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Jaron Lanier

the reason for it. Let me address the issue of whether the perception of things requires symbolizing or not. When you have a lucid dream, you are able to control the dream, and the question is, what is the language which you use to tell your dream how to be?

David: What is the language? Well, it’s something to do with will and intention.

Jaron: But do you actually have to go through concepts, go through words to change your dream?

David: I’m not really sure. I’m thinking it through in English I guess.

Jaron: Yeah, but how do you actually change the dream? What’s the interface to your dreaming self? Do you put in a request, I’d like a fantasy with a red balloon, or do you just sort of feel the world as it would be and it gets that way.

Rebecca: But you have to isolate from all the possibilities, where you want the dream to go. I think I use language to do that, at least I’ve thought about things I want to do and I’ve found myself doing them. But perhaps that didn’t make it happen because there was something else involved like will, whether the thought pre-dated the will or not, I’m not sure.

Jaron: The process the mind follows in using symbols might not be so linear as to provide an answer. It’s very mysterious and these are deep, difficult problems. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it seems to me that we are able to both apprehend the world and imagine it changed without having to symbolize it. I think dreams are created directly out of the stuff of experience, not out of platonic forms, and I think we will eventually communicate with the same kind of continuity, instead of a vocabulary.

Rebecca: How would you effect changes in the world in Virtual Reality in order to post-symbolically communicate?

Jaron: This is the most important practical question. I think the way people will change the world in order to accomplish post-symbolic communication is not through some kind of psychic hook-up but rather through craftsmanship, through using tools with their bodies. The mind without the body isn’t smart enough to do it. I imagine the tools being a lot like musical instruments that you can learn to use intuitively, that would spin out changes to the world very quickly with practice.

David: Didn’t you say that one of the most exciting things about Virtual Reality is that it helps to blur the distinction between imagination and reality?

Jaron: No, what it does is, it creates a new objective reality between people that is more quickly malleable than the physical world is.

In fact, VR will probably have a clarifying effect on the boundaries of imagination. In our everyday physical lives, there’s a very confusing division between the internal and external worlds. In Virtual Reality however, there is much more of a sharp division between what is objectively created and what is subjectively perceived, because the external world is exactly defined by computer software.

Now, there are some things about Virtual Reality that are not perfect. Once again, I don’t want to shock you. (laughter) Virtual Reality will always be of a lower quality than the physical world.

After the next few early decades of development, the veracity of Virtual Reality will not depend on how good the technology becomes, but rather on how good we become at perceiving the difference between it and nature. A good precedent for this is the way stereophiles can compare a $50,000 pair of speakers to a $70,000 pair of speakers and hear a difference. But they also can hear a difference between that and natural sound.

So here you have a whole aesthetic of creating ever-better speakers, but it never ends because we’re also increasing our own sensitivity to sound. Sensitivity is sort of a global or systemic property of perception, it’s not a simple, measurable parameter that can be maxed out. I think it goes on forever and that you can achieve entirely new, unforeseen strategies of sensitivity that cannot be predicted. Good media technologies make us more sensitive to nature by providing a basis for comparison. That should be treated as one of their best gifts.

David: But if you can directly interface with the senses how would the brain be able to differentiate?

Jaron: Your brain is so flexible that it’s a moving target. There’s no such thing as a final model of the brain and what it does because brains are changing and moving all the time. You learn your own sense organs better as you grow and age. A musician is changing their hearing, changing their hands, changing the way they see throughout their lives.

David: How is it that if you’re in direct control of all the sensory signals entering the body, why are the signals coming from this reality any more specific or more precise and defined than something you can generate from a computer?

Jaron: One of the properties of the physical world is that it’s infinitely mysterious and I mean that as a sort of precise definition. (laughter) In science there’s never absolute truth, only theories that are waiting to be disproven. We can never know that we have come to the end of understanding ourselves or the way we appreciate the world.

David: I completely understand that, but why wouldn’t anything we create inside this infinitely mysterious universe have those qualities as well?

Jaron: I think inside Virtual Reality there will be a new type of infinite mysteriousness, but it’s different from the infinite mysteriousness of the physical world. In the future, when there are a lot of people using Virtual Reality at once, the intersection of all those different reality conversations playing on each other and over-flowing will become a massive wilderness with something of a Jungian nature.

Rebecca: So, you’re saying that as this primary world is what we are trying to simulate, then that situation demands that the virtual world be inferior in terms of it’s precise correlation to this world.

Jaron: One of the things about Virtual Reality is that even though our creation of objects can be accomplished through our spontaneous craftsmanship in using these interfaces of the future – which I imagine to be great musical instrument-like things that spin out all the properties of reality – everything that a Virtual Reality system does has to be represented on a computer, which limits it’s mysteriousness.

That’s because computer programs have to be made out of our ideas to start with, as opposed to that mysterious nature stuff, which we analyze after the fact with successive approximation. We’re “drinking our own whiskey”, so to speak, when we interact with artificial things. Even if they are “out of control”, as in the artificial life ideal, where we’ve let our whiskey ferment. Our sensitivity to the difference between a possibly very great level of sensual mysteriousness in VR versus the infinite level that the physical world presents will never disappear. To say that it will is the same thing as saying that science can be perfected to absolute completion.

Rebecca: Do you think that Virtual Reality might help people to lower their inhibitions as they find they are freed up from the conventional styles of communication?

Jaron: I’m arguing that this is a great adventure, I’m not arguing that it’s going to make people better. I think it has a potential to make people better but not because of anything specific about it, just simply because it is an adventure. Whatever increase in empathy and maturity might happen that might be partially inspired by VR would only rely on the technology as a fetish object. We’re talking about the same old, internal growth which is very hard and with which we all struggle.

Rebecca: Technology also enables us to de-sensitize and de-sanctify the world. If you can create virtual environments with virtual trees, and bring back extinct animals, you can end up having less reverence for the world outside. Why would you care about the environment and other people when you can just plug them in?

Jaron: There’s a bunch of reasons.(laughter) One thing about Virtual Reality which I found to be true for almost everyone who uses it, is that when you leave it you get this thrill of seeing the physical world again. Actually, one of the patterns of use that I’ve noticed with people is that they tend to want to build up some time in VR so that they can experience that thrill of the transition back to the physical world.

You have such an increased sensitivity to detail when you come out, it’s like your sense organs have been widened. The first time I came out of Virtual Reality I noticed the rainbows and the individual threads in the weave of the carpet for the first time. So it actually increases sensitivity rather than decreases it.

Rebecca: Because of it’s limitations, that would seem.

Jaron: That’s exactly right, and as I pointed out, that would continue always. It’s very easy to confuse Virtual Reality with television or movies because that’s the media technology we’re used to. In those you sit there and your sense organs are filled with sensation even though your body isn’t doing anything and has no opportunity to affect experience. That’s a very unnatural mode of perception. The natural mode of perception is entirely interactive and very physical.

So, by having this sort of artificial source of sensation without action, you turn your body into a zombie, and that’s why kids

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