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Dossier: Jaron Lanier, Oddball Visionary

By Julissa James

The father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. (Illustration by Jon Stich)

Silicon Valley sage. Technology guru. Dreadlocked time traveler sent from the future to warn us about social media’s evils. All of these descriptions could apply to Jaron Lanier, one of modern tech’s earliest pioneers and now most constructive critics. After rising to fame for coining the term “virtual reality” in the 1980s, Lanier defected (kind of: he is still Microsoft’s “Octopus” — or chief technology officer prime unifying scientist) from the industry and became a breathless pundit calling out its dark side. You may know him as one of the experts in this year’s sobering Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. With an encyclopedic knowledge and eccentric persona, the Berkeley denizen has been hailed as a visionary and acknowledged as an oddball. And, despite everything he cautions against, he still has hope for the future.

Renaissance man: The computer scientist, philosopher and author of the bestselling book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, is also a musician obsessed with obscure ancient instruments from around the world. His home studio is stacked with Middle Eastern ouds, vertical bass utes and Laotian khenes. “Musical instruments are the best user interfaces that have ever existed,” he once said in a video for the New York Times. He’s played and collaborated with the likes of Sara Bareilles and T Bone Burnett, Jon Batiste and Philip Glass, among others. Oh, and there was that time in the late ’90s when he served as an adviser on Steven Spielberg’s 2002 cult classic, Minority Report.

The come up: Born in New York. Went to a private elementary school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Lost his mother at a young age. Spent the rest of his unconventional upbringing in very rural Mesilla, New Mexico. Was a goat herder. Started taking university courses as a 14-year-old. Never got a degree. Fell in love with someone from LA and followed her to California (it didn’t work out). Ended up in Santa Cruz. Got involved in techie circles. Created a cult video game called Moondust.

VR icon: After Moondust, Lanier, along with Palo Alto coder Tom Zimmerman and others, co-founded the company VPL in 1985 to further develop tools for virtual reality. At the Ars Electronica VR-Symposium in 1990, a baby-faced, barely dreadheaded Lanier spoke on VR’s possibilities: “You can say that virtual reality is the first opportunity for human experience that combines two things that have previously never been combined. One is the objectivity of the physical world, and the other is the openness and lack of restriction found in dreams.”

Trip-sitting for Feynman; feuding with Leary: Lanier decided long ago that drugs weren’t for him, but his hippie sensibility and general vibe still lent itself to psychedelic culture. In the 1980s, Lanier watched over Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman during an acid trip after Feynman had been diagnosed with cancer. Before that, he had a long-distance (but good-natured, Lanier swears) underground media squabble with Timothy Leary regarding the future potential of virtual reality. Spoiler alert: They ended up friends.

Cautious optimism: Sure, Lanier openly encourages all people to quit Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for both personal and societal gain; refuses to call social networks anything but “behavior modification empires”; and thinks the internet “must be undone in order to survive.” But he’s an optimist at heart. No, really. As he told Wired so poetically in 2018: “To me, criticism and optimism are the same thing. When you criticize things, it’s because you think they can be improved. … So I worry, sure, but it’s optimistic worry.”

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