Lanier in 2006
|Born||Jaron Zepel Lanier
May 3, 1960
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Computer scientist, composer, visual artist, author|
|Known for||Virtual reality|
Jaron Zepel Lanier (/ /, born May 3, 1960) is an American computer philosophy writer, computer scientist, visual artist, and composer of classical music. A pioneer in the field of virtual reality, Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s, Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. From 2006 he began to work at Microsoft, and from 2009 forward he works at Microsoft Research as an Interdisciplinary Scientist.
Lanier has composed classical music and is a collector of rare instruments; his acoustic album, Instruments of Change (1994) features Asian wind and string instruments such as the khene mouth organ, the suling flute, and the sitar-like esraj. Lanier teamed with Mario Grigorov to compose the soundtrack to the documentary film, The Third Wave (2007). In 2010, Lanier was nominated in the TIME 100 list of most influential people.
Born Jaron Zepel Lanier in New York City, Lanier was raised in Mesilla, New Mexico. Lanier's mother and father were Jewish; his mother was a concentration camp survivor from Vienna and his father's family had emigrated from Ukraine to escape the pogroms. When he was nine years old, his mother was killed in a car accident. He lived in tents for an extended period with his father before embarking on a seven-year project to build a geodesic dome home that he helped design. At the age of 13, Lanier convinced New Mexico State University to let him enroll. At NMSU, he took graduate-level courses; he received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study mathematical notation, which led him to learn computer programming. When he was sixteen he sailed from Islamorada, Florida to Chichiriviche, Venezuela in a traditional native-american style canoe that he made. From 1979 to 1980, the NSF-funded project at NMSU focused on "digital graphical simulations for learning". Lanier also attended art school in New York during this time, but returned to New Mexico and worked as a midwife. The father of a baby he helped deliver gave him a car as a gift; Lanier drove the car to Santa Cruz.
In California, Lanier worked for Atari, where he met Thomas Zimmerman, inventor of the data glove. After Atari Inc. was split into two companies in 1984, Lanier became unemployed. The free time enabled him to concentrate on his own projects, including VPL, a "post-symbolic" visual programming language. Along with Zimmerman, Lanier founded VPL Research, focusing on commercializing virtual reality technologies; the company prospered for a while, but filed for bankruptcy in 1990. In 1999, Sun Microsystems bought VPL's virtual reality and graphics-related patents.
From 1997 to 2001, Lanier was the Chief Scientist of Advanced Network and Services, which contained the Engineering Office of Internet2, and served as the Lead Scientist of the 'National Tele-immersion Initiative', a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet2. The Initiative demonstrated the first prototypes of tele-immersion in 2000 after a three-year development period. From 2001 to 2004, he was Visiting Scientist at Silicon Graphics Inc., where he developed solutions to core problems in telepresence and tele-immersion. He was also visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University (1997–2001), a visiting artist with New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a founding member of the International Institute for Evolution and the Brain.
In "One-Half a Manifesto", Lanier criticizes the claims made by writers such as Ray Kurzweil, and opposes the prospect of so-called "cybernetic totalism", which is "a cataclysm brought on when computers become ultra-intelligent masters of matter and life." Lanier's position is that humans may not be considered to be biological computers, i.e., they may not be compared to digital computers in any proper sense, and it is very unlikely that humans could be generally replaced by computers easily in a few decades, even economically. While transistor count increases according to Moore's law, overall performance rises only very slowly. According to Lanier, this is because human productivity in developing software increases only slightly, and software becomes more bloated and remains as error-prone as it ever was. "Simply put, software just won't allow it. Code can't keep up with processing power now, and it never will." At the end he warns that the biggest problem of any theory (esp. ideology) is not that it is false, "but when it claims to be the sole and utterly complete path to understanding life and reality." The impression of objective necessity paralyzes the ability of humans to walk out of or to fight the paradigm and causes the self-fulfilling destiny which spoils people.
Some of Lanier's speculation involves what he calls "post-symbolic communication." In his April 2006 Discover magazine column, he writes about cephalopods (i.e., the various species of octopus, squid, and related molluscs), many of which are able to morph their bodies, including changing the pigmentation and texture of their skin, as well as forming complex shape imitations with their limbs. Lanier sees this behavior, especially as exchanged between two octopodes, as a direct behavioral expression of thought.
In his online essay "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism", in Edge magazine in May 2006, Lanier criticized the sometimes-claimed omniscience of collective wisdom (including examples such as the Wikipedia article about himself, which he said recurrently exaggerates his film directing work), describing it as "digital Maoism". He writes "If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots."
His criticism aims at several targets which concern him and are at different levels of abstraction:
In December 2006 Lanier followed up his critique of the collective wisdom with an article in Edge titled "Beware the Online Collective". Lanier writes:
I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob....What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It's amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It's time to think about that power on a moral basis.
Lanier argues that the search for deeper information in any area sooner or later requires that you find information that has been produced by a single person, or a few devoted individuals: "You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning." That is, he sees limitations in the utility of an encyclopedia produced by only partially interested third parties as a form of communication.
In his book You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Lanier criticizes what he perceives as the hive mind of Web 2.0 (wisdom of the crowd) and describes the open source and open content expropriation of intellectual production as a form of "Digital Maoism". Lanier accuses Web 2.0 developments of devaluing progress and innovation, as well as glorifying the collective at the expense of the individual. He criticizes Wikipedia and Linux as examples of this problem; Wikipedia for what he sees as: its "mob rule" by anonymous editors, the weakness of its non-scientific content, and its bullying of experts. Lanier also argues that there are limitations to certain aspects of the open source and content movement in that they lack the ability to create anything truly new and innovative. For example, Lanier argues that the open source movement didn't create the iPhone. In another example, Lanier further accuses Web 2.0 of making search engines lazy, destroying the potential of innovative websites like Thinkquest, and hampering the communication of ideas like mathematics to a wider audience. Lanier further argues that the open source approach has destroyed opportunities for the middle class to finance content creation, and results in the concentration of wealth in a few individuals—"the lords of the clouds"—people who, more by virtue of luck rather than true innovation, manage to insert themselves as content concentrators at strategic times and locations in the cloud. In the book, Lanier also criticizes the MIDI Standard for musical instrument commonality. His comments brought on rebukes from industry and artists knowledgeable of the standard and suggestions that Lanier published his comments merely as bait for debate.
In his book Who Owns the Future? (2013), Lanier posits that the middle class is increasingly disenfranchised from online economies. By convincing users to give away valuable information about themselves in exchange for free services, firms can accrue large amounts of data at virtually no cost. Lanier calls these firms “Siren Servers,” alluding to the Sirens of Ulysses. Instead of paying each individual for their contribution to the data pool, the Siren Servers concentrate wealth in the hands of the few who control the data centers. For example, he points to Google’s translation algorithm, which amalgamates previous translations uploaded by people online, giving the user its best guess. The people behind the source translations receive no payment for their work, while Google profits from increased ad visibility as a powerful Siren Server. In another example, Lanier points out that in 1988, Kodak employed 140,000 people when it led the digital imaging industry. By 2012, Kodak had filed for bankruptcy due to free photo-sharing sites such as Instagram which employed only 13 people at the time. As a solution to these problems, Lanier puts forth an alternative structure to the web based on Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu. He proposes a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, creating an economy of micropayments that compensates people for original material they post to the web.
In his book Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (2017), Lanier reflects on his upbringing in 1960s New Mexico, his lifelong relationship with technology, and his path to Silicon Valley. Part personal memoir and part rumination on virtual reality, Lanier highlights VR’s versatility both in historical context and projects its functions into the future. Lanier writes of VR’s capacity to engage and inspire more than any other kind of technology (“TV and video games draw people into a zombielike trance…while VR is active and makes you tired after a while”). He writes that the older, poorer VR equipment might have done an even better job at exposing one’s own process of perception, since “the best enjoyment of VR includes not really being convinced. Like when you go to a magic show.” And he underscores how VR inherently helps the user focus on reality, rather than the virtual world, explaining that the best magic of VR happens in the moments right after the demo ends (his lab would often present flowers to visitors coming out of the headset, as the visitor would experience them as though for the first time). He cites modern VR’s rich resume beyond gaming and entertainment: it has been used to treat war veterans overcoming PTSD; by doctors to perform intricate surgeries; by paraplegics wanting to feel the sense of flight; and as a mechanism to prototype almost every vehicle fabricated in the last two decades. Throughout the book Lanier intersperses fifty-one definitions of VR, illuminating its many uses, gifts, and pitfalls
As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new classical music since the late 1970s. He is a pianist and a specialist in many non-western musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played rare instruments in the world. Lanier has performed with artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, Vernon Reid, Terry Riley, Duncan Sheik, Pauline Oliveros, and Stanley Jordan. Recording projects include his acoustic techno duet with Sean Lennon and an album of duets with flutist Robert Dick.
Lanier also writes chamber and orchestral music. Current commissions include an opera that will premiere in Busan, South Korea, and a symphony, Symphony for Amelia, premiered by the Bach Festival Society Orchestra and Choir in Winter Park, Florida, in October 2010. Recent commissions include “Earthquake!” a ballet that premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in April 2006; “Little Shimmers” for the TroMetrik ensemble, which premiered at ODC in San Francisco in April 2006; “Daredevil” for the ArrayMusic chamber ensemble, which premiered in Toronto in 2006; A concert-length sequence of works for orchestra and virtual worlds (including "Canons for Wroclaw," "Khaenoncerto," "The Egg," and others) celebrating the 1000th birthday of the city of Wroclaw, Poland, premiered in 2000; A triple concerto, "The Navigator Tree," commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Composers Forum, premiered in 2000; and "Mirror/Storm," a symphony commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which premiered in 1998. Continental Harmony was a PBS special that documented the development and premiere of “The Navigator Tree” won a CINE Golden Eagle Award.
In 1994, he released the classical music album Instruments of Change on POINT Music/Philips/PolyGram Records. The album has been described as a Western exploration of Asian musical traditions by Stephen Hill on "The Crane Flies West 2" (episode 357) of Hearts of Space. Lanier is currently working on a book, Technology and the Future of the Human Soul, and a music album, Proof of Consciousness, in collaboration with Mark Deutsch.
Lanier's work with Asian instruments can be heard extensively on the soundtrack of Three Seasons (1999), which was the first film ever to win both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival. He and Mario Grigorov scored a film called The Third Wave, which premiered at Sundance in 2007. He is working with Terry Riley on a collaborative opera to be titled Bastard, the First.
Lanier has also pioneered the use of Virtual Reality in musical stage performance with his band Chromatophoria, which has toured around the world as a headline act in venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival. He plays virtual instruments and uses real instruments to guide events in virtual worlds. In October 2010, Lanier collaborated with Rollins College and John V. Sinclair's Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra for his Worldwide Premiere of "Symphony for Amelia".
On 9 May 1999 Lanier authored a New York Times opinion piece titled "Piracy is Your Friend" in which he argued that the record labels were a much bigger threat to artists than piracy. The original article is no longer available, but an excerpt titled "Making an Ally of Piracy" exists with the same date. The original article is quoted in a separate New York Times article by Neil Strauss, also with the same date. On 20 November 2007 he published a mea culpa sequel titled "Pay Me for My Content," again in The New York Times.
Lanier has served on numerous advisory boards, including the Board of Councilors of the University of Southern California, Medical Media Systems (a medical visualization spin-off company associated with Dartmouth College), Microdisplay Corporation, and NY3D (developers of auto stereo displays).
In mid-1997, he was a founding member of the 'National Tele-Immersion Initiative', an effort devoted to utilizing computer technology to give people who are separated by great distances the illusion that they are physically together. Lanier is a member of the Global Business Network, part of the Monitor Group.
He has appeared in several documentaries, including the 1992 Danish television documentary Computerbilleder – udfordring til virkeligheden (Eng. Computer Pictures - A Challenge to Reality), the 1995 documentary Synthetic Pleasures, and the 2004 television documentary Rage Against the Machines. Lanier was credited as one of the miscellaneous crew for the 2002 film Minority Report. Lanier stated that his role was to help make up the gadgets and scenarios. Lanier has appeared on The Colbert Report, Charlie Rose, and The Tavis Smiley Show.
Jaron Lanier, a partner architect at Microsoft Research, has had a long and varied career in technology.
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