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.

Lanier
Lanier with proto-VR gear in 1990. Image: Rex Features

Lanier is often would be interesting to know whether his interest in musical instruments came from the same plaza as his interest in virtual macrocosms. He has no doubt that it does.” I still precisely get a tremendous rapture from hearing brand-new ones ,” he says.” I have been working just now with an Ethiopian instrument called a begena, an old-fashioned harp. Perhaps similar to the one David played in biblical seasons. The style you have to hold it is interesting. That kind of thing enthrals me. It is like time advance … it brings your body’s move into some kind of a connection with people who lived numerous centuries ago .”

In virtual reality terms, Lanier would perhaps call this connection “haptic”, a acces of is available on intimate touch with fragmenting external actualities. One yarn that seems to connect all of his preoccupations over its first year is a restless effort to find brand-new arenas in which to communicate with other parties, as if the conventional ones were not sufficient to. Bluntly, I ask whether he detects this impulse back to the trauma of losing his mother, and his subsequent isolation.

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

In the early 1990 s Lanier appeared to believe he might find that extent in the computer-simulated homes he tried to create. He became friends with the likes of Timothy Leary, the philosopher of hallucinogens, and although he never took any medicines himself, Lanier was standing by in case of accident when the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard P Feynman first experimented with LSD in a hot tub in Big Sur, California.

Lanier believed that virtual worlds could have an impact on the doors of human rights insight comparable to that promoted by the early disciples of psychedelia. He was not alone in this curiosity. On one memorable afternoon he committed demos with his first headsets to Terry Gilliam, the Dalai Lama and Leonard Bernstein. The technology was not without its restrictions, nonetheless. One early example mount of goggles had to be ballasted with sandbags to allow the spectator to continue upright.

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

” In 1995 I wrote this paper announced Agents of Alienation, about the chance that one day computer network would have these automated agents, “whats called” bots now, which could be used to influence ad and politics, and everything would become unhinged .” Trump, he advocates, is symptomatic of that prophesied world.” Moving back to the 80 s and 90 s … there were these vivid arguings about the nature of actuality make use of people I like and respect, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Their statement was that we already have the basic drawing of understanding how thought efforts, and so we can create algorithmic methods that capture insight, that practise wisdom. I thought that was a huge trap- that it would turn into this house of reflects that could be controlled by whoever was the most difficult asshole .”

Given that we have arrived at something like that future, what does he guess our relationship 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 little of magical, you are less likely to be tricked by a supernatural establish, but you still might enjoy the implementation of its a lot .”

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

” There is a funny happening when a brand-new medium is demonstrated by ,” he says.” 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 have so far been supported its quality, in considering post-traumatic stress, for example, or helping people overcome cravings. I think it will eventually become a proper medium of art and culture, but you can’t introduced a schedule on that .”

On the one mitt, I say, his journal is an implied technological penetration into those futuristic potentials, but it also reads a bit like an old-fashioned superstition of seeking out new world and find them at home. Towards the end of the book, ended with his wife and young daughter, he acknowledges to something that hasn’t been so evident in the questing that has been going on: pleasure. Did he come to the conclusion that real life was more important than other worlds?

Jaron
Lanier discovers his impulse to seek ways of communicating back to the deaths among his mother in a vehicle disintegrate, when he was a child. Image: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

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

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

” It is no longer an dialogue we had ,” he says.” I think he was proud of me. And I think he was counteracted, because you know, when you have a strange teenager, who knows what is going to happen? But I don’t know. As a parent, though, I have found that a poisonous thought is to try to impose your own hopes on your child. I have been recurred wondering if I would have pleased my mother, but it is so hard to reckon 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 close. Before he goes, Lanier says, pointedly, that he wants to note that we” haven’t really talked about virtual reality, which is the theme of my volume …”

I’m surprised he thinks this, and I make noises about how I’m not a specialist and wouldn’t feel qualified to objection him on the specifics of the science. But also, in my subconsciou, 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 guild a emulate for PS17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or announce 0330 333 6846

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