Jaron Lanier: The Octopus Is on Line Two

How to connect with the godfather of VR? Grab a landline

Text Liam Casey
illustrations DALL-E
Published 28 Jul 2023

When you cold email someone with a resume as storied and impressive as Jaron Lanier to pitch an interview, you go in expecting a sobering silence, a rejection, or some complex assembly of representatives, assistants, and publicists through which to navigate—only to get to the end of the labyrinth and experience the kiss of death: “Thanks, but we’ll pass on this opportunity.”

As it turns out, though, Jaron Lanier is indeed the human at the other end of the email address. And he actually agrees to have a call, ostensibly to discuss the potential interview. Yana and I are elated that Lanier would want to make time for us: He’s something of an Oracle-at-Delphi character in Silicon Valley, predicting digital trends and lambasting bogus ones; currently he occupies the role of Octopus (Office of the Chief Technology Officer Prime Unifying Scientist) at Microsoft and is widely regarded as the Godfather of Virtual Reality.

Yana and I imagined that we’d introduce ourselves, thank him, brief him on the Special Edition Issue, then set a time for the official interview. We’d record the scheduled conversation, transcribe, and edit it—a process we editors can practically churn out in our sleep. But we were still intimidated. Lanier’s New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe bestselling credentials—beyond his work as “just” a computer scientist, technologist, and yes, composer of contemporary classical music—are enough to make your typical Columbia Writing MFA graduate reconsider their life’s pursuit. 2018’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, one of several books he’s written, was a particularly popular and thought-provoking sermon underscoring the dangers of addictive and self-destructive Web2 platforms, an overture to his appearance in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma from 2020.

When Yana and I commence our preliminary call with Lanier at 2:30 pm PST, our obvious fangirling is in full swing, which jibes awkwardly with his nonchalance and calm. There is no Ableton setup or synthesizer keyboards behind him, as you’d assume a technologist would have—but a panoply of woodwinds, flutes, and shawm-like instruments befitting a 12th-century troubadour. We tell him about the story of Zora, the mission of its founders, and the fanfare from the creators who harness its protocol. He elicits a smile as we speak, not so much a grin part and parcel of pleasantries but one of prestige and pretension—an almost who-haveI-agreed-to-talk-to expression. Lanier responds by calling our attention to an ancient question: How do we get it together? How do we experience more health and joy, and less disease? Our worldliness is crushed by more urgent matters. Lanier explains that humanity, over the millennia, has developed a variety of different frames of coordination—some based on governance, some on economics, and some on faith or stylistic affinities. Of course, I scramble to jot all these notes down on my yellow legal pad, keeping up with his rapid cadence.

He discusses the dawn of networking, including Project Xanadu, a machine-language program conceived by Ted Nelson in 1960 as a way of storing and displaying documents that is known as the first hypertext project. Ironically, it was dismissed by many as vaporware, but still holds considerable influence in technologist lore. Another name he references is B.F. Skinner, the American psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher whose operant conditioning chamber, or “Skinner box” (an eponym the professor despised), was built to research animal behaviors vis-à-vis conditioning. These experiments were eventually used as a template for research on the role of positive and negative stimuli in manipulating human behavior—experiments that sound eerily in line with our social-media-addled times.

So when to pencil in the time? When can we expand on this conversation in a more official setting with the understanding that this’ll all be hot off the press and disseminated to readers like you?

“This is all you’re going to get,” Lanier says. “You’ll have plenty of other things to do. You’re young, you obviously seem really bright together. I don’t think you really need me here—I was just kind of curious: What cities are you in?”

A deep sinking of the heart. A skip of its beat. And a drop of sweat. Yana and I zoom in on each other’s eyes, our compartmentalized faces afflicted with a pallor as we realize we haven’t been recording nor preparing any official questions.

I guess we’ll start recording then—with my iPhone no less. Spartan, but does the trick.

Lanier watches and smiles.

According to Lanier, he almost never responds to press requests. He claims he gets hundreds of emails per day pitching features and interview opportunities. Apparently, my little message from Zora caught his eye for no particular reason. He figured, Why not? Initially, it feels as though Lanier is the one interviewing us: perhaps he wants to get a feel for what we represent, how much we know or don’t, whether we’re worth our salt. As ten minutes pass, then 20, it becomes safe to assume that we’ve been allowed entry by the proverbial doorman. Or he just wants to see us wear ourselves out. Is he playing us?

I find Lanier’s curiosities in relation to blockchain to be simple yet essential. At the core, he’s concerned whether people in the space can afford groceries and pay their rent— after all, with all the emotional proselytizing flooding from Web3’s pulpits these days, practical realities and tangible results can sometimes fall on the backburner. His feelings on Web3 are a mixture of optimism, yearning, and a belief that the space can do better.

This reminds him of earlier phases of the internet.

“There’s two blockchains: the blockchain that we might hold in our imaginations and the blockchain as it really exists.

“A previous phase of tech fanaticism was for open source, and open source really emphasized the idea that people can build on each other’s work to make higher and higher-level things. But it was anti-monetization, which gradually contributed to the untenable concentration of wealth [in] the people who own the central hubs, like the giant tech companies and a few whales of crypto. Even though NFTs could technically support hierarchies of ever greater construction and creativity, that hasn’t been happening.”

Lanier’s also concerned that current NFT applications represent a form of value creation that is transient as opposed to sustainable.

“Since [each NFT is like this little bubble that you bet on], it’s divorced from its place in a value chain. It becomes like a token in a casino game, rather than about whatever it is it’s connected to. What I’m optimistic about is if you get something that’s like NFTs, but that combines into value chains the way that the open source movement emphasized, those two things together would create a kind of productive economy that’s more sustainable and wealth-creating. That’s what I’m hoping.”

There tends to be a special type of booster that rubs me the wrong way, so, looking back at all the interviews Zora Zine has done, I’m usually drawn to the Web3-agnostic people. Lanier is most certainly one of them: he takes the fantasy and the reality and makes an informed judgment. When he says that the best use cases for blockchain aren’t even the ones on which people are focusing, I’m taken aback in all the right ways.

“There’s two blockchains: the blockchain that we might hold in our imaginations and the blockchain as it really exists. In a funny way, I think a lot of the best cases for using [blockchain] aren’t actually the ones that people are concentrating on. I think some kind of a ledger system might be really helpful in adjudicating problems with medical records and privacy. I can imagine that you’d still need a human fiducial who’s an expert in the loop, but it might be possible to enforce where personal medical information goes in a way that’s not necessarily that reliable right now.

“[Or] let’s say that the most extreme sovereign individual-type people still believe that land ownership is going to have value: having records of what you do with properties that affect properties near you—issues about toxic waste management or water transfer obligations—represented in blockchain might be extremely important to a future Earth where resources and environmental issues have to be managed very carefully. I think a lot of our problem is that everybody wants to get rich quick. Sometimes the most important things for humanity aren’t necessarily the ones where you get rich quick.”

Make Blockchain Less Sexy? Take the money out of the equation? Less artsy fartsy and more practical tactical? The bear market had knocked folks down a peg or two. I’ve often noted a parallel between Web3 in the crypto bull market and late 1970s/early 1980s New York: the city was literally bankrupt and in ashes from insurance-hungry-landlords-turned-arsonists, but the art was pretty damn good—ever heard of Basquiat? I suppose the metaverse has already made strides in manifesting a less sexy Web3, however, like Zuck’s Horizon Worlds.

Undergirding all this is our knowledge of Lanier as a pioneer in virtual reality. VPL Research, the company he founded in 1984, was a premier producer of VR products, two of which—The DataSuit and the EyePhone—were featured in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, where a then-unknown Pierce Brosnan plays a fictionalized Lanier. Besides being subject to a lawsuit by Stephen King (the film borrows the same title as a King short story that also loosely informs the screenplay) and its prehistoric computer graphics, it’s probably most famous for being the first major motion picture to address the potential, the power, and the dangers of virtual reality. Today, it feels like a forewarning of VR’s double-edged blade. I recall playing PlayStation’s Dino Frontier: it was 3:10 To Yuma meets Jurassic Park; and I certainly remember Job Simulator on Steam, a game that was true to its title. On one end, you have this playful universe of dinosaurs in Monument Valley; on the other, you’re faxing documents, writing on sticky notes, spilling coffee, and typing away. It’s as if the game’s developer read about hyperreality in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and said, “Sure, that sounds great.”

Years later, we’ve swapped cumbersome Power Gloves for chic Oculus Rifts. And in today’s post-Covid context, where CEOs are desperate to lure employees back to the office and hawkish USMC recruiters dangle Call of Duty above testosterone-fueled teens, the idea of escaping reality and into a virtual world assumes a darker note.

In many ways, Lanier’s mandate these days is to err on the side of caution, especially with regards to VR, networks, and snake-oil salesmen. He looks at the metaverse how I look at a plate of grilled portobellos: with horror. “If you run [the metaverse] on a business model that’s similar to the one that Facebook runs on, it’ll destroy humanity,” he says in a Forbes article from 2021. “I’m not saying that rhetorically. That is a literal and specific prediction that humanity could not survive that.

Speaking of Horizon Worlds, I begin to connect Skinner’s decades-old research with what Lanier laments today: that the metaverse will continue Web2 trends of surveillance and control. “It’s clear that with good enough sensors, good enough computation, and good enough sensory feedback,” he writes in 2017’s Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality, “a Skinner box could be implemented around a person in a waking state without that person’s realizing it.”

Ah … the fruits of Facebook’s labor: perpetual data extraction, manipulation, and exploitation. If blockchain is the 180 to Web2 in terms of its treatment of data, then is blockchain the key to building a better internet? Not necessarily, Lanier believes.

“If we go back to the very first design of a network, the idea was that there’d be no copying of things—it’d only be an original copy, and there might be implementation copies for efficiency, but there’d be only one logical copy of anything because it’s a network. Why should you make copies? And if you can’t make copies, there’s no reason for NFTs, because everything has a unique identity to start with. In a sense, what blockchain is doing is it’s undoing this idea of making a lot of copies.

“That might be too abstract a thing to say, [but] I do think it’s important for things to have an identity. I think if we’re living in a market economy on any level, then we need to have the information space be in the market. Otherwise, are people going to pay their rent? That, to me, is foundational.

Blockchain or not, Lanier thinks that the ability to authenticate content as unique is crucial to the economic functioning of the internet. This is why a lot of creators are drawn to NFTs in the first place: they want to be able to monetize their work. But what of the Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization that grants free licenses to creators who wish to reuse and share other creators’ output? “In our view,” says Creative Commons’ CEO Catherine Stihler on the organization’s blog, “there’s nothing contradictory about a creator offering their work to the public under a CC license as well as minting it as a limited edition NFT.” So what does Lanier believe?

“The Creative Commons idea partially came out of an anticapitalist feeling—particularly from individuals like Richard Stallman a long time ago. [But] when people say, ‘You can have Creative Commons,’ and then the NFT attached to something is the way somebody makes money, what it really does is it detaches the way of making money from whatever the thing is, because then it becomes a token that might easily be attached to anything else. The Creative Commons idea can be reconciled under a microscope, maybe, but not under a macroscope with creating a sustainable civilization that involves modernization.”

Here, the aforementioned agnosticism begins to seep through again.

“You can’t say that we’re going into an information society where the information space is where most wealth is created and where most power is created and where most things are created—and yet, that’s the thing that’s going to be socialist, and everything else that sustains life, like shelter, food, and medicine, is going to be market-driven. What that does is create extreme concentration in a new oligarchy or a new autocracy. A lot of people [actually] want that. People I know in the new digital thinking actually really like the idea of some kind of anti-democratic autocracy coming up, and they would like to break democracies. So the problem is that Creative Commons on the surface looks like sharing, but it actually isn’t, because it doesn’t share the things that sustain life. It actually concentrates the wealth that sustains life in a very small number of hands: those who own the digital hubs or are the beneficiaries of network effects.”

However, he still hasn’t given up hope in the world of NFTs, in the possibility of the crypto space iterating on itself to produce better outcomes.

“I think [there’s] a slight modification where you don’t just make money because you sold your NFT once, but rather you get royalties from the thing you have an NFT on being used by other things that also have NFTs, which are used by other things that also have NFTs, in order to create products that people spend money on—that kind of an economy is a true economy that can become very broad and can support a lot of people. And I feel like we’re within reach of that, but…”

Lanier looks at the time. It’s already one minute past three— our endtime. Maybe he’s done with pontificating; maybe we’ve run out of salt. He wastes not a second more and wishes us well.

It’s no Irish exit, but certainly a cheeky one. Now it’s just Yana and me, gazing at each other from the squares, thinking about how we’d imagined that the conversation would go prior to the call and what ended up unfolding. A little like Lanier’s “two blockchains”: the one we hold in our imaginations and the one as it really exists.

ZINE - Jaron Lanier: The Octopus Is on Line Two

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