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

Page 6 of 6

Ideas and the Physical World

You say somewhere that people are always moving ahead of the ideas that we've put down to explain them.

The most successful ideas that people have are the ones that acknowledge their own limitation. So, for instance, I think America on the whole has been a fairly successful experiment in human society, not a perfect one by any means, but compared to historical record it's done pretty well, and it's been able to improve itself in some of its areas of greatest failing, like slavery.

If you look at our foundational documents we have this open-endedness, "the pursuit of happiness," but it's not defined. So, there's a sense that we can say there's this thing out here but we can't capture it, there's something beyond us, there's something we can't talk about. We can refer to this other area, and that attitude is a much healthier way than the Marxist idea or the Hegelian idea of trying to come up with a full system that explains all aspects of life and contains everything, which can never be big enough. Of course, it's dismal to live within ideas. Ideas are never big enough to hold life.

I wanted to ask you about another thing that you wrote. I think this was in a piece you did for a music festival in New York, I'm not sure, but you said, "The computer will give birth to a delightful new vernacular art form that combines cinema, jazz and programming." Explain that for us.

I remember what that phrase is from. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the computer in the main academic association for computer scientists. The Association of Computing Machinery asked me to write a little essay to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the computer. That was from that.

The notion is that in the twentieth century there are a number of new art forms or craft forms: cinema, jazz, and I counted programming, although I think it's the lesser of the three. The notion is [of] this post-symbolic communication in which people are within a virtual world and doing waking-state, collective, intentional dreaming as a form of communication, so you directly create something instead of talking about it as a way of sharing it. That sort of thing, if it comes about, will be seen as a descendant of these forms where jazz is the most sophisticated improvisational structural form as yet (with the possible exception of improvised conversation, I suppose).

Cinema, of course, is the most sophisticated construction of simulated experience as yet, although it might be surpassed by video games very soon. And programming, of course, is the first craft of simulation, which is extremely undeveloped and, I think, in a very poor state right now, but nonetheless has potential.

In terms of looking at the future, I sense that you're a very hopeful guy and that you believe that in some way all of these ideas that you have about everything from tele-immersion and virtual reality to a concern about humanity and technology servicing humanity, that there are real possibilities, that all of this will come together in a future.

Yeah, I'm an idealist, I'm an optimist. I think that's the nature of being. It doesn't apply necessarily to every idea or every period of time. Right now, I'm pessimistic about what the next chapters of the American experience and the world experience will be like. I think there are quite a number of dismal and foreboding trends that are converging, so I'm worried right now about the immediate future. But in the long term, I retain my optimism, absolutely.

I know you're not a hierarchical type of person and you're not somebody who finds necessarily a pattern in one's life, but I'm curious. How would you advise students about preparing for the future based on reflections on your own life? Is there something that stands out that is consistent with your commitment to diversity and anarchy, and all of the things that you [have talked about]?

Oh, I'm not committed to anarchy. I wouldn't identify anarchy as a word that ...

Oh, okay. Sorry. I'm just trying to ask if you can come up with some sense of the design ...

Yeah. If I could -- I want to -- this actually is relevant to your question. The reason I would reject the term "anarchy" is that anarchy suggests that there are changes that, while they might be creative, are disjunctive enough that we lose the benefits of memory and cumulative culture. I think that the balance has to be creative, to explore, to be as fearless as one can be, but without losing memory. You need to have continuity to have that memory. I would be a "smoothitarian" a creative incrementalist. I would say that shock for its own sake is a cheap trick and a poor bet. The anarchist tendency, I think, is an infantile one.

Now, as far as advice I give to people, I'm asked this all the time and I work with undergraduates a lot, and right now we're at 2005 and I have to say things are rough.

I think it's important to take an international perspective right now. It's not clear what the world will look like in ten, twenty, thirty years. It might be a good idea to learn some foreign languages and to have a broader base than just the United States. It might be a good idea to try to have not just a cross disciplinary, narrow specialty but a multidisciplinary expertise, because we really don't know how a number of things are going to work out.

For students of computer science, they have to recognize that the computer science curriculum we have right now is still largely structured by ideas of twenty or thirty years ago, for the simple reason that our entire faculty is still on its cycle of a first generation, so we don't have a diversity of people coming into it from different times. We have these eminent tenured people who are still running the departments who are from the first generation or the second generation, and so we have an overly conservative program in most places. You have to learn to fight against that and be very skeptical.

I think it's very important not to get too involved in the trends. Right now there [is] a tremendous trend to go into certain very narrow fields in biologically related computing, and obviously by the time one has a career, a lot of those issues will have been resolved. It's important to have a little bit more breadth. So, those are some of the bits of advice I give people.

One final question. What have you drawn the most satisfaction out of in terms of your own work? Is it the music or is it the technology, and if it comes out of either, anything in particular that stands out?

This is hard for me because I don't find experience to be quantifiable, so I don't know how to make these comparisons. I adore playing music for people. I find digital technology to be a real pain in the butt, so I can't say it's a great pleasure to work on it, but on the other hand, cumulatively I enjoy it a great deal. I can't isolate any particular experience that is the most joyful one. Technology for me is like a hoard of unpleasant moments that can accumulate somehow into a pleasant overall experience. I don't know how that transformation happens. Once in a while, when I can do theoretical work -- some of my collaborations with physicists are like this. I have tremendous pleasure in being able to confront fundamental ideas, and that I like very much.

Jaron, on that note, and hope for the future (I think there was some of that there), and while looking back at all that you've achieved, I want to thank you very much for being here.

Oh, thanks for having me.

We hope to have you on the campus again, which I'm sure we will at some point.

No doubt.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page

To the Globetrotter Research Galleries: Science, The Information Age, Images and Perception