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Jaron Lanier

TV. Virtual Reality is entirely different. The very thing that makes it come alive and what makes it seem real is its interactivity and by the same token, if you’re not physically active inside Virtual Reality it becomes suddenly unreal and it’s magic pops away. What that means is that you get tired after using it for a while. It corresponds a lot more to riding a bike than to watching TV.

Another thing about it is that any particular form of a virtual object at a given moment can become rather dull and uninteresting because they’re all so easily available and so easy to change. Therefore, they become less real and less valued and the things that become noticeable and real are the personality of other people and the spontaneous interaction with them and the movement and the flow of change and creativity.

A long time ago one of my catch-phrases was “creativity is the money of Virtual Reality” because it’s the only thing that can possibly be in short supply. But it’s really not just creativity per se, it’s interaction with other people’s personalities and their presence. Other people feel very real in Virtual Reality, because they are. Since a person can take on any form, a person viewed from the outside looks like a wave of creative change with a distinctive personality.

It’s kind of like the telephone in a sense, where you only hear the voice but the gesture, the body music, is also preserved so you have this real sense of physical presence with them. So real people are truly the life of the party in Virtual Reality. There might be somewhat amusing fake people at some point in the future, but our sensitivity to the difference between fake people and real people will increase well ahead of the technology. I think that individuality, creativity, sensitivity, the quirks of personality, individual style – these things are going to be really highlighted and very highly valued.

Rebecca: That sounds nice, but I’m wondering who’s going to end up controlling this technology. Media entertainment systems, video games and to a lesser extent TV have been co-opted by military or otherwise violent themes. Why would VR be any different?

Jaron: In the short term, it’s not necessarily going to be different. There’s already been stuff like that and it’s very disappointing, but you have to think in a longer term. Marshall McLuhan was right. The structure of media tends to become the effective content, so the content of these things is determined by what they are and also the way they’re sold.

The reason why you have military games is because if you’re paying to have an interactive experience, the only way to get it to end, so that you have to pay more, is either to have THE END flash in front of you or to have something kill you. Of the two, having something kill you has been more accepted by the users, because having THE END suddenly appear seems to crush their autonomy. I’m aware of only one solution to that problem which is to have live guides who kind of run the show and herd people on to get them to end on time. That’s the approach that we’re using at the Virtual Reality theater project that I’m involved in. Of course the nicest solution would be to let people interact as long as they want, but that is not economically compatible with site-based entertainment.

So some of these things are just structural. I have no doubt that there’ll be a great deal of ugly, schmaltzy, crappy Virtual Reality along the way, but I do believe that the dream is worth believing in, and it’s certainly necessary to replace television with something better, if we are to imagine a world where we survive.

Rebecca: Except for a few fortunate individuals, corporations are going to pretty much monopolize this technology. How much freedom will there be for autonomy in Virtual Reality programming? Will people have to be content to buy another person’s dream?

Jaron: That’s the single most important question about the future of Virtual Reality. Obviously, the way I want it is for everybody to be able to make their own world all the time. I’d like that to be so standard that it’s spontaneously happening at conversational and improvisatory speeds all the time. That’s the future I want to see but it won’t be there right away.

Rebecca: Do we have the technology now for this to be possible?

Jaron: That’s more of a cultural question than a technological one. On the one hand there’s the evolution of wonderful user-interfaces for creating content of worlds quickly, and on the other hand there’s the social phenomenon of a generation of kids growing up using that with fluidity and expertise. Both of those things have to happen, and it’ll take a while. The shortest time I can imagine is maybe three or four generations hence.

David: What potential dangers do you see in terms of government regulation of VR?

Jaron: That’s so complex. Right now I’m pretty optimistic. Right now the government is playing an active role in peace conversion and the military is interested in it and all the defense contractors are interested in it. There’s kind of an alignment of interests between people who are concerned about trying to disarm the world and people concerned about America being competitive in the world economy. That’s a very fortuitous alignment of interests at this particular time when it’s so critical. But of course, as circumstances change, that alignment could disappear.

Rebecca: Do you see censorship being a consideration in VR?

Jaron: Virtual Reality as a solitary experience is not that interesting, it’s as a shared group experience that it becomes fun. So it’s primary mode of use will be over the advanced phone-lines of the future. One of the interesting things about the telephone is that it’s the most moral of media technologies in that the companies that make the most money from it do so by simply shipping content around rather than by affecting the content. And the content is so vast that it’s completely untrackable, it’s like a huge jungle. I’m sure Virtual Reality will be the same way, it will be effectively unregulatable and money will be made by connecting people together because the content will be too easy to create and too voluminous to control.

Rebecca: Why do you think it is that American industry is so slow in responding to potential innovative technology, while the Japanese end up marketing so many US inventions like VCR’s and HR TV, semi-conductors and probably soon, nano-technology?

Jaron: There’re a few reasons for that. One of the reasons has to do with it being too easy to make money in the United States through scams. The way an economy works is, it’s like an ecology.

Especially during the Reagan years, in a climate of decreased regulation, there were so many ways to make money from scams, like the savings and loans or the junk bonds or the acquisitions that were phony; it goes on and on. There were endless weird ideas that people came up with for making money that were non-productive. When you can make better money through doing something that’s non-productive, it’s lower risk because it’s just a scheme. You don’t have to worry about whether people want to buy a product or something like that, and it sucks up all the investment money away from the productive means of making money. During the critical Reagan years, the Japanese started manufacturing everything, and we gave up a bunch of industries because, I believe, our investment capital was seduced away by scams.

Also, our corporations are not really American corporations, they’re sort of world corporations. When you’re in Japan, what’s really striking about the Japanese is that they have a remarkably coherent sense of who they are and what their self-interest is. It fits into this nice little hierarchy. There’s the Japanese country made of Japanese people who are in a group of Japanese companies in Japanese cities, and it all sort of lines up. In America none of those things line up, so the sense of what self-interest is is completely confused.

I think that power is more or less the same thing as a clarity of self-interest. When people have an unchallenged sense of what self-interest is, it’s pretty easy to go for it, but it’s when life becomes complicated – through self-searching or through a confusion of circumstances – that people lose power. The diffusion of national powers might be a trend and might be a good thing, by the way, as long as it isn’t replaced by something worse.

Part of it should justifiably be called corruption because a lot of American officials were working with the Japanese promoting their case during the Reagan years. When the history is written of the Reagan years, they’re not going to be seen as patriotic at all; they’re going to be seen as scumbags.

Rebecca: Hasn’t part of the problem been that the Republican attitude to business is very hands-off and is shy of investment, whereas in Japan they’re into consortiums between government and business?

Jaron: It’s not so simple. For instance in American agriculture, the Republican agenda is very hands on.

Rebecca: That’s true, but in agriculture you know what you’re getting into, there’s not such a risk involved as opposed to investing in a new technology where you’re not going to get the dividends back for possibly many years. Isn’t there something about America’s habit of demanding instant gratification that keeps it from progressing in this area?

Jaron: There’s definitely some truth to that. I’m tempted to blame television again for ruining the attention-span of the people who became captains of industry in the United State. (laughter)

If you look at what happened with American and Japanese trade in the Reagan years, it’s a little bit like a repeat of what we claim we did with the Indians – trading beads for Manhattan. They traded us trinkets in the form of disposables, like

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