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Jaron Lanier


Rebecca: Do you see VR becoming as commonplace as television?

Jaron: Yeah, sure.

Rebecca: What abuses do you foresee if this were to happen?

Jaron: VR is a very powerful communication medium just like books, so if you want to understand the abuses, just look at the abuses of other communication mediums like books or telephones. It’s different from television, in that it’s not a broadcast medium. But in one-to-one type communication media especially, such as talking or using telephones, you can find precedents for all the types of abuses that might come up. You have the person who can yell “Fire!” in a crowded room, you have Mein Kamph.

When you’re involved in creating a new media technology there’s a kind of faith you have that you’re empowering mankind in a certain way to communicate with themselves better. There’s a faith that there’s a goodness and a sweetness in people in the broad picture. It’s a kind of optimism, and I believe it’s justified. I believe that history has shown a gradual improvement in our conduct. But certainly there will be many bad things that will happen.

David: In terms of your reaction to the Wall Street Journal calling your work, “electronic LSD,” I’ve gotten the impression that you don’t think the multiple-reality perception that a psychedelic generates is a very good metaphor for understanding VR. Certainly a lot of philosophers like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna have often drawn the analogy. Do you think that long-term exposure to VR could have similar effects to the long-term effects of psychedelic drugs?

Jaron: There are very few people who’ve actually used high-quality VR systems a lot and I’m not aware of anybody who’s very experienced at both the use of psychedelics and VR. I’ve never taken psychedelic drugs. I’m stubborn, you know. Tim and Terence have had some VR experiences, but not a whole lot. So there’s a degree to which we talk about each other’s experiences but we don’t really know, so in a certain way it becomes nonsense. I can say a little bit, though. One is, Virtual Reality doesn’t involve a sudden change of state of consciousness. It might involve a gradual one or an eventual one, but in terms of the state of consciousness from being in a normal waking state to going into Virtual Reality, it’s continuous.

There’s little things like that increase in sensitivity I talked about, but it’s not anything like what you’d associate with a psychedelic drug. A drug, because it’s operating directly on your brain, is changing your subjective perception, whereas Virtual Reality only happens outside your sense organs, so it only directly addresses what you objectively perceive. Your subjective style of experience changes, of course, in response to circumstances, but a lot more slowly and gradually, just as it does if you go on a vacation or something.

David: You could actually create a drug that would come on very slowly though, and the external world can have a psycho-active effect on us. The line between internal and external isn’t clearly defined.

Jaron: The word I love to use to describe the VR user’s mindset is craftsmanlike. Virtual Reality doesn’t happen to you. If you `space out’ in a Virtual Reality situation the medium literally disappears, because it’s the interactivity that makes it real. The visuals are crummy compared, even, to TV- it’s not a great sensory medium in terms of conveying passive images. VR feels more real than TV, but looks less realistic. There will always be a passive visual medium that is higher in quality than the interactive ones.

David: A psychedelic experience is a very interactive one, though. What you do and how you respond, what your intention is, all effect what the experience is like.

Jaron: You’re really going to wrestle me to the ground on this one. (laughter) I think that’s probably true, but I think it is different. A psychedelic experience does have it’s own momentum, it lasts a certain amount of time and it’s something happening to you to a certain extent which you interact with. But a Virtual Reality experience is not happening to you, it’s entirely dependent on your activity with it. There’s no persistence to it whatsoever that’s not by your intention.

Rebecca: Long term use of psychedelics, for a lot of people anyway, gives them this idea that reality is malleable. With long-term use of VR, do you think you would also form this realization, that you do to a large extent, create your reality.

Jaron: This is a tricky area. The idea that reality as we know it is just a passing illusion that can be changed at a moment’s notice is sort of the state religion of Marin county. (laughter) And yet, as obvious as that is to me, there is this stubbornness of – I don’t like to say the physical world, because I’m not sure if it’s the physicality of it that’s the stubborn part – this mundane world out there. I should also say that the stubbornness of the thing is the only thing that makes science sensible. So, it’s a mysterious area. I don’t know that anybody has articulated a tremendous way to reconcile the stubbornness and the apparent flexibility which both exist at once.

Rebecca: But your experience of the world is flexible.

Jaron: Our experience is absolutely malleable. Furthermore, in a hypothetical future world of Virtual Reality, you have the added experience of the objective world being something that’s very fluid and changing and controllable. Of course, on top of that you’d have your internal experience which has always been fluid and changeable. It’s like balancing a unicycle on top of a unicycle – you have this more flexible situation. But I still say that your experience of using Virtual Reality is probably a lot closer to riding a bicycle (or double decker unicycles!), or building something, than it is to an altered consciousness experience… it’s more intentional and it’s more waking state and more craftsmanlike.

David: What do you think might be some of the long-term perceptual changes that would result from someone using VR?

Jaron: Well, this hasn’t happened yet, so I’m purely guessing. As I already mentioned VR can increase sensitivity to the natural world. I want to stress that sensitivity is a learned, ever-growing capacity, just like learning to play a musical instrument.

I think that Virtual Reality will create a profoundly increased sense of distinction between natural and man-made parts of the physical world. Most of us have only had the experience of building a few things. Things like houses and streets are just so common that they come at us as if they were from nature. You discover in Virtual Reality that you can make houses and streets but you can’t make trees. Well, actually you can sort of make some trees that are okay, but they’re not magical like real trees. You’re able to own all those man-made artifacts because you can essentially make them yourself from an experiential point of view in Virtual Reality, so they become something that’s clearly distinct from that which you can’t make, which is the natural.

I think also there will be a kind of focus on experience. The word `experience’ to me is the most provocative, mystical word in the language, because that word, in itself, undermines the whole scientific view. Experience is something which from an experimental point of view can’t be shown to exist at all, and yet it’s all we have. It’s the only thing that we have in common that we can’t measure – it’s not part of the objective world. In a virtual world, because your experience is more clearly separated from stimulus, because the stimulus is all defined in a computer and can be enumerated, your angel self of experience is sort of exposed and you become more aware of it. That creates a kind of sensuality or a direct apprehension of oneself.

Virtual Reality might have some other effects. It might change the way the people walk or something – in all seriousness – because it might give them a lot more experiences of the ways their bodies work. Who knows? There might be all kinds of crazy things. The changes are really up to whoever’s there to use the stuff, and I hope all this will be explored as if life were a work of art.

David: We asked Stephen LaBerge about VR and he described lucid dreaming as, “high-resolution VR.” How would you compare VR and lucid dreaming?

Jaron: That’s true, it’s just that it’s solipsistic. That’s the same old boundary between the infinite solipsistic universe and the more limited shared universe.

Rebecca: Some people think technology is going to take us back to the stone-age due to humanity’s love-affair with the science of destruction while others see it as the answer to all out prayers. How do you see technology’s role in evolution, where do you think it’s taking us ultimately, if anywhere?

Jaron: Evolution only proceeds when people die before they reproduce, or when they just fail to reproduce as a result of their adaptation to their environment. Without death you don’t have evolution. The way you are now, almost everything about you, the way your fingers work, the way your nostrils point down, the way you think, to a large degree; all this is the result of countless millions of deaths of incredible suffering. It’s an extraordinary thing.

So in that sense, technology reduces the degree to which evolution takes place, because people don’t die in as personal a way in a technological society. We are sort of breeding a population now that’s tolerant of cancer-causing agents and radiation in the environment, so in a sense evolution continues, but our environment changes so quickly. An environment has to stay relatively still for a while to have evolution occur in a coherent way.

There’s a little book I like a lot called, Finite and Infinite Games. The title almost says it. There are two types

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