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Jaron Lanier

termed `teledildonics.’ A lot of people are very hungry for this kind of technology and it’s potential for sexual experience.

Jaron: Howard blames Ted Nelson for the term. The problem I have with people who talk about Virtual Reality sex is that there’s an implication about what sex is in the way the question is asked, that I think is really bad. The implication is that sex is a media experience as opposed to being a mystical communication between people.

David: That’s a very blurry distinction.

Jaron: No, I don’t think so. The very question implies that the reason that you’re with a real person when you have sex as opposed to pornography is because the media quality of pornography isn’t as good yet. That implication for what sex is, I think is preposterous because that makes sex into this really meaningless thing which I think even horny young guys will eventually not find any pleasure in because it turns it into nothing but information. (laughter)

David: Right, but virtual sex is a communication medium, and biological sex is nothing but the exchange of sensory and chemical information.

Jaron: Okay. I was giving a talk at UC Santa Cruz and there were two questions, both about virtual sex, that to me sounded completely different. One question was this guy coming up and saying, “Er, could I experience making love to Marilyn Monroe?” I tortured that person. They will never ask another question at a seminar again, they are permanently stunted for life now. (laughter)

Then the other one was a person who asked, “Could me and my lover become octopi?” and that, I thought, was a very attractive question. So, these are two different attitudes towards it and they have completely different sub-texts underneath the question about what they think sex is. It’s not that I’m opposed to the concept of virtual reality sex per se, but the way the question is asked usually is really abhorrent to me and I feel like I’m immediately at war with it because it implies a very limited idea of what sex is.

Rebecca: But it is the prevalent idea as you say, and the combination of sex and technology is a huge industry.

Jaron: Sure. When copiers first spread, what a lot of people did was to copy their privates, that was a big thing for a while. Now nobody thinks about it any more because it just seems stupid, and you have the same thing going on with 900 numbers now.

David: Right, but telephones have been around a lot longer than Xerox machines (which by the way, aren’t interactive), and the 900 phenomena doesn’t appear to be a passing fad. The interesting thing about phone-sex is that it’s the first time that we have come close to being able to enjoy non-localized sex, so that people on different parts of the globe can engage in imaginative, erotic exchanges. Don’t you think that Virtual Reality will open up more dimensions as a medium to explore that type of communication?

Jaron: If you’re talking about using Virtual Reality for sex, there are a few critical questions here. Are you inventing your own body? Are you making it up? The question about octopi is interesting because there’s a playfulness there, it’s kind of like flirting or being at a masked ball.

But suppose you have somebody who gets excited about an experience that’s not like that, where the co-creative experience with the other person isn’t at the center, but they’re interacting with a simulated partner. They’re essentially becoming sexually excited about something which is abstract and also very malleable. What is sex as opposed to what is not sex? Sex is one of the most interesting concepts because it refers to so much and so little.

The fact that two people can communicate is a fundamentally mysterious thing, it’s not understood. You can go out and buy books that try and explain how two people communicate and you will see very clearly that the authors do not know. It’s philosophically mysterious, it’s scientifically mysterious, it’s an area of totally wild unknown. There’s not even a beginning of a possible explanation for it.

I think one of the greatest intellectual sins that we’ve committed is that we’ve somehow created this world view that we don’t live surrounded by mystery. This is something which is abhorrent to a real scientist and to a real artist. Science is based on mystery and on not really trusting your theories thus far, but having them always subject to change, right?

David: Supposedly.

Jaron: See, technology has been successful enough, that we treat it like a comfortable net that will always catch us. So sex is one such communication – it’s a mysterious, mystical unexplained thing. To the degree that you pretend that media technology can capture it or explain it, you’ve just extinguished your own experience of life.

Rebecca: Earlier you were talking about how Virtual Reality gave you an extra appreciation of your senses. In the same way, couldn’t VR open people up to the dimensions of sex they haven’t yet explored and give them a sense of what they’ve been missing?

Jaron: Anything can happen. But the key is to keep in touch with that fundamental mysteriousness. I think anybody who “understands” sex has just lost it. Virtual Reality sex implies a non-mysteriousness to the contact, and that’s the fundamental problem.

David: Why does it imply that?

Jaron: Because it implies that you can capture it as sensory information and pipe it around. I think you can have authentic communication which would include sex over media, I’m not saying that that’s impossible, all I’m saying is that it’s a question of intention.

Rebecca: What kind of relationship, if any, do you see between nano-technology and VR?

Jaron: You might be able to make some pretty good computers with nano-technology, but you might be able to make some equally good computers using other techniques. The first thing about nano-technology you have to understand, is that it’s not going to happen quite as fast Eric Drexler says. Just because you have the ability to move atoms around, doesn’t mean you really know how to program them. It takes a while to figure this stuff out. Also, a lot of the vision depends on computers becoming smart enough to program themselves; having a sky-hook thing where suddenly by making a computer big enough and fast enough, the machine automatically figures out how to do a lot of stuff.

The idea is that you have this qualitative difference, that makes computers `smart’, that comes about automatically with a quantitative difference, but there’s no way to know that that will happen. So, I’m sort of in an in-between campus compared to those people who think that the nano-tech guys are ridiculously over-optimistic and the people who are sure the world’s about the pop into a completely different state.

Rebecca: Do you see it as a big a leap as Virtual Reality?

Jaron: Potentially it’s an enormous leap, of course. What’s interesting about Eric Drexler’s writings is that he’s keyed into the same thing which comes out of the frustrations of early childhood. What if the world could be whatever you wanted? And what an extraordinarily different landscape that opens up.

To me, the key to the future of science and technology is not just increasing power, but coming up with large-scale cultural adventures that can last forever. That’s why the post-symbolic idea is really more important than anything specific about Virtual Reality or nano-technology, because that’s really where the action is. I mean, one way or another we’re going to live in a fluid universe.(laughter)

My only comment might be that there might be an ethics in the future where you would choose the mode of experience that effects other people as little as possible. In that sense, there might be a lot of situations where Virtual Reality would be considered a more moral way of attaining some types of experiences than actually changing the physical world, which inevitably will have side-effects since there’s only one of those physical worlds, so far as we know.

Rebecca: VR could be a way to experiment with some possibilities without having to commit to them.

Jaron: VR’s a way to experiment with anything that involves human experience, but if you want to learn about the objective world of nature using VR instead of physical experiments, that’s limited by how good your models are.

Rebecca: But you can experiment with what it would be like to have lobster hands.(laughter)

Jaron: That’s true.(laughter) One of my cohorts over the years is a guy name Joe Rosen. He had a project for a long time called the `nerve-chip.’ This was a prosthetic nerve made of a computer chip with holes burned in it by a laser that a severed nerve bundle would grow through so that you could remap the nerve connections during the healing process. Nerve bundles heal together with the wrong nerve connections, as things stand.

He’s a reconstructive plastic surgeon and he often talked about how you have some extra things in your body. There’s a couple of extra muscles and tendons that are used in reconstructive surgery and there are even extra peripheral nerve bundles that don’t go anywhere and are just vestigial pieces.

He would say, “Why don’t we just take some of that with plastic surgery and just build a tail?” It would seem on the face of it possible. Since many of my students have been radically pierced, I’m imagining the next generation will be building new physical appendages in order to annoy their parents. (laughter)

I also told them that their kids would probably put very powerful, microscopic video projectors into their zits and project bizarre animations on the wall as they walk by. See, this generation has sixties parents, that’s why they’re into piercing, because what are they going to do, get drunk and go to rock `n roll concerts and have sex? The parents

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