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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Does this [connection with other people] help us understand your love and continuing interest and work in music?

I've been asked this so many [times]. I don't why I love music. I can tell you a few things.

One of the things about music is that it's among the closer experiences we now have to what post-symbolic communication might be like. In improvising music with other people, you're spontaneously creating only form, not content; post-symbolic communication would have some species of content as yet to be discovered as well.

Another thing about instruments that I really love is that they seem, throughout history in various places and times, to have been more advanced than weapons. The usual trope is that it's the weapons makers who are at the leading edge of technology, but it appears empirically that actually it's the instrument makers. I find this very charming, that just making weird sounds for each other has been the driving force of so much technology. That the casting that eventually turned into canons was initially created by the Chinese for bells. There are many, many other examples like that. The musical bow preceded the hunting bow -- many, many, many other examples. And indeed, I have this guy here.

Yes, which you're going to show -- but before we do that, you collect instruments. Tell us about your collection and then show us ...

Well, I don't like to think of myself as collecting instruments because the aesthetic of the collector is just to hold. I learn to play instruments and I have a lot of them. I have over 1300 at my house and I travel all over the place, tracking down obscure instruments. I think I have the largest collection in active playing condition now. But they're not like a collector's collection. I was just visiting a large collection in Europe and it was very sad to me to see all these instruments behind glass unplayed. It's good that they'll be preserved longer than mine will be, but mine are all played and it's a very different thing.

I read that you lived in New York near the site of the 9/11 attack, but all your instruments survived, you didn't lose ...

No, no, I lost quite a few.

Oh, you did lose ...

Our building was damaged, yeah. About forty were completely destroyed and maybe about one or two hundred required repair. Some of them are still not repaired.

Show us this instrument now. I'm going to ask you to play it in a minute, but give us a sense of your relation to this particular one, and give us an idea of what you're doing.

I take delight in playing instruments that -- this instrument is one that survived the attack, and since the people who perpetrated the attack outlaw music, screw them.

[laughs] Very good. What is the origin of [this instrument]?

This particular instrument is from Laos, and it's called a khaen, usually. This design dates back approximately 4000 years, not really known. There are variants of it that date back later. It's associated with China and Chinese satellite cultures. I think this is the earliest example of a human artifact that has a binary characteristic, where you have multiple similar parts that all have an off/on quality to them.

Aside from that, I think of it as being the precedent to the modern computer based on a historical string of events, and I'm pushing a little bit here, but you know, it's not crazier than most historical theories. These things were traded across the silk route, Romans copied them, turned them into a big noisemaker in the Coliseum that evolved into the medieval pipe organ, which included player mechanisms and could play itself in many cases. That turned into the Renaissance player pianos which could improvise in some cases, that was copied into the Jacquard loom, which is a direct antecedent of digital computers. So, there's a case as good as any that this is the most ancient antecedent that you can trace to the development of the computer.

How do you learn to play an instrument like this? Does it just come naturally to you, or do you do historical research, or when you make the purchase find out [more about it]?

In this case I traveled to the place where these are played and I spent time with the people. What I'm going to play is not in the traditional style. It's my own funny, Western, romantic style.

What I do is start by learning the style to the degree I can, and it depends on the culture. In some cases there are things you can learn; in other cases it would take decades and it's not really plausible to just dip in and learn to play well. In this case, with a year or two of work, anyone could learn to play the folksweil that's common on this. I've developed, as I say, this other style that's a little bit more in a Western tradition.

So, would you like to demonstrate it for us? Yes, play.

[musical interlude]


So -- very quick.

Is the fact that the ear hears that as so beautiful -- and I'm not a connoisseur of music particularly -- is that making the point that you're trying to make about music as a way to communicate between people and across peoples?

Sure. Music is a wonderful mystery because it's a human universal that really is unexplained. The best definitions of music are the vaguest ones. Evolutionary psychologists will say it's some sort of spin-off process from sexuality, which certainly seems reasonable to me. You can talk about it as an elaborate form of play for children that teaches certain skills. That seems reasonable. It's a fundamental and universal aspect of people that just seems to be beautiful and playful, and I love that it eludes precise description.

Is this a distraction for you from the other work that you do? Is it something than in any way balances the work you're doing with technology?

I'm always asked this. I've had a professional music career. The last few years I haven't pursued it so much -- living in Berkeley, California, as opposed to Manhattan, it's a little harder -- but for periods of my life I've been a musician first and a scientist second. The best explanation I can have of the relationship of the two lives for me is that of cross-procrastination. I play a little game with myself where I'm always procrastinating something, but if I use the two things to procrastinate against each other, I can always feel like I'm screwing around but still making progress anyway. So, that's the best answer I have.

You say somewhere, "music must seduce technology." How do we do that? How does music seduce technology? In other words, does the technology offer a way to expand music and what we can create in the world of music?

This is another point of conflict with my colleagues, where I feel that a lot of the technological advances of the digital age haven't necessarily worked all that well musically, and a lot of digital music hasn't been successful. In fact, I often claim that the most successful genre that uses digital technology is the angriest and most frustrated and explosive genre, which is hip-hop. In hip-hop you have a use of digital components, but it's almost as if the frustrations of the digital technology are being used as a metaphor for frustrations of angry performers, and so that genre actually works.

In other cases, the effects of digital technology have, for the most part, not been as helpful as the earlier generations of technology were for music. I think the reason for that is just that computers are made of ideas, not materials. It's not a question of electrons versus metal or wood, it's a question of ideas versus just working with undifferentiated reality. Ideas aren't as big as the world. So, this [khaen] is made a little bit of ideas but it's mostly made of materials which are beyond ideas.

Actually, I have to tell you one story about this. When I was a kid, I had one of these things -- I've been playing this for a long time -- and I took one apart with the great physicist Richard Feynman, a long time ago, just to try to test the hypothesis about precisely how it works because there's a widespread belief of what the physical principle is that allows this to work, and it turns out not to be true. I haven't wanted to [figure it out] because I almost like leaving it unknown, but nobody's ever figured this out. I'm sure it could be figured out, if anybody really wanted to work at it. But the point is, you can build these things without fully understanding them. This is something that is prior to ideas, and reality in general, the physical world, is bigger than ideas. Ideas are never able to fully contain it. The computer is made of ideas, so the computer is smaller, so when you make music within just this world of ideas you're in this little maze of our own creation and it has a kind of a narcissistic, infinite-loop quality to it.

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