A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’ve been quoted as saying that you think the future first appears in music.

JARON LANIER: I think that might have been about invention and technology. Let me state that a little more carefully. Let’s say you want to be organo-centric, which means you’re paying a lot of attention to musical instruments. So an organo-centric approach to the history of technology would point out that there are an extraordinary number of times where musical instruments appear to have been the most sophisticated technologies in their time and place. I can give you a few examples. If you look to the origin of computers, the usual starting point is the Jacquard Loom, which was programmable to make fabrics. But it was actually a copy of programmable music machines, which were in turn extensions of pipe organ mechanisms. The two fancy machines in the Middle Ages were pipe organs and clocks. And of the two, the pipe organ was the one that involved the controlling of lots of little parts in parallel and really is the proper precedent for understanding the computer. And what’s intriguing is that throughout the history of the computer you had these figures who were also musicians. And there are a whole lot of well-known computer scientists with pipe organs in their homes to this day. Just off-hand I can think of Donald Knuth and Alan Kay and many others and obviously me, not that I put myself in their category, but there’s some kind of connection there. Other things… Guns. Well, where do cannons come from? The birth of modern artillery came from the idea of taking a church bell and turning it up on its side. But the underlying technology came from the desire to make big bells and preceded the use as a weapon. There’s a trope that says that it’s really weapons that draw technological progress, but so far as I can tell, you can make a case that it’s musical instruments. To this day some of the smartest people in signal processing, and some of the smartest people in computer architecture, are really motivated by making musical projects. It’s true in so many cases. I mean, the computer, as we know it today, was at least half-invented as a project for making musical things happen.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Is that why being both a scientist and a musician works for you?

JARON LANIER: I have no idea. I like to think organo-centrically about technology because it’s a very positive way of thinking about human nature. It’s so easy to be cynical about ourselves. We’re capable of such pettiness and such evil that it can be overwhelmingly sad. But it’s important to notice nice things about people, and one nice thing is that in so many times and places it seems as though the highest technology was meant for nothing other than to make delightful, highly communicative noises. And that’s astonishing. That’s a very dear thing. That’s why I have so many instruments.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: How many instruments are in your loft now?

JARON LANIER: I’m not sure. I think about a thousand.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Can you play them all?

JARON LANIER: I can’t claim to always be in practice on all of them, but I’ve had experiences playing almost all of them. And most of them I could pick up and do something with that would be reasonable and worth using in something, I’d say.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you always have that talent, or is it something you worked at?

JARON LANIER: I remember when I was a little kid my mom had a Viennese zither. It was my first ethnic instrument and I used to love it and try to find different ways to play it and experiment with it. So I’ve always loved instruments. But I don’t love instruments. A lot of people say, “Well, why don’t you invent your own instruments. Since you do engineering and all, you should be designing instruments.” And the reason I haven’t taken that approach is I don’t think of instruments that way. I don’t think of them as these abstract machines that give you certain capabilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather, I think of them as time machines and space machines to experience other people’s lives in a particular way. When you learn to play an instrument, you’re learning to move as someone else had to move, you’re learning to breathe as they had to breathe, you’re learning to think as they had to think. So there’s an operational way in which you’re able to make a cross-cultural journey that I think is particularly beautiful and requires a certain level of devotion. And it is entirely different from what you get from just reading something or listening to something and, once again, an interactivity and taking on a new identity—the sort of tenets of virtual reality aesthetics that should come to exist some day. So for me, when I learned how to play these instruments, I’m connecting with the people in a particular way. So I have some experimental instruments, but for the most part I have instruments that are from other cultures and other times and places or from the West, in different times and periods of my own culture, and this is the experience I really seek.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I understand that you’re currently working on re-creating the music of the ancient world for the BBC and The Discovery Channel. How’s that going?

JARON LANIER: Well, you know, fundamentally it’s a commercial project, so it speeds up and slows down with random phone calls and financing events and it’s somewhat beyond me. But if all goes well, I will be creating guesses of what ancient music might have sounded like. And it’s art not science because there isn’t enough information to really know. I’m not the first person to do this at all. A lot of people have tried it. I’m just trying to base it on the available information which is wonderful. My first project is the music of Tutankhamen‘s court. Instruments exist from tombs and we can infer a lot about playing situations and what the function of music might have been. We know what the musicians looked like and what their affect might have been like from visual representations. And we can have a sense of tuning from wind instruments that are either represented or in a few cases survive. And we can look at living musical cultures that bear some relationship to it. And there are a few accounts of the music that have survived in one form or another, not precisely that period but of descended musics. There are all these various techniques. So you have a body of information and from there you have to apply imagination. So it’s a project creeping along. It’s already a couple years later than it should have been, but it will happen.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Just one last comment. I understand that there’s a Polynesian island that’s issued a stamp in your honor. How did that come about?

JARON LANIER: I’m not entirely sure. One day people were calling me to congratulate me on my stamp. And it turns out the island of Palau issued a stamp of me and I have a particularly fondness for Palau because it’s one of the primary homes of the giant cuttlefish, which is a creature that I’m obsessed with. So I was very happy to be on their stamp and I hope to be able to go there soon to mail something using my stamp.

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