A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

Scientist and Musician

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’re both a scientist and a musician and you are probably most well-known for virtual reality. What interests me is which one of those talents came first?

JARON LANIER: You know it’s funny, sometimes a pattern emerges in your childhood that you find repeating throughout your life. When I was pretty small I had a mother who was interested in having a high-achieving child, just to put things very, very mildly, so I had this vague idea that I was supposed to be both a scientist and a musician, that those were sort of expected.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you see those two abilities as separate or were they always together?

JARON LANIER: Well, they’re somewhat different in execution. It’s not so much that they’re different abilities, but they’re different disciplines, you know. Science isn’t so much a talent as a combination of passion and patience [laughs]. Science is a discipline. It’s a way of being passionate about something in which you have to somehow, against you own nature, take on the humility of actually listening to what the world tells you is working versus what is not working. That makes things sort of slow and if you can adjust to that, then you can be a scientist. And then with music, it’s about connecting to other people. Music is about reaching other people. But other people are worlds unto themselves and so the scale of the two endeavors is similar. In both cases, whether you want to frame it in those terms or not, there’s a kind of infective humility that you have to take on in order to be successful, really acknowledging what that enormous world out there is like. And even the most arrogant scientists or musicians who are able to succeed have somehow learned how to respond to this thing outside themselves with tremendous patience and that’s where they have something in common.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: So is it one set of abilities wearing two hats, as opposed to two very different kinds of abilities?

JARON LANIER: I think there are differences in talents between people, but those talents are of a very elemental sort. They aren’t really musical or scientific. They become musical or scientific when a person combines them with passion and patience and something develops. I think that the key thing isn’t so much having a particular talent, but finding some sort of match between passion and patience in order to bring out what everyone’s talents are. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a person who couldn’t be a scientist if that’s what they really wanted to be, or someone who couldn’t be a musician if that’s what they really wanted to be, but the way in which they’d be a scientist or a musician would vary according to their particular qualities.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I know you went to college very early. I think you started when you were 14. What were you planning to be?

JARON LANIER: When I was first in college when I was young, I don’t think I had a plan. I wasn’t thinking that way. I wasn’t looking forward to some sort of affirmative accomplishment, but instead, I was looking backward at trying to escape a difficult circumstance. I wanted to find someway to live in which I could be less lonely, more understood or just less terrified. You know, I was really running away from things and less toward things. And perhaps that’s a form of motivation that I needed. I don’t know.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: But you didn’t see yourself going as a scientist or as a musician, you were just going to college?

JARON LANIER: Well, I always self-identified as a musician, I think, primarily. But what there was in southern New Mexico was a concentration of scientists and engineers because of the weapons programs. And very close to the little town I grew up in, Mesilla, there was a university with one of the finest early computer centers and a fine math department in the middle of nowhere supporting a missile range and an atomic weapons lab and a very friendly, open-minded collection of academics who liked the idea of weird local kids hanging out. And the number of local kids from that little dusty, out-of-the-way place in New Mexico that ended up having careers as mathematicians or scientists is extraordinary because of this odd circumstance. I happened to be very lucky, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time, of course. I had no idea that it was unusual.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Was New Mexico State University the first place that you actually got your hands on a computer?

JARON LANIER: Absolutely. I was a late bloomer at computers. You mentioned that I started college early, and it’s true. But I was very anti-computer at first. I thought that computers were ugly, which they were and for the most part still are. I thought that computers were impure and that what one should be is a pure mathematician who achieves things through the powers of analysis and intellect and that computers were the weakling’s crutch, which they often still are. I mean, all of that’s true. It’s all real! So I think the way I got into computers was the way that most people do, because of economic necessity. There was a job in the math department doing something with a computer and it turned out to be an incredibly fortuitous thing.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you teach yourself programming?

JARON LANIER: Oh yeah. There wasn’t any sense of teaching programming at that time, you were just expected to get it. But on the other hand, you have to remember, computers are hard to the degree that they’re large and so, in those days, computers were smaller…I mean a lot smaller, more than a million times smaller than the ones I am working with now. The size of programs that could exist were pretty small so it wasn’t really that hard. I mean, writing a small program isn’t that hard. Anyone can do that. It’s when they get big that it gets tricky and, in fact, if it gets really big then nobody knows how to do it and that’s what I’m trying to work on now. So the little computers we had around then weren’t that hard to program. And we used these little punch cards, so there’d be these stacks of cards and you’d always lose them, and New Mexico’s windy sometimes, so they’d be flying.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I remember that from Illinois. Running your cards on Thursday and getting the sounds back next Tuesday.

JARON LANIER: Right, right, right, right. Yeah.

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