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Jaron Lanier

peephole into the world in which a program was visualized. We originally began developing what I decided to call “virtual reality systems” to have a better way of handling these programming representations. Of course, when we showed those to the world, particularly to people who were funding research or investing in companies, they got excited about the interface and missed the whole point of the programming languages, and thus we started to focus much more on Virtual Reality than on the original idea of a new type of programming language.

I should stress that the programming language we were doing was really very different from the current generation of visual programming languages – of which there are many, including commercial ones – in that this one did not have any sense of source code at all, it didn’t have any fixed representation. Rather it was composed of spontaneously regenerated representations of the internal state of the computer that simulated the existence of source code.

David: That sounds like such a paradox. You mean not using icons, kind of create as you go?

Jaron: Well, the traditional way that computers have been controlled is by making a differentiation between source code and object code where source code is a human-oriented representation of what the computer’s going to do. It usually looks like a series of awkward, broken, written English commands. Object code, on the other hand, is made of the ones and zeros which the computer itself can read. This scheme was set up primarily by a very brilliant woman named Grace Mary Hopper. It dates from a time when hardware interfaces were very limited and incapable of handling pictures. It made a great deal of sense to make the best of the computer’s ability to read in a string of letters, and to try to use a natural language like English as a metaphor.

What we were doing, however, is radically different from that in the sense that rather than having a fixed type of source code – be it visual or text – instead the computer would analyze it’s own code and present one of a number of visualizations of an infinite variety, so that you could pick and choose different visualizations of the same material and invent new ones. The visualization was always spontaneously created and the source code as such was a passing illusion.

There are some reasons why that turns out to be very useful and avoids a lot of problems. Mostly what it does is that it forces the computer to represent and understand it’s own code well enough that it can make a broader based analysis of decisions than it can with the traditional source code idea, which forces it to have an incredibly narrow point of view on it’s own code in order to turn in into a linear representation.

Rebecca: So the computer can make variations on a theme. Does this mean that it’s actually being creative?

Jaron: Well, this is a whole interesting other diversion because whenever a computer does something it can only be understood according to your own psychological projections upon it. You can either decide you’re going to project autonomy onto it and treat it as doing something, or you can or you can treat it as a tool that you’re using.

Both points of view are functionally equivalent and cover exactly the same actions and events. I prefer not to think of the computer as autonomous because I feel that creates a more finite metaphor for how I define myself and I find that that’s a dangerous path to go down and leads to nerdiness and blandness and silicon valley, but that’s another story.(laughter)

Rebecca: Tell us about your childhood influences, you said this was one of the four inspirations for your work.

Jaron: Well, I think everyone as a small child has an experience of a drastic contrast between their internal experience of themselves and what they’re able to share with other people. You might have the same memory as I do, if you remember back to when you were a little kid, of having this kind of infinite freedom of imagination and optimism. As you get older, though, you discover something that can only be described as God’s greatest infliction of indignity on children. The shocking truth is that the only world in which other people reliably exist, particularly your parents, and the only world in which things like food exist, is this physical world in which you’re a pudgy little pink weakling.(laughter) You struggle to accept it, it’s very, very hard, and the acceptance of that fact is more or less what adulthood amounts to.

I think it’s one of the two great limitations that we adjust to, the other one being mortality. I think that the reason people get excited about Virtual Reality, the reason why it’s not just another gadget, is because it does suggest a new way around the dichotomy between the infinite interior imagination and the limited shared world with other people.

David: What is your definition of reality, and how do you think it’s created? In that context, what then is Virtual Reality?

Jaron: You’ll be shocked to know that I don’t have definitive answers to all deep philosophical questions. (laughter) I do have some thoughts on it, though. I’ll start with one definition which is a biological one. Reality is the global expectation of the nervous system for the next moment. In other words, the most flexible parts of the psyche and your body mold themselves to a rolling guess of what will probably come next.

The continuous, cinematic-style experience of reality that we have is an illusion created by our nervous systems. Our direct perception of this world is actually highly flawed. For starters, the blind-spot is a great example. Near the center of each of your eyes is this big, black hole where you don’t see anything, but you’re never aware of it. Your mind fills it in perfectly for itself, which it can do because it holds all the cards. Even aside from that, what your eyes actually see is not what you perceive them seeing. Your eyes see edges and boundaries and patterns and they don’t really see the picture that you see – that’s constructed on a running basis in your brain. They just physiologically do not pick up the picture that you’re seeing now.

Rebecca: And there are all those associations you have developed throughout your life that get psychologically attached to what you’re seeing.

Jaron: Yeah. Have you ever had the experience of looking at something and for a moment it’s just an abstraction and it’s weird and you don’t quite get it, then you recognize it, then you can only see it in the proper way, no matter how hard you try to see it `wrong’ again? Sometimes the top of a building in the distance will blend with the sky in an impossible way. That sort of thing. That’s an example of how every level of your being works together to create your sense of reality. What a computer person would call a `high-level’ idea of recognizing objects like building tops and understanding their functions and relationships helps the supposedly very low level function of just interpreting colors and edges and the visual scene.

So, what’s happening is there’s a sort of rolling effect… I hate to use the word model and I’m trying to avoid using it because I don’t really think that your brain represents the outside world in any kind of codified and consistent way. You don’t even need to study the brain to decide that, you can make philosophical arguments to show that that’s an unlikely thing to be going on.

But, I think on a sort of a more global level, your brain and your body together are adapting themselves to the reality and that’s also the process that lets you perceive it. So there’s this moment to moment process where your expectations happen to match up with the apparent consistency of the stimulation from your physical world, and those things together are reality for you.

David: Isn’t that a model?

Jaron: Yeah okay, it’s a model, but it’s not the usual kind of model that can be represented as an abstraction. I don’t want to say the word model, because if I do then a bunch of academic philosophers will write me nasty letters saying, “How dare you say that!?” (laughter) And yet it’s the closest thing you can say easily. Another definition of reality has to do with the mysterious or sublime stubbornness of things. There are a few things that are just intensely, stubbornly there all the time.

David: Philip K. Dick once said that “reality is that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.”

Jaron: That’s absolutely excellent. There are only a few things that fall in that category – I think there are three. There’s this everyday, mundane physical world which seems awfully persistent, and the fact that Marin hasn’t made it disappear is good evidence that nobody could. (laughter) And then there’s the world of moods and essences and artistic feelings and styles, and those things are intensely real to me on a deep level; the sense of experience itself including the differentiation of different experiences. The other stubborn item is that mysterious thing called mathematics – it’s just really stubbornly there.

David: And just a brief definition of mathematics in that context?

Jaron: Mathematics is an inevitable path you go down when you start thinking about things in some way other than as an undifferentiated whole – which is any kind of thinking, really.

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