Hes the Silicon Valley visionary who gave us virtual reality. Now, in a new memoir-cum-manifesto, Jaron Lanier recounts his sad, odd childhood and calls for a re-evaluation of our ties with the digital environment
Jaron Lanier has written a volume about virtual reality, a phrase he coined and a hypothesi he did often to develop. It has the heady designation Dawn of the New Everything . But it’s also a anecdote 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 inventive and so extreme, it reaches him virtually seem fated to seek alternative worlds.
Lanier’s mothers met in New York. His father, 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 family of “his fathers”, Ellery, had escaped a brutal genocide 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 father did not trust American schooling, so “hes been gone” across the border to a Montessori school in Mexico each day; then, after a change of heart, to a Texas public high school, where he was bullied.
When Lanier was roughly 10, his mother was killed and his father severely injured in a gondola accident. The coincidence happened after his mother had understood Lanier assaulted by bullies on the best way of academy. He panicked the two phenomena were connected, that she had been anxious or disconcerted; much afterwards he learned the car she was driving most likely had a lethal defect. After his mother’s death he descended ill with a succession of infections, including scarlet fever and pneumonia, which saved him in hospital for a year.
During this time their house in El Paso burned down and, unemployed and grieve and practically penniless, his father bought a allotment of uninhabited country in the New Mexican desert for them to live on. Ellery earmarked his son to design their brand-new home, 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 construct, and in the meantime father and son lived in an legion surplus tent, bone cold in wintertime, deep fried in summer. They never talked about his mother. Lanier still hated school, but developed a heat for music, and for technology.
Their closest neighbours toiled at the White Sands Missile Range, out in the wilderness. One was the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who had discovered Pluto as a young man and who taught Lanier to grind lenses, and tell him play around with the homemade telescopes in his back yard. Almost unable to communicate with strangers, but with a precocious expertise for maths, Lanier took grades at New Mexico State University aged 15 or 16, and then at 17 transferred to Bard college in New York, paying for tuition by selling goat cheese from a flock of goats he had bred.
Returning to New Mexico, he fell in love and followed his girlfriend( whom he had serenaded on their first appointment, in a laundrette, with a Japanese bamboo flute) to California, where she finished with him. He obtained himself alone in the start-up country of Silicon Valley, with a head full of equations that didn’t all add up and a longing for different macrocosms. At this detail in his memoir , not amazingly, Lanier turns outward to the reader:” You might be thinking by now that this journal is a study of mystical realism ,” he suggests.
Talking to him on the phone last week, I admit that I did have my uncertainties. He hoots, with his high titter.” At the time ,” he says of the desert times,” it find almost as if we were living in the frame and not the paint of the world. My personal experience was so different from anything else, I couldn’t even compare, certainly .”
Lanier now lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Lena, small children psychologist, their 11 -year-old daughter, Lillibell, and more than hundreds of thousands of musical instruments, ancient and modern, all of which he tries to play. Having made and lost a paper fate with his pioneering virtual reality headsets, he sold an interest in another companionship involved in look approval software to Google in 2006. Since then he has had an innovation laboratory at Microsoft, and become a prominent commentator of the ways in which technology and social media have influenced our world( a disapproval” driven more by dread than adoration “), notably in his bestselling book You Are Not a Gadget .
One aspect of that latter statement is a ideology that we should never separate further consideration of technological improvement from its human effect. In his previous write, Lanier says, he has sometimes accepted a theoretical or abstract tone, as if concerns around virtual macrocosms and neural networks had an independent life of their own. He has exploited the autobiographical singer in 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] intellect ,” he says.” Having to encounter that again was difficult. But I am happy with the channel that digital technology is forcing the world, and I conceive the answer is to double down on being human …”, which leaves Lanier no choice but to set himself all the way into his book.
Perhaps one of the consequences of that is to spring his advances in virtual reality in very human psychology. At one point in the book, he recalls how he and his geeky acquaintances are applied to fantasise about putting a” 4D headset” on a babe immediately after birth and reckon the strangeness “of the worlds” it would experience. I wonder if his own parents had something of the same experimental motivation with the simpler tools they were required to handwriting. He chuckles again, but says that was probably down to the damage of their own childhoods.” I think that people who have suffered deplorable thoughts do have some additional- nearly mystical- investment in “their childrens” ,” he says. Even so, “hes not” sure that his father tolerating him to design their desert residence was the greatest project. He acknowledges he is a little nervous that someone will read his journal and see it as certain challenges:” 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 family of commune residents and serenity demonstrators, who had been brought up with the radical regiman of the childcare leader Dr Spock and who recognised no limits to imagination, and often ego. Counterculture fed directly into plutocratic tech culture.