A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Do you think that these limitations with computers being used creatively applies equally to music on the Web, or is that another world?

JARON LANIER: No, I think it is possible to do wonderful things with computers and music. Please don’t get me wrong. I do it myself. I hope I do so successfully. I’m more pointing out a special danger. Now, the secret to using computers well in music is to demote the computer. To not believe that the computer is some sort of entity—that the computer is playing with you, or that the computer is a collaborator of some sort. The computer is not a musician. The computer is not some sort of entity. The computer does not have judgment. It does not have taste. It does not compose. It does not perform. Drop all of that. Don’t anthropomorphize it. You have to hate the computer, you have to fight against the computer so that you don’t get snookered by the particular narrowness of the program you’re using. So, the better way is to think that the computer is a channel between people. You should think of a computer as a fancy telephone. You should think of it as something that creates a channel between people that’s mediated by these patterns. It’s a patterning device that connects people together and depending on the particular way it’s put together—it might be a virtual world device, or maybe it’s an audio device—that’s what it is fundamentally. If you think of it as an inert patterning device that connects people together, then it starts to make sense. And so I think when music is done on the Internet, because of the intrinsic emphasis on communication between people, it almost always turns out better than when computers are used in other contexts. Not always, but almost always. It’s usually much better. I think there’s been some really wonderful music on the Net. We’re just now at the cusp of the time where people are having decent enough Internet connections and decent enough computers that you can start to imagine some sort of new interactive community happening which could be really exciting and idealistic. If the courts hadn’t intervened, I think that Napster would have evolved past being just a way of sharing traditional music publications and turned into a music creation medium. I think that was already starting to happen and that would have been when it would have become interesting. And I can see various scenarios But I think there is a great cultural tragedy and it can’t be overstated how stupid the legal attacks on Napster are and to what degree the music industry was biting the hand that feeds it and destroying its own future. All these things will happen eventually anyway, but it’s terribly, terribly sad. I think there was a cultural moment that was happening there. But it’s hard to overstate how important that kind of cultural moment could be. I mean, if, indeed, Napster was about to turn into something that would be this interactive remix jam of some kind it could’ve created a new style, a new cultural center for people who are just growing up now.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: But there’s a distinction, isn’t there, between remixing and putting your own music up? Do you think that the Web is the place where that kind of music is going to go now? Are the new composers going to the Web?

JARON LANIER: I don’t know. Right now, there are enormous forces at work in a battle on the future of digital culture. Some of them are commercial, in that even though the dot-com thing was a bust there was still so much money put into it that people are trying to figure out something to do with it. And there are very powerful forces trying to coalesce it into something that’s more like cable TV. And if there’s success in that, it will be tragic. And just as some things were delayed by the Middle Ages, there might be some things that are delayed by commercial interests on the Internet. Another issue is the whole business of security and the nature of what that means now. And there are other problems that might come. Now it might sound like I am finding the usual bogeymen in government and industry, but that’s not true at all. There are problems in human nature that are shared. For instance, the spam problem is also something that can destroy the openness of the Internet and there is, as of yet, no solution to it. Then there are technical issues. I mean, the Web is a wonderful thing but the particular design of the Web is kind of unfortunate. The Web is a little bit like MIDI. MIDI is something that’s been wonderful; it’s allowed a lot of things to happen in music. And yet its fundamental design is so poor that it’s just a great shame. And the Web is similar. It’s wonderful that it’s there, that it was simple enough to spread quickly, as was MIDI, and yet its design is very poor. So I have a love/hate relationship with both of them.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: When you do something musical, does it have an Internet side to it, or is it irrelevant whether it’s webcast or not?

JARON LANIER: I’ve never done music specifically for the Internet. I’m not sure exactly why that is. I think part of it is that I love playing music for people. I love playing live and the Internet isn’t good enough to do that yet. It could be and, you know, one of my areas of research—this isn’t precisely science, this is more technological research—but there’s a thing called tele-immersion, which is a project that’s been running for about five years, I guess. And the notion to tele-immersion is to create the illusion that people in different cities are actually in the same room. So it’s sort of a fancy version of virtual reality where you’re actually drawing in the real world at a distance instead of having a completely synthetic world. One of the interesting things about tele-immersion is if you were doing music in tele-immersion then you could have that feedback from the audience. You could have that experience of really connecting with people. I think tele-immersion is good enough for that. And that, in turn, changes the nature of the game of online music because you could start to have versions of Internet music that really did synthesize some of that quality of really seeing the people in the audience. But it requires what are, by today’s standards, extraordinarily expensive and elaborate devices on each side for transducing sensory motor information and then also extraordinary network performance between them and extraordinary computational ability. So right now it’s something completely beyond the pale. But someday it ought to all become cheap and possible.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: And is that the point where you would become interested in actually doing something musically on the Web?

JARON LANIER: Yes. I’d love to work as a musician in that medium, in some sort of tele-immersive network thing. At that point I think the Napster problem becomes solved. I mean, right now, just as a practical matter, if you’re a musician without a trust fund and you want to survive playing music, there aren’t all that many options. One option is to get into the world of jingles or soundtracks, but nobody likes that all that much. It’s really rough. Another option is to be a recording artist, but even the most successful recording artists have a very difficult time actually making money from the recordings themselves. It’s doable, but only a small number of people do it. And furthermore, if you look at the distribution of income in the recording arts, a very tiny number of people make a lot of money, and then a vast majority make no money, and there’s no middle class. And I think the middle class is where creativity happens. If everyone is so impoverished that no one ever hears about their stuff, then there’s no mixing and that culture doesn’t really happen very quickly. But when you have a healthy middle class, you can have democracy and that’s how we have culture. Now, what I’m thinking the future ought to be is anything that can be reproduced without the live action of a musician should be free. So all recorded music, I think, should be free. But I think musicians will be able to charge for tele-immersively performing for people around the world. And then you have the ability to get performance income without travel. And then I think you could recreate this middle-class commerce for music and that’s when things would be really healthy and interesting and I’d love to participate in that world. And I think it could come about. I mean, the cost of technology will make it possible. And then you can have not only tele-immersive music performances but, because the medium becomes a virtual world, new forms. There could be something that crosses live musical performance with theater, with video games, where you have live theatrical performances that include a level of production value and special effects and fantasy that you normally associate today with Hollywood movies, where the musician can turn into other characters while playing, and the audience can have roles within the performance. There could be an enormous range of exploration and I think that’s the synthesis where it becomes really interesting.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Do you think that when we get to that point it will still be performer and listener or will the listener take a more active role in the creative process?

JARON LANIER: Well, my answer to this is that I’m going to draw an analogy to books. If you had a society in which people were either semi-literate, or perhaps they could read but they’d never had any experience with writing at all—how many books would be sold? Very few. A society in which people write at least a little bit, in which most people have gone to school and have written an essay and perhaps a short story, they have some sense of the experience. In that world, there will be more who discover they like writing and also there will be more good writers, but also there will be people who appreciate writing and want to buy books. So, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of whether there is a distinct performer and listener, but we should be thinking in terms of literacy. We should be saying, if you have a society where everybody does something a little bit, then the people who do it with great passion and do it very well will have a greater audience and literacy rises. It’s one of these tides that rises all boats.