A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Am I correct that you got started as a scientist programming games for Atari? Is that more or less accurate?

JARON LANIER: Oh gosh, that’s a crazy story. Let me give a little prequel to that. As you mentioned, I started college early and when I was 17 I met somebody who was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. This was someone who self-identified as an artist. And you have to understand, in the milieu that I grew up in there were either impoverished peasants and agricultural people, or there were scientists and engineers who were either directly or indirectly supported by the weapons program. There wasn’t anything else. And I met this kid who said, “I’m a poet and I go to this art school in New York.” And the very notion completely excited me. I was, like, wow! And I decided that I had to drop everything and go to this place. So I went to an elite, self-obsessed art college in the New York region for a little while. But I flunked out and ended up in Manhattan playing in the avant-garde music world when I was 17 or 18. And that was when I first encountered the music scene. That’s when I met people like La Monte and Charlemagne Palestine. I used to play piano at the Ear Inn. I was a founding member of the Ocarina Orchestra that used to raid Wall Street with Ocarina music and all that kind of crazy stuff. Well, I was just around musical things then. And, somehow I got the idea in my head that the most important thing in the world was to play at these little, dumpy, downtown places like The Kitchen, the Ear Inn, Franklin Furnace and Phill Niblock‘s loft. To me, that was just the height of achievement and I was incredibly excited and I was totally enthralled to meet people. Anyway, I then confronted the fact that I did not have money. My family wasn’t rich at all and I was making a living playing in restaurants and I realized that it was just unviable. There was no way that I could survive in New York. And I started to get scared, so I went back to New Mexico, the place I knew, feeling sort of ashamed that I couldn’t make it in New York. So one day this hippy friend said, “Let’s take your car and go to Santa Cruz.” And I said, “Okay.” So we went there and I again tried to do what I’d done in New York, to see if I could make a living being a musician. And once again, it would be possible but it was really wearing me down. It was very hard and I was getting scared. And one day I met somebody who was involved with computers in Silicon Valley and he said, “You know, you have a car. Why don’t you go to Silicon Valley.” And I went over there and I went to a headhunter with a resume of what I had done in the math department, what computers I’d worked with, and what my background was. And they looked at it and immediately I got job offers for salaries that were just beyond my comprehension. Just stratospheric amounts of money that I couldn’t even imagine. And most of them were for profoundly dull activities. But there was one at the bottom. This video game company was starting up and there weren’t that many people who’d had experience with making computer graphics much less interactive computer graphics, so I said, “Video games, wow, that sounds good!” So I took this job and suddenly was getting these huge checks every two weeks, which really astonished me. I just couldn’t believe it. So I moved to Palo Alto and I started making video games. I made a couple and it turns out I could make them freelance. So I started making my own. And I specialized in sound, so I made some of the first music and sounds for video games. And I had one called Moondust which was successful. I don’t know if it’s true, but there was a review in the Computer Music Journal that claims it is the first interactive music publication. It’s possible that it is. Suddenly, I had all of this money from this video game, so some friends of mine and I started building these virtual reality systems in the garage.