A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: When did you start combining virtual reality with music?

JARON LANIER: What happened was that during my 20s, this misadventure of having a company was so all-consuming that it set its own priorities and I had very little opportunity to really play with the stuff and enjoy it. But around ’91 or so, I realized that I had denied myself the opportunity to really enjoy the stuff on an aesthetic level, so I wanted to really do a piece of art with it. So there’s a conference called Siggraph, which is the annual computer graphics conference. It’s a huge-scale thing. So for the ’92 Siggraph—and at this point, I’m 31 or 32 years old—I did a live performance where I put on a goggle and glove and I went up on stage and inside a virtual world where I played on musical instruments that just existed inside the virtual world. The piece was called “The Sound of One Hand” because I only had one glove. It was ahead of its time and I think a lot of people were watching it and knew there was something to it. But they couldn’t quite understand what was going on because the whole notion of being inside a virtual world wasn’t familiar.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’ve written a lot on your worries about technology and the religion of technology. Do you have a similar worry about technology and music?

JARON LANIER: The problem I think is pretty easy to state. It’s that when you play a physical musical instrument or an analog electronic instrument one aspect of what’s going on is that you’re exploring your own mind and body, your cognitive feedback loop, how you interface with this world outside. And an interesting thing about that is the degree of depth there is to that interaction. That your sensory organs and your motor abilities are astonishingly acute, that your retina can be stimulated by a single photon for instance. But there are also remarkable failings in the human sensory ability. Evolution is a funny process that’s a mixture of blind idiocy combined with perfect optimization within that. So with our eyes, our retina is on backwards. The optic nerve connects on the wrong side of the retina and we have this big blind spot. So you have a retina that is sensitive to a single photon in the right conditions, but on the other hand there’s this big blind spot in the middle of it, so you have this amazing combination of idiocy and strategy and perfection and optimization. But because of that perfection and optimization, when you interface with the world, there’s a profound level of depth to it because the world is not a simple place. And what that means is that there’s this sort of never-ending adventure of exploring new ways to perceive and interact with the world and you have a process that really doesn’t run out. There’s always new ways to perceive the world, to match your own cognition to the world. There’s a philosopher named James P. Carse who distinguished between finite and infinite games. A finite game would be a single game of baseball, which has an end and there’s a winner and a loser. An infinite game would be baseball as a whole, which is infinitely renewed. There’s no end to it. So, when you’re playing a physical piano or a flute or even something like a Theremin—some analog device—there’s an infinity to the depth of subtlety that you can find and there’s no end to it. You’re exploring a configuration space that’s huge, to be more technical. But when you play within the context of a digital device, there are two dangers. One danger has to do with a kind of narrowness. A digital device can’t do anything unless it’s programmed. And every program embeds ideas about the world, so whenever you use a digital device, instead of exploring this huge infinite space, you’re running around inside a maze that was set up inside the nature of the program. And typically, because computers have gotten big and complicated, people can’t really write all their own software anymore, so at least to a partial degree, they inherit the maze that was set up by a programmer. Now it’s impossible for a program to foresee the nature of the maze because of the way software is. So there’s just this particular maze. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but a particular maze that you might explore in the context of using a digital device is going to be a much smaller order than the universe. So you end up in a cognitive game that’s tiny compared to the world of reality. And if you’re aware of it, it’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. For instance, when we use words we’re selecting a smaller game than reality and just by combining a relatively small number of words compared to the things in the world, we can have literature and poetry and all of these things. Having a small number of components isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s absolutely essential to be aware of it. And it’s worse than words in the sense that words don’t have fixed definitions. If you write a law using words, it’s still necessary to interpret it. But when you write a program and then use a program, there are mandatory constraints. There’s sort of a hardness to the influence that the program you’re using as your creative basis has on you, and it’s less interpretive than other sorts of finite constraints. Now there’s a second danger which mixes with this narrowness which is that there’s a subjectivity of computers. I hope all of this isn’t too long-winded, but the problem is that in order to even appreciate that a computer is in front of you, you need to be willing to project onto it enough meaning to perceive it as functioning. And there’s a danger that this reflects back on one’s self. So, this is one of the things that I’m always ranting about. If you think of a computer as being like you, this sort of artificial intelligence approach, I think there’s a tremendous danger that you end up narrowing yourself. You end up making yourself stupid in order to be similar to however the computer happens to be at the time. And I think particularly in academic music circles, there’s a lot of music that’s exceptionally dry and meaningless, even for academic music, because of people being confused and turning themselves in to however the computer happens to be. So you see a lot of really, really dull and banal and sterile music. And it’s a double tragedy because it’s both a disaster for computer culture and also for music. So that’s something that I worry about a lot. When you play with a computer, you’re exploring the sort of maze-like grooves that are allowed by whatever the program is that you’re using. What you’re really doing is recycling whatever was put into the program and there’s really no new exploration. You’re not going back to something infinite to get new things. When you play with nature directly, when you play with analog stuff, you are going back to nature and discovering new things because of the vastness of it. So, there is this problem.