I couldn’t help thinking of John Le Carré’s spy novels as I awaited my rendezvous with Jaron Lanier in a corner of the lobby of the stylish W Hotel just off Union Square in Manhattan. Le Carré’s espionage tales, such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, are haunted by the spectre of the mole, the defector, the double agent, who, from a position deep inside, turns against the ideology he once professed fealty to.
And so it is with Jaron Lanier and the ideology he helped create, Web 2.0 futurism, digital utopianism, which he now calls “digital Maoism,” indicting “internet intellectuals,” accusing giants like Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies.” Lanier was one of the creators of our current digital reality and now he wants to subvert the “hive mind,” as the web world’s been called, before it engulfs us all, destroys political discourse, economic stability, the dignity of personhood and leads to “social catastrophe.” Jaron Lanier is the spy who came in from the cold 2.0.
To understand what an important defector Lanier is, you have to know his dossier. As a pioneer and publicizer of virtual-reality technology (computer-simulated experiences) in the ’80s, he became a Silicon Valley digital-guru rock star, later renowned for his giant bushel-basket-size headful of dreadlocks and Falstaffian belly, his obsession with exotic Asian musical instruments, and even a big-label recording contract for his modernist classical music. (As he later told me, he once “opened for Dylan.” )
The colorful, prodigy-like persona of Jaron Lanier—he was in his early 20s when he helped make virtual reality a reality—was born among a small circle of first-generation Silicon Valley utopians and artificial-intelligence visionaries. Many of them gathered in, as Lanier recalls, “some run-down bungalows [I rented] by a stream in Palo Alto” in the mid-’80s, where, using capital he made from inventing the early video game hit Moondust, he’d started building virtual-reality machines. In his often provocative and astute dissenting book You Are Not a Gadget, he recalls one of the participants in those early mind-melds describing it as like being “in the most interesting room in the world.” Together, these digital futurists helped develop the intellectual concepts that would shape what is now known as Web 2.0—“information wants to be free,” “the wisdom of the crowd” and the like.
And then, shortly after the turn of the century, just when the rest of the world was turning on to Web 2.0, Lanier turned against it. With a broadside in Wired called “One-Half of a Manifesto,” he attacked the idea that “the wisdom of the crowd” would result in ever-upward enlightenment. It was just as likely, he argued, that the crowd would devolve into an online lynch mob.
Lanier became the fiercest and weightiest critic of the new digital world precisely because he came from the Inside. He was a heretic, an apostate rebelling against the ideology, the culture (and the cult) he helped found, and in effect, turning against himself.
And despite his apostasy, he’s still very much in the game. People want to hear his thoughts even when he’s castigating them. He’s still on the Davos to Dubai, SXSW to TED Talks conference circuit. Indeed, Lanier told me that after our rendezvous, he was off next to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ford Foundation uptown in Manhattan. Following which he was flying to Vienna to address a convocation of museum curators, then, in an overnight turnaround, back to New York to participate in the unveiling of Microsoft’s first tablet device, the Surface.
Lanier freely admits the contradictions; he’s a kind of research scholar at Microsoft, he was on a first-name basis with “Sergey” and “Steve” (Brin, of Google, and Jobs, of Apple, respectively). But he uses his lecture circuit earnings to subsidize his obsession with those extremely arcane wind instruments. Following his Surface appearance he gave a concert downtown at a small venue in which he played some of them.
Lanier is still in the game in part because virtual reality has become, virtually, reality these days. “If you look out the window,” he says pointing to the traffic flowing around Union Square, “there’s no vehicle that wasn’t designed in a virtual-reality system first. And every vehicle of every kind built—plane, train—is first put in a virtual-reality machine and people experience driving it [as if it were real] first.”