Jaron Lanier Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Culture and Technology: Conversation with Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and artist, October 3, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Jaron, welcome back to the campus.

Glad to be here.

Tell us a little about your background. Where were you born and raised?

I'm from New Mexico, southern New Mexico, grew up in a rural area.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your way of thinking about the world?

I had bohemian parents, oddballs. My mom was a Holocaust survivor. She died in a car accident in my childhood. My dad was quite the bohemian, had lived with Gurdjieff, if you're familiar with that figure, and other early twentieth-century crazies. I grew up in this rural, I would say a backward place, a place that I have mostly not very fond memories of. It amuses me that there's a nostalgia for the supposed agrarian enlightenment that we've lost in the city. I have to say, I lived in it and it wasn't enlightened at all, it was cruel and tribal and mean. I was pretty alone, probably the only Jewish kid in quite a large zone, and I happened to latch onto a great local resource which was a university, New Mexico State University, that existed because of the White Sands missile range. So, I had access to wonderful math and computer and physics and chemistry departments when I was quite young, and got on this kick of science and technology which I've enjoyed very much.

One of the things that stuck out on your website was that you have no academic degrees.

Yeah, somehow that never worked out. I'll tell you what happened. I started school early and by the time I was the age that most kids are starting school, I had already essentially completed the requirements for a bachelor's and was starting in graduate school. But then I met this exotic character who had a goatee and described himself as a poet. I'd never met anyone like this, and he inspired me to run off to the east coast to an elite art school where poets and composers went. I just ran out there and flunked out almost immediately because I simply didn't fit in. This was a world of spoiled kids, of very rich kids. I'd never seen creatures like this, I didn't understand their social code, and I simply could never adapt to it. Now I understand it very well, all too well, but at the time I didn't.

So, I flunked out, which was a little bit of a shock, and I never recovered from that, but I also never really was motivated to, because I immediately found that I could both earn a living and find ways to do the work I wanted to do without going back into the degree-earning process. And while I've never had a tenured position, I think I've collected the widest variety of adjunct positions of anyone. I seem to be able to get by. I don't recommend to kids to try this route. It worked out for me but it's unusual. So, "don't try this at home!"

From your early years you also got very interested in music. That has always been a parallel to this [academic career].

I think of myself as a musician first, probably. My mom was a concert pianist as a girl, a prodigy, and I feel most at home playing unusual music for people. This is a world that rewards my science and technical side more readily than my musical side, perhaps, but I still adore making music. I adore communing with musicians, who are the most gracious community I've ever found.

At a point early in your career you come out west to Silicon Valley. What drew you out here?

Initially my escape from New Mexico was to New York City where the art school was, and I got involved in being a musician, a composer in Manhattan, which was financially quite challenging. I came back to New Mexico, and what happened was funny. I was a kid at this point, I'm seventeen or eighteen by now, and I fell in love hard for the first time with a girl who was out visiting her mom. Her parents were divorced and her mom happened to live in this town in New Mexico. Her dad was the head of the physics department at Cal Tech, so I chased her back to LA and I ended up just being a hanger-on around Cal Tech, which initiated me with my informal lifelong association with physicists, which is another continuing adventure. I still know the girl. She's married and living in Vienna, and that all worked out well. A while ago, neither of us could even remember the name of the kid she left me for, which was a very, very big deal when I was seventeen. When I realized neither of us could remember him, I was quite upset, let me tell you. But anyway, this was long ago.

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