it really makes no sense. The VR interface in the future should look more like Skype.
“I worry about the day when [the military] use their killer drone and then virtual reality to direct it.”
In the book, you say that cars and driving may be the perfect application for VR and you’ve had an incredible experience on the mental health side of things, investigating Prozac and how it can work with pharmaceutical companies, and even FBI mapping for snipers. How do you see the applications for VR unveiling over the next 5-10 years – can we use it in construction, retail or health?
In health, there has been an enormous amount of work. Long ago I helped create the first surgical simulator, and that’s now become a very established technology. There is also quite a bit of work with VR for therapy, particularly for things like PTSD and phobias. That was an interesting one for me because initially I thought it would just be a gimmick, but actually, it seems to have proven itself for quite a while now in clinical trials, so I think this was a case where I was too cynical.
In the book I describe the first major retail application, which was a kitchen design service in Tokyo for very expensive exclusive kitchens. That sort of thing is still workable; you can use virtual reality to try out particularly housewares and things like that.
I’m interested to know how it could be used for nefarious purposes, for example in the military?
The kind of thing I worry about is that with some of our military engagements, especially in the Middle East, we’ve started to use drone warfare. So I worry about the day when that becomes more of a widespread thing where they can send out their killer drone and then virtual reality can direct it or something like that.
I hope we don’t live through terribly dark scenarios but it’s possible we will.
Do you think a global virtual space ever be realised like the web?
This is kind of an interesting point. I’ll compare two ways of thinking about it: there might be this large space where many people can gather and we have prototyped something like that several years ago called Second Life. Second Life was something like a simulation of a festival, almost like Burning Man, where people created avatars for themselves so they could fly around. It had quite an impact on the culture; it was very visible for a while, but then my own theory about what happened to it is that when the iPhone came out, the Second Life concept didn’t translate very well at that time to the small screen and so it became eclipsed. I suppose something like that might happen, and there are certainly a lot of efforts to make it happen – at least 4 of the world’s 5 richest corporations are saying they are going to try.
The other way to think about it is, instead of this global new forum, maybe what’s really interesting is a more intimate level of contact between groups of people who might invent an entirely interesting personal environment that’s different from what other people might experience. That might be more like Skype than like Facebook let’s say, but a fantastical version of Skype. I actually have always been more interested in the latter idea because I think person-to-person communication is ultimately more interesting. I do think it’s interesting to go to some club or a giant space with loads of people, but ultimately what is interesting and valuable in life is connection with just a few other people.
In the book you say, “the brain will always get better and better at detecting forgeries when we are inside the VR system”. You also say that “some VR freaks think that VR will eventually become better than the human nervous system.” So you are very pro-human, more so than the tech side of things?
It’s definitely only a reflection of humans. There are only humans – computers aren’t anything. That’s my philosophy. If you took a laptop to Mars and showed it to Martians they would see a lava lamp; they would see a thing moving with changes but without any consciousness or culture to interpret it there’s not actually anything going on there.
I don’t think computers do their own thing; it’s all from people to people and back again through the computer. What the computer does is it can add and change the structures of how that information gets turned around, but ultimately it’s only the people.
“There are only humans – computers aren’t anything.” – Jaron Lanier discusses the influence of technology.
Some academics are saying that technology is now changing the way that we act. Do you think if VR became commonplace it could change the psychology of humans?
Yes, there is no question that VR can change human behaviour and psychology. In VR we can make someone confident or not, make them racist or not, all kinds of things can be done to someone and they don’t realise it’s happening, which is scary.
The solution is to show them what is happening and allow them to control it. That can be hard to do because it’s hard to design a user interface for a lot of things so a lot of people would prefer to just avoid the task and fantasize that it’s not even possible for people to self-manipulate in a positive way for VR. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the scary side of behavioural modification.
What are the hurdles for VR? Right now it doesn’t have the weight or power to perform as a seamless technology.
In my view I like the seams – I don’t want it to be seamless. This is because there is an ethical issue, which is that people should always know what is virtual and what’s real. So I don’t mind that the VR headsets are big and clunky because it informs people that it’s VR.
I wanted to steer the conversation into the more personal side of things. One of the things you said was that rebuilding the sensory modalities helped you re-emerge from the trauma of your mother’s death. Could you elaborate on how your life in tech and VR helped you through that?
I had this peculiar feeling – partly due to my mother’s death, partly just because I was quite an odd child and partly because I was living in a place where it seemed as if all the action was going on somewhere else in the world, whether or not that was true – where I felt very disconnected and separated from other people. So this quest to connect, to know myself, know other people and the world, felt like such a challenge that it required invention. It required fundamentally new technology because it just seemed like nothing was working.
It’s a funny thing, I’m staying in a hotel right now, and when you walk into the lobby there are all these people in these heads, like skin spheres, and they’re all isolated in there, so you walk in and just wonder what is going on in all of these heads. I think unfortunately we sometimes come to a point of compromise after a while and accept some things, like the degree to which we know each other, but maybe we should be more demanding in the future. That to me is what a lot of virtual reality is about.
“If a company like Facebook is saying, “Ok, pay us and we will change the behaviours of our users” it’s practically like sending an embroidered invitation letter to a warfare agent.”
It seems like argument or disagreement is really integral to your operating system. Do you thrive off it?
No, I’m actually surprised that the point of view I have seems to be so different from many of my peers. I should say that actually at this point, that is less so than it has ever been; just in the last year or so since the societal dysfunctions and the election tampering and all, there’s a newfound scepticism towards social media and what’s going on so that I don’t feel like I’m an outlier as much as I have in the last decades in my concerns and my critiques. At the same time, there has been this revival of interest in virtual reality, so I am now in this almost unfamiliar position where I don’t maybe need to be so argumentative and being more mainstream, even though I haven’t changed.
I want to get your opinion on this really subversive activity that it seems a lot of big corporations like Google and Facebook have undertaken. They all have these incubators and R&D firms that operate secretly. Do you think they should be more open with the public about what they are working on?
I think that if companies were more open then not only would society benefit but they themselves would benefit as well. So I do think it’s a shame that there is this culture of secrecy but it all depends; sometimes it’s great fun keeping a product development secret until you unveil it, and I don’t think anyone would complain about that. But some of these other things that really do relate to the design of society and our direction in the future should be more open.
There’s this interesting question of where to direct blame. Although I criticise what the big tech companies are doing, I think the blame doesn’t lie solely with them. I think actually a large part of the reason why things have gone bad is due to this project of the Left that I mentioned earlier – and this is not going to be an easy message for a lot of people to take, it’s probably one of the reasons why I had so many arguments earlier. Because of this enormous feeling that information should be free, inherited from the pre-Libertarian hippy days of Silicon Valley, companies were backed into a corner where their options are limited, and advertising was really the only available business plan for some company like Google or Facebook. That wouldn’t even be the problem so much except for the fact that due to the nature of information technology, what starts as advertising gradually turns into something very different; when you are constantly measuring a person and then using the measurements as a basis for sending them information, you end up in what we call a ‘behaviour modification feedback loop’. That becomes an addiction device but also a manipulation device. So in a way, without intending to, what started out as a Leftist impulse backfired into something like a strangely dystopian authoritarian result.
Once you have a system like that, it’s an invitation for bad actors to manipulate it. If a company like Facebook is saying, “Ok, if you pay us we will change the behaviours of our users” it’s practically like sending an embroidered invitation letter to some information warfare agent saying, “Here’s a small fee for you to achieve what you have always wanted to achieve and disrupt our elections or our societies.”
Are you of the belief that the Russians did interfere with the US election?
I don’t have direct information about it, but I will point out that it is the consensus of the American intelligence agencies and I don’t think there is anyone who seriously disputes it. It’s not just them; it’s all sorts of organised crime figures and also just some weird billionaires who feel like they want to do something for society or whatever.
The thing is that the companies relying on these behaviour modification tools, because they aren’t allowed to sell anything, thrive on momentum, so the fake people are the ones who add a lot of the energy and the charge. I sometimes use the term ‘gut bacteria’, because they really become part of the organism, so in a sense, purely because of the sheer momentum of them, companies like Facebook become dependent on the bad actors. And so that’s how we ended up where we are now.
Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier is available to buy now through Bodley Head