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Jaron Lanier

just plain old money. That’s a pretty interesting trade.

We’re hopelessly in love with gadgetry, and when you know what your enemy’s in love with you have quite an advantage. That brings us back to why Virtual Reality is valuable. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who advocate a lessened use of technology in the future, but it’s not realistic because we’re just in love with it.

Rebecca: That reminds me of when Bill Moyers asked Ronald Reagan what his answer to poverty was and he waxed poetic about some guy who had invented a magnetic soda-can handle. (laughter)

Jaron: The whole American dream is based on a mutual social contract to maintain a class system that you can switch roles in, with luck. That’s why we’re so cruel to our poor, because everybody wants to make a clear distinction between the rich and the poor so that their own fantasy of becoming rich has that much more meaning. See, you invalidate the whole motivation and the dreams of everyone if you take care of the poor – that’s why we treat them so much worse than other industrialized countries.

Rebecca: We touched briefly on some of the applications of VR. What are some of the possibilities which excite you?

Jaron: Well, education is one of them. Our species evolved in nature, and our learning was very much keyed to an environmental or social situation. If you look at the types of stimuli that create the most recall, they are probably; other people – seeing a friend you haven’t seen in a long time and collectively recalling things – smells are also very important, and then environments. Environment is the only one of those that you can really package, using VR.

It’s really striking to me that children are expected to learn a variety of things but always in the same environment, with the same social group, with the same smells and the same stimulus. You have this incredible drudgery in which you’re supposed to retain variety of memory and learning. It’s completely absurd. Your memory of school just grinds and collapses into the memory of one room, and that’s counter to the natural way of learning new things. So, one can imagine creating a virtual world for the express purpose of making a memorable place in which you learn something new.

So let’s use dinosaurs as an example. You can simulate the old forest and have these big dinosaurs tromping around, but then you can do a wonderful thing which is, the kids can become the dinosaur, they can become the thing they’re studying and achieve identity with it. They can become molecules like DNA, or mathematical shapes, it goes on and on. And of course, kids are interested in themselves – they’re egotistical little buggers, so it’s a very effective way of learning something.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this society has a commitment to spend any money on education. I’ve talked to schools a lot about this and there are very few that can afford this. Many in the country today can’t even afford a new basket-ball hoop. It’ll happen eventually, but it might not happen very well at first. I’ll tell you a scary story.

In the mid-eighties I was very involved with trying to get Virtual Reality or just quality computer tools into classrooms. I talked with some of the largest corporations in the United States and their image of the future of technology in education was truly chilling.

They said, okay, let’s look at undeniable demographics which predict that in the future there’s going to be a tremendous shortage of teachers and of public funds for schools and there’s really going to be a two-tiered school system, inevitably. We can sell all the fancy things we want to the good schools, but they’ll be so small in number that their market is limited so there won’t be a whole lot for them.

The vast number of schools are going to be these other types which won’t have real teachers but teaching technicians or something. Our customer is not the child or the parent or the teacher but the state budget. It’s going to the governor and saying, “Hey look, we can sell you this computer which will reduce the cost of your schools.” “Great, send them in, it’ll help our deficit.” The inevitable trend of demographics, resources, and so forth indicate that this is a permanent situation. They had these school automation systems that I thought were horrendous. They had one image of kids in these cubicles interacting with computers. It was clearly a security oriented thing, so that the kids couldn’t hit each other and they could be monitored easily, and there was minimal human contact because they couldn’t afford it. It was also notable that the kids were all minorities.

David: It’s reminiscent of the industrial age.

Jaron: Yeah, it is like a retreat to the nineteenth century. It’s a difficult situation. Then there’s another player, which is the companies like Apple and Microsoft, who are creating a software infrastructure. This particular historical moment is immensely important because we’re really creating the very fabric of ideas in which our own culture will be represented for a long time into the future.

There’s another possibility, which is, if people do get good at improvising reality, they might get good at improvising the insides of computers again and just undo everything that Microsoft has done when they get skilled enough. I’m not saying that what Microsoft is doing is bad – in fact I think a lot of it’s probably quite good – but the point is that there’s this codification of how we represent our culture that’s going on right now in order to computerize it, which is extraordinary. This is something fundamentally new, and really scary, to me.

David: Tell us something about VR’s potential for handicapped or physically challenged people.

Jaron: There are many approaches because there are so many types of disabilities. It’s something I’ve been very active in, in fact in the next month I’m going to three different conferences on that topic. Cal State Northridge, near Los Angeles, had a wonderful conference on Virtual Reality for people with disabilities. We actually brought a VR system there, and during the conference we were building custom worlds for people to try things out.

There was a woman who had very limited hand mobility and Chuck Blanchard created a virtual hand for her. She had a glove on her physical hand which amplified her hand movements so that she was able to learn to use it and pick up virtual things in a way she could never pick up physical things.

I did a juggling teaching demo a long time ago. If you juggle virtual balls you can sort of simulate the experience of juggling. You don’t feel the balls hit your hand as much with the current types of gloves but you can still approximate the experience. Let’s suppose you decide to make the balls move slow but keep your hands moving at the natural speed. So now you have lots of time to get your hand under the balls. That by itself is just a cheat, but what’s really interesting is that you can slowly speed up the balls, and have a gradual approach to learning a physical skill that previously required a leap. If someone’s recovering from a stroke, maybe this could give them some learning feedback earlier than they would get otherwise. So there’s a whole range of learning uses.

There are some special things for blind and deaf people. For the deaf you can use gloves to synthesize sign language and for the blind there’s this three-dimensional sound capability of Virtual Reality. It potentially gives the blind a portable spatial display, so that they’re not left out of this age of spatial interfaces for computers. It goes on and on.

Rebecca: Do you see VR as being a turning point in humanity’s relationship with the machine?

Jaron: Well, it is in a number of ways. First of all, it defines our agenda with machines as being primarily cultural and sensual as opposed to power oriented. For a long time we’ve had an agenda for doing science and technology which can be stated very simply as, “Make us more powerful,” ultimately to conquer death or something like that. But you have to remember that in the context of when scientific method was born, coming out of the renaissance, we’re dealing with a whole continent of people living in disease and shit and misery.

So the desire to be able to control the physical world was very reasonable. We’ve reached a remarkable moment now that, with the exception of medicine and natural disasters, every other area of science and technological development is unneeded.(laughter) The reason for that is that with the exception of diseases and natural disasters, all of our other problems are created by our own behavior.

So, if you’re working in medicine or natural disasters, you’re still on that front, fighting nature and trying to get control of something that’s important to us. Anything else, you cannot justify objectively any more, it has to be justified culturally as if it were a work of art. Anyone who doesn’t see that is not really thinking rationally.

We can’t stop making technology, because we’re in love with it, so what we have to do is shift to a cultural way of choosing our technologies and justifying them. Virtual Reality is an interesting technology. It’s something that’s being taken very seriously, but everybody recognizes that it’s justification is fundamentally cultural. To me, that’s a marvelous shift, it’s very positive.

Another aspect of Virtual Reality is that it’s sensual, it’s embodied. There’s this terrible danger in the use of information technology of making the world seem more abstract and becoming blind and nerdy as I mentioned before. Virtual Reality really places the body at the center, and I think that’s also a wonderful development. Then of course, there’s the dream of post-symbolic communication that we talked about before.

David: Speaking of the

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