Hes the Silicon Valley visionary who gave us virtual reality. Now, in a new memoir-cum-manifesto, Jaron Lanier recounts his sad, uncommon childhood and calls for a re-evaluation of our ties with the digital environment

Jaron Lanier has written a work about virtual reality, a motto he coined and a conception he did much to fabricate. It has the exhilarating entitlement Dawn of the New Everything . But it’s also a fable of his growing up and when you read it, what you really want to talk to him about is parenting. Lanier is 57, but his childhood as he describes it was so sad and so artistic and so extreme, it shapes him virtually seem fated to pursue alternative worlds.

Lanier’s parents is in conformity with New York. His mom, Lilly, blond and light-skinned and Jewish, had somehow talked her way out of a” pop-up concentration camp” in Vienna after the Anschluss, aged 15. The category of “his fathers”, Ellery, had escaped a murderous persecution in Ukraine. They met as part of a curve of creators in Greenwich Village in the 1950 s. Lilly was a painter and a dancer, Ellery an architect, but when Jaron was born in 1960 they moved to El Paso, Texas, right on the border with Mexico. Lanier was never sure why, but he believes it was an effort, given their own childhoods, to” live as obscurely as is practicable”, off grid. His mom did not trust American schooling, so “hes been gone” across national borders to a Montessori school in Mexico each day; then, after a change of center, to a Texas public senior high school, where he was bullied.

When Lanier was nearly 10, his mother was killed and his father severely injured in a gondola clang. The accident happened after his mother had watched Lanier assaulted by bullies on the way to academy. He dreaded the two episodes were connected, that she had been anxious or disconcerted; much afterwards he learned the car she was driving most probably had a lethal mistake. After his mother’s death he fell ill with a succession of infections, including scarlet delirium and pneumonia, which kept him in hospital for a year.

During this time their house in El Paso burned down and, unemployed and grieve and virtually penniless, his father bought a packet of uninhabited estate in the New Mexican desert for them to live on. Ellery tolerated his son to design their new house, which he based on the geodesic domes of R Buckminster Fuller, all the rage with hippies. This was 1972. The dome took two years to fabricate, and in the meantime father and son lived in an military surplus tent, bone cold in wintertime, deep fried in summer. They never talked about his mother. Lanier still hated school, but developed a fervour for music, and for technology.

Their closest neighbours operated at the White Sands Missile Range, out in the wilderness. One was the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who had detected Pluto as a young man and who taught Lanier to grind lenses, and give him play around with the homemade telescopes in his back yard. Almost unable to communicate with strangers, but with a precocious talent for maths, Lanier took class at New Mexico State University aged 15 or 16, and then at 17 transmit to Bard college in New York, paying for tuition by selling goat cheese from a herd of goats he had bred.

Returning to New Mexico, he fell in love and followed his lover( whom he had serenaded on their first appointment, in a laundrette, with a Japanese bamboo flute) to California, where she finished with him. He ascertained himself alone in the start-up country of Silicon Valley, with a head full of equations that didn’t all add together and a longing for different world-wides. At this phase in his memoir , not astonishingly, Lanier turns outward to the reader:” You might be thinking by now that this journal is a project of supernatural reality ,” he suggests.

Talking to him on the telephone last week, I admit that I did have my doubts. He hoots, with his high chuckle.” At the time ,” he articulates of the desert times,” it find almost as if we were living in the frame and not the cover “of the worlds”. My personal experience was so different from anything else, I couldn’t even compare, really .”

Lanier now lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Lena, small children psychologist, their 11 -year-old daughter, Lillibell, and more than a thousand musical instruments, ancient and modern, all of which he tries to play. Having made and lost a newspaper fate with his pioneering virtual reality headsets, he sold an interest in another corporation to participate in appearance acceptance software to Google in 2006. Since then he has had an innovation lab at Microsoft, and become a prominent critic of the manner in which technology and social media have shaped countries around the world( a disapproval” driven more by fear than adoration “), most notably in his bestselling book You Are Not a Gadget .

One aspect of that latter statement is also of the opinion that we should never disconnected a discussion of technological betterment from its human effect. In his previous create, Lanier alleges, he has sometimes accepted a theoretical or abstract tone, as if editions around virtual worlds and neural networks had an independent living for their own. He has use the autobiographical expres under the current notebook partly as a statement of intent. It wasn’t easy for him.

” I kind of coped with my mother’s death and lots of other things by putting them out of[ my] sentiment ,” he does.” Having to encounter that again was difficult. But I am sad with the mode that digital technology is influencing the world, and I think the solution is to doubled down on being human …”, which leaves Lanier no alternative but to employed himself all the way into his book.

Perhaps one of the effects of that is to root his advances in virtual reality in very human psychology. At one point in the book, he echoes how he and his geeky pals are applied to fantasise about putting a” 4D headset” on a babe immediately after birth and dream the strangeness of the world it would know. I wonder if his own parents had something of the same experimental compulsion with the simpler tools they were required to side. He giggles again, but says that was probably down to the damage of their own childhoods.” I think that people who have suffered atrocious happens do have some additional- almost magical- investing in their children ,” he answers. Even so, he is not assured that his father countenancing him to design their desert home was the greatest project. He acknowledges he is a little apprehensive that somebody will read his volume and see it as a challenge:” I do want to reminding that the dome did subsequently downfall .”

He also says that when he reached in Silicon Valley “hes found” like-minded twentysomethings among tech entrepreneurs and hackers: the children of commune dwellers and peace demonstrators, “whove been” was put forward with the radical regiman of the childcare leader Dr Spock and who recognised no limits to imagination, and often ego. Counterculture fed immediately into plutocratic tech culture.

Lanier
Lanier with proto-VR equipment in 1990. Photograph: Rex Features

Lanier is often wished to know whether his interest in musical instruments came from the same lieu as his interest in virtual natures. He has no doubt that it does.” I still only get a tremendous exhilaration from memorizing new ones ,” he reads.” I have been working just now with an Ethiopian instrument called a begena, an old-time harmonica. Likely similar to the one David played in biblical epoches. The channel you have to hold it is interesting. That kind of thing enthrals me. It is like era tour … it brings your body’s gesture into some kind of a connection with people who lived numerous centuries ago .”

In virtual reality periods, Lanier would perhaps call these associations “haptic”, a path of being in insinuate touch with fragmenting external realities. One yarn that seems to connect all of his preoccupations over the years is a restless effort to find new arenas in which to communicate with other people, as if the conventional ones were not sufficient to. Bluntly, I ask whether he draws this impulse back to the damage of losing his mother, and his subsequent isolation.

” Yes, plainly so ,” he reads.” But then immediately after that I would say:’ Does a desire to communicate see me different from other people, or does it disclose a commonality ?’ I think it is more the latter. I think we all want something deeper .”

In the early 1990 s Lanier appeared to believe he might find that degree in the computer-simulated environs he tried to create. He grew friends with the likes of Timothy Leary, the philosopher of hallucinogens, and though he never took any stimulants himself, Lanier was standing by in case of accident when the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard P Feynman firstly experimented with LSD in a whirlpool bath in Big Sur, California.

Lanier believed that virtual realities could have an impact on the doors of human rights knowledge comparable to that promoted by the early devotees of psychedelia. He was not alone in this curiosity. On one memorable afternoon he handed demos with his first headsets to Terry Gilliam, the Dalai Lama and Leonard Bernstein. The engineering was not without its constraints, nonetheless. One early example define of goggles had to be ballasted with sandbags to allow the onlooker to remain upright.

Lanier hasn’t lost all of that sect, but he despairs to seeing how the utopian image of that early intruder culture was so quickly corporatised. He says he was always alive to those dangers.

” In 1995 I wrote this essay announced Agents of Alienation, about the peril that one day computer network would have these automated agents, what we call bots now, which makes it possible to influence publicizing and politics, and everything would become unhinged .” Trump, he suggests, is symptomatic of that prophesied world.” Travelling back to the 80 s and 90 s … there were these colors polemics about the specific characteristics of reality made by beings I like and respect, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Their argument was that we already have the basic drawing of understanding how thought makes, and so we can create algorithmic structures that capture insight, that employ wise. I thought that was a huge trap- that it would turn into this house of reflects that could be influenced by whoever was the biggest asshole .”

Given that we have arrived at something like that future, what does he belief our relations should now be with the reality-creators in Silicon Valley?” My inclination be interpreted to mean that parties should become acquainted enough with what information and communication technologies can do so that they are less likely to be fooled by it. If you have learned a bit of magic, you are less likely to be tricked by a magical see, but you still might experience the performance a lot .”

And does he still is argued that Virtual Reality worlds- he was a fan of early forms like Second Life – can take us out of ourselves, be a civilising force?

” There is a funny concept when a brand-new medium shows up ,” he supposes.” It takes a while to find itself. Early cinema is precious, but we couldn’t watch it is currently. With virtual reality, I think there are cases where it has already substantiated its evaluate, in plowing post-traumatic stress, for example, or helping people overcome addictions. I think it will eventually become a proper medium of art and culture, but you can’t put a schedule on that .”

On the one handwriting, I say, his book is an implied technical revelation into those futuristic prospects, but it also reads a little bit like an old-fashioned myth of endeavouring out new worlds and meeting them at home. Towards the end of the book, resolved with his wife and young daughter, he declares to something that hasn’t been so evident in the questing that has been going on: joy. Did he come to the conclusion that real life is more critical than other worlds?

Jaron
Lanier retraces his impulse to seek ways of communicating back to the deaths among his mother in a gondola clang, when he was a child. Picture: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

” That priority was always clearly defined ,” he announces.” Virtual macrocosms can be a part of real life, but this notion that they could be on an equal footing is certainly abhorrent to me .”

At the very end of his memoir he writes about his father, Ellery, dying in 2014. Given that it seems Ellery set a lot of his ambition in motion, I ask him what his pa made of his achievements. He suffocates up on the phone, before answering.

” It is not a conversation we had ,” he adds.” I think he was proud of me. And I think he was relieved, because you know, when you have a odd girl, who knows what is going to happen? But I don’t know. As a mother, though, I have found that a poisonous act is to try to impose your own hopes on your child. I have been recurred know … … if I would have pleased my mother, but it is so hard to envisage what she would have been like had she lived …”

We’re at the end of our allotted hour on the phone and it seems a good point at which to shut. Before he goes, Lanier responds, pointedly, that he wants to note that we” haven’t really talked about virtual reality, which is the theme of my work …”

I’m surprised he thinks this, and I make noises about how I’m not a specialist and wouldn’t find are eligible to challenge him on the particularities of the science. But too, in my judgment, I detect we have talked of little else.

* Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier is published by Bodley Head( PS20 ). To ordering a transcript for PS17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846

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