January 10, 2000
Talking technology: A Q&A with the inventor of virtual reality
By Barbara McKenna
A visual artist, computer scientist, composer, and pioneer in the field of virtual
reality (a term he coined), Jaron Lanier has been called one of the most extraordinary
thinkers of our time. As society advances in its uneasy embrace with technology,
Lanier is both advocate and antagonist of this partnership--a duality he seems to
relish. One month he may oversee a public showing of his interactive computer-generated
artwork and the next he may organize a public computer-bashing ceremony.
With his long, blondish dreadlocks and piercing blue eyes, Lanier looks as radical
as his thoughts. His work in virtual reality has generated a range of devices and
applications from interface gloves to real-time surgical simulation to virtual puppets
(one of his latest projects). In his wide-ranging artistic endeavors, he has collaborated
with the likes of Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, and Stanley Jordan and exhibited
his paintings, drawings, and virtual art around the world.
|Jaron Lanier speaks on "Technology and the Future of the Human Soul"
on January 25.
Photo: Gregory Heisler
Lanier is currently a visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at
Columbia University, a visiting artist with New York University's Interactive Communications
Program, and a founding member of the recently established International Institute
for Evolution and the Brain.
Jaron Lanier speaks on "Technology and the Future of the Human Soul"
on Tuesday, January 25, in the Mainstage Theater. Tickets are $18 adults; $15 seniors
and students with ID; $9 UCSC students. For more information, call (831) 459-2159.
This lecture is presented by UCSC Arts
& Lectures in partnership with Imagesmith.
Q: You have Santa Cruz roots, don't you?
A: In 1980, my ambition was to be a Santa Cruz street musician. There were a lot
of extraordinary people in Santa Cruz who took me in and supported me. . . . But
there were also those extraordinarily well paying jobs in Silicon Valley and, eventually,
off I went to my fate.
Q: You're considered by many to be the inventor of virtual reality. You identified
the concept, and you've invented devices and software fundamental to many widely
used VR applications. How would you describe your work in the field?
A: Well, I made up the term "virtual reality," and, depending on what you
think the term means, I made the first instance of it. But any discussion of virtual
reality has got to include mention of Ivan Sutherland who built the first head-mounted
display in the '60s.
What I did was make the first virtual worlds with multiple people in them and the
first that fully took advantage of the human body, having gloves and bodysuits drive
virtual bodies that could pick up virtual objects.
Q: What is virtual reality?
A: Virtual reality is a computer-supported way of creating the illusion of being
in an alternative world with other people. It's a sort of dreaming you do consciously
that other people can be a part of. It can be used practically for such things as
surgical planning or to design a car, or as an art form, to experience the joy of
expression, the pain of expression.
Q: As a visual artist, you're probably best known for the virtual worlds you've created.
What is the value of this digital art--is it poignant, meaningful, expressive, beautiful?
Do you see something redemptive in digital art?
A: Redemptive? Hardly. I think virtual art presents a challenge. It can sometimes
even be a menace that robs reality of all its meaning and of all its juice.
Every other type of artist does better by loving his/her tools--a painter loves the
canvas, the paint; a sculptor, the marble. But the best digital artists hate computers.
I hate computers. I personally derive pleasure from destroying computers.
Computers are the first medium to have ideas built in. Paint is a piece of nature;
cameras are products of nature--they're made of metal, you use emulsions to process
the images. You can say there's some theory involved with using a camera, but to
find a machine that really has ideas built in, you have to go to the computer. By
its nature, a computer has ideas built in because it has a program, which is, basically,
ideas that have been frozen into it.
When you try to create with those frozen ideas, well, suppose you're a musician:
You can't just work with a computer like it was piano, you have to stick ideas in
first. Is music made of discrete notes or continuity? When you use a specific music
program the choice has been made for you. So, as soon as you start using it, you
start nailing yourself down. When you start working with a computer in a creative
process, the danger is that you start treating these human constructions as if they
came from nature, or God--however you describe it. That's a good reason to hate computers--realizing
that they structurally confine you to ideas that someone thought of yesterday.
As soon as you're feeling frustrated you know you're on the right track, because
you're not just slipping into the pathway the software is designed to take you on.
In every other medium you want to understand the material and see what it wants to
do. But that's not true with computers. The mistaken path would be to treat the computer
as paint and let it drive your process. In every other medium that's the thing to
do--it's important to let the medium speak to you. But with computers you must not
because computers speak bull.
Q: But you use computers in your creative work.
A: It's possible to do art with computers but it's very hard. I think that when art
is at its best, it is better than the artist. You can do that with computers too,
but not if you respect them.
I don't want to hold up my own work as succeeding and breaking through this problem--that's
for others to decide--but there are some ways to break through and one is to be very
careful not to get caught up in the computer itself. To think of it as something
like a telephone instead of like a television--a channel between people. You concentrate
on the people and their experiences and not on what's inside the computer.
I think a lot of people make the mistake of getting lost in the world of the computer.
It's very easy to get caught in the nerd trap, and then life loses all its color.
Q: So, in the right hands, the technology can serve as a tool to help articulate
a creative vision. Do you think Michelangelo could have made great electronic art?
A: I've thought about that and my best guess is, you could revive a Van Gogh or a
Beethoven or some other great Western artist and they could fiddle around with the
technology. What they'd make would be some great, maybe even incredible, junk. But
that's about it, because they wouldn't be on guard against the technology. I've seen
some skilled classical artists get involved in computers and turn out some pretty
Q: On the flip side, do you think computers are capable of creating great art? What
do you think of David Cope's work with the program that simulates the styles of classical
A: Let's imagine you and I are in a relationship and for years I've written you wonderful
love letters. And I'm a computer scientist and one day I say, "You know, I'm
going to prove my prowess by getting my computer to analyze all my love letters,
dig out the most profound parts, and put them together to make the best love letter
of all." Which would you rather get in the mail?
The point isn't the achievement, the output. The point is the actual connection.
You have to remember that even great music like Bach's is only barely adequate to
bridge the terrible interpersonal gap that separates people. The last thing you want
to do is create an emphasis on the artifact rather than the authentic human connection.
Show me a new way to be authentic and I'll get excited about that. A new way to be
inauthentic, by having computer-simulated Bach, why that's as easy as lying. Truth
is what's hard.
Q: What are the greatest challenges we'll face as technology becomes more and more
integral to everyday life?
A: Genetic engineering--the engineering of life in general--is going to be huge in
the next ten years. The general picture is going to emerge sometime soon of what
we can and can't do to a person. By all indications, it looks like we can do a lot:
We can extend our life spans, compose our children, even recompose ourselves as adults
to a degree. I think it's going to be the greatest challenge our species has ever
faced. More challenging than nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons, the only question
is, can we survive them or not. With biotechnology it's not an either/or situation,
it's a design question: Who do we want to be as a species. It's a profoundly difficult
question. Nobody who understands it is going to have a clear unconflicted point of
view--unless they're a moron.
We'll be faced with decisions that are very subtle. And it's going to happen fast
because the growth of technology is not going to be advanced by grand abstract ideals
but by people with intimate, immediate needs. Technology is not going to be driven
by Dr. Frankenstein but by the couple who wants to keep their baby alive.
Q: You talk about different paths that the integration of technology and humanity
can lead us on. What are the dangers?
A: We are going to face the question of whether a machine and a person are the same
thing. Most of my colleagues think machines should eventually be treated the same
as humans and that's where I'm different. Someday computers may be able to seem intelligent
and conscious--it's a possibility. And most people who believe in that possibility
think that at the point when machines can act human they should be given human rights.
I strongly disagree with that. There's a philosophical difficulty in that point of
view: The danger is that people are so flexible that we may subconsciously make ourselves
stupid in order to make the machines seem smart.
Q: What do you mean? How will we make ourselves less smart?
A: We already do it. Have you ever known anybody who borrowed money to get a credit
record so that they could get a loan approved later on? That's the kind of thing
that didn't happen when real people decided if you should get credit. People believe
in what the computer says, but it's not smart to borrow money needlessly. We do so
to convince a computer that we deserve credit.
But let's not talk about that future. Let's talk about the good future. Let's talk
about what a human being is.
A human being is a sack of stuff that is conscious. And the really interesting thing
about that is that the sacks are separate. That's a really amazing thing. If you
were an alien advance team writing home about Earth you'd say something like, "There
are all these cool species and there's one that seems to be smart, but they are all
separated from each other. They're in these weird sacks they call skin."
The most fundamental aspects of the human experience are that we're separated from
each other and we die. You can imagine other alien life forms that are not like that,
that are something else, let's say intermingled clouds that interact and transform
but don't ever die. So these are very striking things about us as humans.
Since human beings first appeared, we've sought to bridge this gap. We can look at
the whole history of humanity as advances in bridging this gap--we came up with language,
and we created drama, and we said, "Oh, we'll invent writing, and we'll have
a telephone." You can think of technology as being a result of this incredible
epic quest that people have to reach each other over this gap. And virtual reality
fits in beautifully to bridge this gap as a conscious form of dreaming.
What I see in the future is people learning to be ever more expressive to each other
and new forms of communication between people becoming ever more intimate and outlandish
and beautiful. I don't think there's any limit to that.
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