A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

Tuesday, June 4, 2002—10:30 a.m. Lanier’s Tribeca Loft, New York, NY Videotaped and transcribed by Amanda MacBlane   WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’re both a scientist and a musician and you are probably most well-known for virtual reality. What interests me is which one of those talents came first? JARON LANIER: You know it’s funny, sometimes a… Read more »

Written By

William Duckworth

Tuesday, June 4, 2002—10:30 a.m.
Lanier’s Tribeca Loft, New York, NY

Videotaped and transcribed by Amanda MacBlane


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’re both a scientist and a musician and you are probably most well-known for virtual reality. What interests me is which one of those talents came first?

JARON LANIER: You know it’s funny, sometimes a pattern emerges in your childhood that you find repeating throughout your life. When I was pretty small I had a mother who was interested in having a high-achieving child, just to put things very, very mildly, so I had this vague idea that I was supposed to be both a scientist and a musician, that those were sort of expected.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you see those two abilities as separate or were they always together?

JARON LANIER: Well, they’re somewhat different in execution. It’s not so much that they’re different abilities, but they’re different disciplines, you know. Science isn’t so much a talent as a combination of passion and patience [laughs]. Science is a discipline. It’s a way of being passionate about something in which you have to somehow, against you own nature, take on the humility of actually listening to what the world tells you is working versus what is not working. That makes things sort of slow and if you can adjust to that, then you can be a scientist. And then with music, it’s about connecting to other people. Music is about reaching other people. But other people are worlds unto themselves and so the scale of the two endeavors is similar. In both cases, whether you want to frame it in those terms or not, there’s a kind of infective humility that you have to take on in order to be successful, really acknowledging what that enormous world out there is like. And even the most arrogant scientists or musicians who are able to succeed have somehow learned how to respond to this thing outside themselves with tremendous patience and that’s where they have something in common.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: So is it one set of abilities wearing two hats, as opposed to two very different kinds of abilities?

JARON LANIER: I think there are differences in talents between people, but those talents are of a very elemental sort. They aren’t really musical or scientific. They become musical or scientific when a person combines them with passion and patience and something develops. I think that the key thing isn’t so much having a particular talent, but finding some sort of match between passion and patience in order to bring out what everyone’s talents are. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a person who couldn’t be a scientist if that’s what they really wanted to be, or someone who couldn’t be a musician if that’s what they really wanted to be, but the way in which they’d be a scientist or a musician would vary according to their particular qualities.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I know you went to college very early. I think you started when you were 14. What were you planning to be?

JARON LANIER: When I was first in college when I was young, I don’t think I had a plan. I wasn’t thinking that way. I wasn’t looking forward to some sort of affirmative accomplishment, but instead, I was looking backward at trying to escape a difficult circumstance. I wanted to find someway to live in which I could be less lonely, more understood or just less terrified. You know, I was really running away from things and less toward things. And perhaps that’s a form of motivation that I needed. I don’t know.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: But you didn’t see yourself going as a scientist or as a musician, you were just going to college?

JARON LANIER: Well, I always self-identified as a musician, I think, primarily. But what there was in southern New Mexico was a concentration of scientists and engineers because of the weapons programs. And very close to the little town I grew up in, Mesilla, there was a university with one of the finest early computer centers and a fine math department in the middle of nowhere supporting a missile range and an atomic weapons lab and a very friendly, open-minded collection of academics who liked the idea of weird local kids hanging out. And the number of local kids from that little dusty, out-of-the-way place in New Mexico that ended up having careers as mathematicians or scientists is extraordinary because of this odd circumstance. I happened to be very lucky, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time, of course. I had no idea that it was unusual.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Was New Mexico State University the first place that you actually got your hands on a computer?

JARON LANIER: Absolutely. I was a late bloomer at computers. You mentioned that I started college early, and it’s true. But I was very anti-computer at first. I thought that computers were ugly, which they were and for the most part still are. I thought that computers were impure and that what one should be is a pure mathematician who achieves things through the powers of analysis and intellect and that computers were the weakling’s crutch, which they often still are. I mean, all of that’s true. It’s all real! So I think the way I got into computers was the way that most people do, because of economic necessity. There was a job in the math department doing something with a computer and it turned out to be an incredibly fortuitous thing.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you teach yourself programming?

JARON LANIER: Oh yeah. There wasn’t any sense of teaching programming at that time, you were just expected to get it. But on the other hand, you have to remember, computers are hard to the degree that they’re large and so, in those days, computers were smaller…I mean a lot smaller, more than a million times smaller than the ones I am working with now. The size of programs that could exist were pretty small so it wasn’t really that hard. I mean, writing a small program isn’t that hard. Anyone can do that. It’s when they get big that it gets tricky and, in fact, if it gets really big then nobody knows how to do it and that’s what I’m trying to
work on now. So the little computers we had around then weren’t that hard to program. And we used these little punch cards, so there’d be these stacks of cards and you’d always lose them, and New Mexico’s windy sometimes, so they’d be flying.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I remember that from Illinois. Running your cards on Thursday and getting the sounds back next Tuesday.

JARON LANIER: Right, right, right, right. Yeah.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Wasn’t it about the same time that you hitchhiked to Mexico to visit Conlon Nancarrow?

JARON LANIER: Right. When I was a kid somebody played me a tape of some of the Nancarrow studies. If I’m not mistaken it was a reel-to-reel tape of an LP that was put out by 1750 Arch. I think it had all kinds of prepared piano and microtonal piano, maybe. There were 3 [Nancarrow] piano studies on it. I don’t remember which ones, but they were some of the more striking Romantic studies that have great special effects in them.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Was it No. 21, Canon X?

JARON LANIER: No, I didn’t hear Canon X until later. And Canon X is a little bit more austere. I don’t remember, but it was three of them and I was so turned on by them that I couldn’t talk about anything else for months. I was just so enthralled.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: How did you meet Nancarrow?

JARON LANIER: It was another one of those lucky things. I just decided I had to meet this guy and somehow I got this notion in my head that I’d hitchhike to Mexico City and show up on his doorstep. And I did that in my teens a couple of times. Mexico in those days was a sweeter place. It was out of control, but it was more like Italy. The drug trade wasn’t this ugly murderous thing, so it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do and there were all sorts of hippy kids floating through there. So I had my own little odyssey of showing up in Mexico City at his doorstep and then finding myself so in awe that I couldn’t speak to him. So here’s this weird American kid who shows up at this hermit’s doorstep, unable to say a word. So it took a while to establish why I was there, you know? It turned out, though, that Conlon was very interested in mathematics and well read on it and had been particularly interested in different kinds of infinity. So I finally told him, “Oh, I know about that,” and he said, “Come in, come in!” And we talked about all sorts of mathematical topics and Yoko, his wife, took care of me and fed me and I still was almost unable to speak to him. But then, you know, he took me to this sort of bunker…

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Behind the house?

JARON LANIER: Yeah, he had this bunker, this very thunderously resonant space filled with bookshelves. He ordered documents from all over the world and he was extraordinarily aware of everything. He wanted to be both worldly and isolated. Hearing his music in his space was just so thrilling.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: That must have been fantastic.

JARON LANIER: You know, I think Nancarrow also did something else. I think he plays a special role in intellectual history because you could say he’s one of the first artists and probably the first musician who confronted the problem of having achieved total control and total flexibility in some important parameter. In his case, it was in time. What do you do if you get to the point where you can do anything, where you can make any sound and you’re not pushing against the capabilities of the human player or the instrument or whatever? Of course, it’s an illusion because you’re still pushing against the ability of cognition to perceive something, which he is in his music, especially by creating these special effects. But there’s also the sense that he’s dealing with a level of freedom that no composer had ever had before and I think that that creates a sort of crisis. And it’s a very typical and endemic crisis in the digital age where you have this sort of flexibility that you didn’t have before brought about by computers. But Nancarrow was the first person to peek at that before there were computers. And in many ways, I think, he found a better path than anyone has since in dealing with that. What he decided to do was to come up with a very abstract idea of organizing time, like this idea of irrational time signatures and all these crazy things he did. And then, as he said, pushing against human cognition: Can you hear an irrational time signature? Yes, actually you can! So I think he found a way forward which was beautiful and I’m still astonished that he’s not better known.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Who were the other composers that made a big impression on you? Who formed your background with music?

JARON LANIER: Boy, there are a bunch of them. Bach was the really early one. And then it turns out that I had weird parents out in New Mexico and they had a 78 collection of all kinds of stuff. So I had an Uday Shankar 78 of Hindustani music which was great and I had a 78 of microtonal piano music which was wonderful. It was Christopher Columbus. I don’t even know who composed it. It was an early piece for a quarter-tone piano.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: That was the Mexican composer Carrillo, wasn’t it?

JARON LANIER: I believe so. But then, when I was a little bit older, another one who just completely floored me was Harry Partch. The first Harry Partch I heard was an LP for a film called Windsong. That really excited me on many, many, levels: the notion of not just playing with a new tuning system as an intellectual exercise but really getting something out of it. I mean, God, he really got it. That thing worked like crazy. And then designing the instruments and the visuals of them and everything. I always wanted to meet him but unfortunately he died when I was about 14. In my hitchhiking adventures I did eventually find my way to San Diego and I met Danlee Mitchell and a few tim
es he let me crash in my sleeping bag underneath the Marimba Eroica. So I was able to get a little bit of a posthumous connection to Partch. But I would have loved to have met him. And I discovered Scriabin‘s late piano music and that, really floored me. I just adore the last 10 Scriabin piano pieces. In a way, I think he did something that was much more profound than anyone who came later, and with extraordinary emotion and extraordinary depth. There’s just so much in that music. There’s an unquestionable power to it. And for a pianist, it’s also an interesting challenge to play. It’s an exercise in ergonomic extremity. It’s not only that it’s hard, but there’s also this interesting communication that comes out of it. There’s this fusion of different elements. I’ve always had an affinity and fascination with that pre-revolutionary Moscow scene, so I’ve always been interested in Scriabin. And then, much later, I was able to meet both Leon Theremin and Nicolas Slominsky and compare their stories to get a sense of who Scriabin really was, and that was wonderful. As with Partch, I felt I was able to develop a little bit of a posthumous connection to him.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: What about jazz and rock? Was that influential?

JARON LANIER: It’s a funny thing, but because of the place I grew up I didn’t have as much access to them as you might think. Southern New Mexico is one of the odder spots in America in that, on the one hand, you have by some measures the densest concentration of scientists and engineers of any other place in the world. On the other hand, aside from them, the remaining people are the poorest people in America and the county I grew up in is consistently the poorest, or the second poorest, county in America. And nothing came there. The radio stations we could hear were usually from Mexico. There weren’t stores of normal sorts. It was very backward. A lot of American mainstream commerce and culture didn’t reach it until later. So I don’t think I was aware of jazz until I first moved to New York. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it, which might sound incredible, but really, there’s no particular way I would have. I don’t think I even heard of something like Frank Sinatra or any big band or any of that stuff. It just wasn’t around in my environment. Some rock’n’roll was and so I heard the Beatles, which was very intense stuff. But I was also rebelling, and since other people were listening to it, I tended to not want to listen to it. But I was pretty impressed by the Beatles. And once again, when something touches me I try to develop a personal connection to it. So with the Beatles, I have a side band that plays every now and again with Sean Lennon, John Lennon‘s son. And we play the piano parts on the Beatles’ records, so there’s a little connection and I have a feeling for what was going on with them. I still hear the Beatles as having this kind of luminosity, this feeling of awakening. Is it just because I and a bunch of other people were young at the time, or is there really something in the music that someone else would hear that has that quality to it? I don’t really know. I really have to say, when I first heard them, I kept thinking there’s so much in this music that is so good, but if only a few little things were changed it would be so much better and I still feel that whenever I hear it. I still feel like there are all these missteps and schmaltzy, stupid things and, you know, I still wish that a few little things were improved here and there. And I’m sure they would too, actually. I also had access to a lot of Mexican pop music. I heard a lot of polka and mariachi and other sorts of things happening in Mexico. The place where I grew up didn’t have so much of an African American or African diaspora quality; it was much more Mexican influenced. And I heard quite a lot of American Indian music.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Am I correct that you got started as a scientist programming games for Atari? Is that more or less accurate?

JARON LANIER: Oh gosh, that’s a crazy story. Let me give a little prequel to that. As you mentioned, I started college early and when I was 17 I met somebody who was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. This was someone who self-identified as an artist. And you have to understand, in the milieu that I grew up in there were either impoverished peasants and agricultural people, or there were scientists and engineers who were either directly or indirectly supported by the weapons program. There wasn’t anything else. And I met this kid who said, “I’m a poet and I go to this art school in New York.” And the very notion completely excited me. I was, like, wow! And I decided that I had to drop everything and go to this place. So I went to an elite, self-obsessed art college in the New York region for a little while. But I flunked out and ended up in Manhattan playing in the avant-garde music world when I was 17 or 18. And that was when I first encountered the music scene. That’s when I met people like La Monte and Charlemagne Palestine. I used to play piano at the Ear Inn. I was a founding member of the Ocarina Orchestra that used to raid Wall Street with Ocarina music and all that kind of crazy stuff. Well, I was just around musical things then. And, somehow I got the idea in my head that the most important thing in the world was to play at these little, dumpy, downtown places like The Kitchen, the Ear Inn, Franklin Furnace and Phill Niblock‘s loft. To me, that was just the height of achievement and I was incredibly excited and I was totally enthralled to meet people. Anyway, I then confronted the fact that I did not have money. My family wasn’t rich at all and I was making a living playing in restaurants and I realized that it was just unviable. There was no way that I could survive in New York. And I started to get scared, so I went back to New Mexico, the place I knew, feeling sort of ashamed that I couldn’t make it in New York. So one day this hippy friend said, “Let’s take your car and go to Santa Cruz.” And I said, “Okay.” So we went there and I again tried to do what I’d done in New York, to see if I could make a living being a musician. And once again, it would be possible but it was really wearing me dow
n. It was very hard and I was getting scared. And one day I met somebody who was involved with computers in Silicon Valley and he said, “You know, you have a car. Why don’t you go to Silicon Valley.” And I went over there and I went to a headhunter with a resume of what I had done in the math department, what computers I’d worked with, and what my background was. And they looked at it and immediately I got job offers for salaries that were just beyond my comprehension. Just stratospheric amounts of money that I couldn’t even imagine. And most of them were for profoundly dull activities. But there was one at the bottom. This video game company was starting up and there weren’t that many people who’d had experience with making computer graphics much less interactive computer graphics, so I said, “Video games, wow, that sounds good!” So I took this job and suddenly was getting these huge checks every two weeks, which really astonished me. I just couldn’t believe it. So I moved to Palo Alto and I started making video games. I made a couple and it turns out I could make them freelance. So I started making my own. And I specialized in sound, so I made some of the first music and sounds for video games. And I had one called Moondust which was successful. I don’t know if it’s true, but there was a review in the Computer Music Journal that claims it is the first interactive music publication. It’s possible that it is. Suddenly, I had all of this money from this video game, so some friends of mine and I started building these virtual reality systems in the garage.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: When did you start combining virtual reality with music?

JARON LANIER: What happened was that during my 20s, this misadventure of having a company was so all-consuming that it set its own priorities and I had very little opportunity to really play with the stuff and enjoy it. But around ’91 or so, I realized that I had denied myself the opportunity to really enjoy the stuff on an aesthetic level, so I wanted to really do a piece of art with it. So there’s a conference called Siggraph, which is the annual computer graphics conference. It’s a huge-scale thing. So for the ’92 Siggraph—and at this point, I’m 31 or 32 years old—I did a live performance where I put on a goggle and glove and I went up on stage and inside a virtual world where I played on musical instruments that just existed inside the virtual world. The piece was called “The Sound of One Hand” because I only had one glove. It was ahead of its time and I think a lot of people were watching it and knew there was something to it. But they couldn’t quite understand what was going on because the whole notion of being inside a virtual world wasn’t familiar.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’ve written a lot on your worries about technology and the religion of technology. Do you have a similar worry about technology and music?

JARON LANIER: The problem I think is pretty easy to state. It’s that when you play a physical musical instrument or an analog electronic instrument one aspect of what’s going on is that you’re exploring your own mind and body, your cognitive feedback loop, how you interface with this world outside. And an interesting thing about that is the degree of depth there is to that interaction. That your sensory organs and your motor abilities are astonishingly acute, that your retina can be stimulated by a single photon for instance. But there are also remarkable failings in the human sensory ability. Evolution is a funny process that’s a mixture of blind idiocy combined with perfect optimization within that. So with our eyes, our retina is on backwards. The optic nerve connects on the wrong side of the retina and we have this big blind spot. So you have a retina that is sensitive to a single photon in the right conditions, but on the other hand there’s this big blind spot in the middle of it, so you have this amazing combination of idiocy and strategy and perfection and optimization. But because of that perfection and optimization, when you interface with the world, there’s a profound level of depth to it because the world is not a simple place. And what that means is that there’s this sort of never-ending adventure of exploring new ways to perceive and interact with the world and you have a process that really doesn’t run out. There’s always new ways to perceive the world, to match your own cognition to the world. There’s a philosopher named James P. Carse who distinguished between finite and infinite games. A finite game would be a single game of baseball, which has an end and there’s a winner and a loser. An infinite game would be baseball as a whole, which is infinitely renewed. There’s no end to it. So, when you’re playing a physical piano or a flute or even something like a Theremin—some analog device—there’s an infinity to the depth of subtlety that you can find and there’s no end to it. You’re exploring a configuration space that’s huge, to be more technical. But when you play within the context of a digital device, there are two dangers. One danger has to do with a kind of narrowness. A digital device can’t do anything unless it’s programmed. And every program embeds ideas about the world, so whenever you use a digital device, instead of exploring this huge infinite space, you’re running around inside a maze that was set up inside the nature of the program. And typically, because computers have gotten big and complicated, people can’t really write all their own software anymore, so at least to a partial degree, they inherit the maze that was set up by a programmer. Now it’s impossible for a program to foresee the nature of the maze because of the way software is. So there’s just this particular maze. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but a particular maze that you might explore in the context of using a digital device is going to be a much smaller order than the universe. So you end up in a cognitive game that’s tiny compared to the world of reality. And if you’re aware of it, it’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. For instance, when we use words we’re selecting a smaller game than reality and just by combining a relatively small number of words compared to the things in the world, we can have literature and poetry and all of these things. Having a small number of components isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s absolutely essential to be aware of it. And it’s worse than words in the sense that words don’t have fixed definitions. If you write a law using words, it’s still necessary to interpret it. But when you write a program and then use a program, there are mandatory constraints. There’s sort of a hardnes
s to the influence that the program you’re using as your creative basis has on you, and it’s less interpretive than other sorts of finite constraints. Now there’s a second danger which mixes with this narrowness which is that there’s a subjectivity of computers. I hope all of this isn’t too long-winded, but the problem is that in order to even appreciate that a computer is in front of you, you need to be willing to project onto it enough meaning to perceive it as functioning. And there’s a danger that this reflects back on one’s self. So, this is one of the things that I’m always ranting about. If you think of a computer as being like you, this sort of artificial intelligence approach, I think there’s a tremendous danger that you end up narrowing yourself. You end up making yourself stupid in order to be similar to however the computer happens to be at the time. And I think particularly in academic music circles, there’s a lot of music that’s exceptionally dry and meaningless, even for academic music, because of people being confused and turning themselves in to however the computer happens to be. So you see a lot of really, really dull and banal and sterile music. And it’s a double tragedy because it’s both a disaster for computer culture and also for music. So that’s something that I worry about a lot. When you play with a computer, you’re exploring the sort of maze-like grooves that are allowed by whatever the program is that you’re using. What you’re really doing is recycling whatever was put into the program and there’s really no new exploration. You’re not going back to something infinite to get new things. When you play with nature directly, when you play with analog stuff, you are going back to nature and discovering new things because of the vastness of it. So, there is this problem.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Do you think that these limitations with computers being used creatively applies equally to music on the Web, or is that another world?

JARON LANIER: No, I think it is possible to do wonderful things with computers and music. Please don’t get me wrong. I do it myself. I hope I do so successfully. I’m more pointing out a special danger. Now, the secret to using computers well in music is to demote the computer. To not believe that the computer is some sort of entity—that the computer is playing with you, or that the computer is a collaborator of some sort. The computer is not a musician. The computer is not some sort of entity. The computer does not have judgment. It does not have taste. It does not compose. It does not perform. Drop all of that. Don’t anthropomorphize it. You have to hate the computer, you have to fight against the computer so that you don’t get snookered by the particular narrowness of the program you’re using. So, the better way is to think that the computer is a channel between people. You should think of a computer as a fancy telephone. You should think of it as something that creates a channel between people that’s mediated by these patterns. It’s a patterning device that connects people together and depending on the particular way it’s put together—it might be a virtual world device, or maybe it’s an audio device—that’s what it is fundamentally. If you think of it as an inert patterning device that connects people together, then it starts to make sense. And so I think when music is done on the Internet, because of the intrinsic emphasis on communication between people, it almost always turns out better than when computers are used in other contexts. Not always, but almost always. It’s usually much better. I think there’s been some really wonderful music on the Net. We’re just now at the cusp of the time where people are having decent enough Internet connections and decent enough computers that you can start to imagine some sort of new interactive community happening which could be really exciting and idealistic. If the courts hadn’t intervened, I think that Napster would have evolved past being just a way of sharing traditional music publications and turned into a music creation medium. I think that was already starting to happen and that would have been when it would have become interesting. And I can see various scenarios But I think there is a great cultural tragedy and it can’t be overstated how stupid the legal attacks on Napster are and to what degree the music industry was biting the hand that feeds it and destroying its own future. All these things will happen eventually anyway, but it’s terribly, terribly sad. I think there was a cultural moment that was happening there. But it’s hard to overstate how important that kind of cultural moment could be. I mean, if, indeed, Napster was about to turn into something that would be this interactive remix jam of some kind it could’ve created a new style, a new cultural center for people who are just growing up now.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: But there’s a distinction, isn’t there, between remixing and putting your own music up? Do you think that the Web is the place where that kind of music is going to go now? Are the new composers going to the Web?

JARON LANIER: I don’t know. Right now, there are enormous forces at work in a battle on the future of digital culture. Some of them are commercial, in that even though the dot-com thing was a bust there was still so much money put into it that people are trying to figure out something to do with it. And there are very powerful forces trying to coalesce it into something that’s more like cable TV. And if there’s success in that, it will be tragic. And just as some things were delayed by the Middle Ages, there might be some things that are delayed by commercial interests on the Internet. Another issue is the whole business of security and the nature of what that means now. And there are other problems that might come. Now it might sound like I am finding the usual bogeymen in government and industry, but that’s not true at all. There are problems in human nature that are shared. For instance, the spam problem is also something that can destroy the openness of the Internet and there is, as of yet, no solution to it. Then there are technical issues. I mean, the Web is a wonderful thing but the particular design of the Web is kind of unfortunate. The Web is a little bit like MIDI. MIDI is something that’s been wonderful; it’s allowed a lot of things to happen in music. And yet its fundamental design is so poor that it’s just a great shame. And the Web is similar. It’s wonderful that it’s there, that it was simple enough to spread quickly, as was MIDI, and yet its design is very poor. So I have a love/hate relationship with both of them.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: When you do something musical, does it have an Internet side to it, or is it irrelevant whether it’s webcast or not?

JARON LANIER: I’ve never done music specifically for the Internet. I’m not sure exactly why that is. I think part of it is that I love playing music for people. I love playing live and the Internet isn’t good enough to do that yet. It could be and, you know, one of my areas of research—this isn’t precisely science, this is more technological research—but there’s a thing called tele-immersion, which is a project that’s been running for about five years, I guess. And the notion to tele-immersion is to create the illusion that people in different cities are actually in the same room. So
it’s sort of a fancy version of virtual reality where you’re actually drawing in the real world at a distance instead of having a completely synthetic world. One of the interesting things about tele-immersion is if you were doing music in tele-immersion then you could have that feedback from the audience. You could have that experience of really connecting with people. I think tele-immersion is good enough for that. And that, in turn, changes the nature of the game of online music because you could start to have versions of Internet music that really did synthesize some of that quality of really seeing the people in the audience. But it requires what are, by today’s standards, extraordinarily expensive and elaborate devices on each side for transducing sensory motor information and then also extraordinary network performance between them and extraordinary computational ability. So right now it’s something completely beyond the pale. But someday it ought to all become cheap and possible.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: And is that the point where you would become interested in actually doing something musically on the Web?

JARON LANIER: Yes. I’d love to work as a musician in that medium, in some sort of tele-immersive network thing. At that point I think the Napster problem becomes solved. I mean, right now, just as a practical matter, if you’re a musician without a trust fund and you want to survive playing music, there aren’t all that many options. One option is to get into the world of jingles or soundtracks, but nobody likes that all that much. It’s really rough. Another option is to be a recording artist, but even the most successful recording artists have a very difficult time actually making money from the recordings themselves. It’s doable, but only a small number of people do it. And furthermore, if you look at the distribution of income in the recording arts, a very tiny number of people make a lot of money, and then a vast majority make no money, and there’s no middle class. And I think the middle class is where creativity happens. If everyone is so impoverished that no one ever hears about their stuff, then there’s no mixing and that culture doesn’t really happen very quickly. But when you have a healthy middle class, you can have democracy and that’s how we have culture. Now, what I’m thinking the future ought to be is anything that can be reproduced without the live action of a musician should be free. So all recorded music, I think, should be free. But I think musicians will be able to charge for tele-immersively performing for people around the world. And then you have the ability to get performance income without travel. And then I think you could recreate this middle-class commerce for music and that’s when things would be really healthy and interesting and I’d love to participate in that world. And I think it could come about. I mean, the cost of technology will make it possible. And then you can have not only tele-immersive music performances but, because the medium becomes a virtual world, new forms. There could be something that crosses live musical performance with theater, with video games, where you have live theatrical performances that include a level of production value and special effects and fantasy that you normally associate today with Hollywood movies, where the musician can turn into other characters while playing, and the audience can have roles within the performance. There could be an enormous range of exploration and I think that’s the synthesis where it becomes really interesting.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Do you think that when we get to that point it will still be performer and listener or will the listener take a more active role in the creative process?

JARON LANIER: Well, my answer to this is that I’m going to draw an analogy to books. If you had a society in which people were either semi-literate, or perhaps they could read but they’d never had any experience with writing at all—how many books would be sold? Very few. A society in which people write at least a little bit, in which most people have gone to school and have written an essay and perhaps a short story, they have some sense of the experience. In that world, there will be more who discover they like writing and also there will be more good writers, but also there will be people who appreciate writing and want to buy books. So, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of whether there is a distinct performer and listener, but we should be thinking in terms of literacy. We should be saying, if you have a society where everybody does something a little bit, then the people who do it with great passion and do it very well will have a greater audience and literacy rises. It’s one of these tides that rises all boats.


WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: You’ve been quoted as saying that you think the future first appears in music.

JARON LANIER: I think that might have been about invention and technology. Let me state that a little more carefully. Let’s say you want to be organo-centric, which means you’re paying a lot of attention to musical instruments. So an organo-centric approach to the history of technology would point out that there are an extraordinary number of times where musical instruments appear to have been the most sophisticated technologies in their time and place. I can give you a few examples. If you look to the origin of computers, the usual starting point is the Jacquard Loom, which was programmable to make fabrics. But it was actually a copy of programmable music machines, which were in turn extensions of pipe organ mechanisms. The two fancy machines in the Middle Ages were pipe organs and clocks. And of the two, the pipe organ was the one that involved the controlling of lots of little parts in parallel and really is the proper precedent for understanding the computer. And what’s intriguing is that throughout the history of the computer you had these figures who were also musicians. And there are a whole lot of well-known computer scientists with pipe organs in their homes to this day. Just off-hand I can think of Donald Knuth and Alan Kay and many others and obviously me, not that I put myself in their category, but there’s some kind of connection there. Other things… Guns. Well, where do cannons come from? The birth of modern artillery came from the idea of taking a church bell and turning it up on its side. But the underlying technology came from the desire to make big bells and preceded the use as a weapon. There’s a trope that says that it’s really weapons that draw technological progress, but so far as I can tell, you can make a case that it’s musical instruments. To this day some of the smartest people in signal processing, and some of the smartest people in computer architecture, are really motivated by making musical projects. It’s true in so many cases. I mean, the computer, as we know it today, was at least half-invented as a project for making musical things happen.

y being both a scientist and a musician works for you?

JARON LANIER: I have no idea. I like to think organo-centrically about technology because it’s a very positive way of thinking about human nature. It’s so easy to be cynical about ourselves. We’re capable of such pettiness and such evil that it can be overwhelmingly sad. But it’s important to notice nice things about people, and one nice thing is that in so many times and places it seems as though the highest technology was meant for nothing other than to make delightful, highly communicative noises. And that’s astonishing. That’s a very dear thing. That’s why I have so many instruments.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: How many instruments are in your loft now?

JARON LANIER: I’m not sure. I think about a thousand.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Can you play them all?

JARON LANIER: I can’t claim to always be in practice on all of them, but I’ve had experiences playing almost all of them. And most of them I could pick up and do something with that would be reasonable and worth using in something, I’d say.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Did you always have that talent, or is it something you worked at?

JARON LANIER: I remember when I was a little kid my mom had a Viennese zither. It was my first ethnic instrument and I used to love it and try to find different ways to play it and experiment with it. So I’ve always loved instruments. But I don’t love instruments. A lot of people say, “Well, why don’t you invent your own instruments. Since you do engineering and all, you should be designing instruments.” And the reason I haven’t taken that approach is I don’t think of instruments that way. I don’t think of them as these abstract machines that give you certain capabilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather, I think of them as time machines and space machines to experience other people’s lives in a particular way. When you learn to play an instrument, you’re learning to move as someone else had to move, you’re learning to breathe as they had to breathe, you’re learning to think as they had to think. So there’s an operational way in which you’re able to make a cross-cultural journey that I think is particularly beautiful and requires a certain level of devotion. And it is entirely different from what you get from just reading something or listening to something and, once again, an interactivity and taking on a new identity—the sort of tenets of virtual reality aesthetics that should come to exist some day. So for me, when I learned how to play these instruments, I’m connecting with the people in a particular way. So I have some experimental instruments, but for the most part I have instruments that are from other cultures and other times and places or from the West, in different times and periods of my own culture, and this is the experience I really seek.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: I understand that you’re currently working on re-creating the music of the ancient world for the BBC and The Discovery Channel. How’s that going?

JARON LANIER: Well, you know, fundamentally it’s a commercial project, so it speeds up and slows down with random phone calls and financing events and it’s somewhat beyond me. But if all goes well, I will be creating guesses of what ancient music might have sounded like. And it’s art not science because there isn’t enough information to really know. I’m not the first person to do this at all. A lot of people have tried it. I’m just trying to base it on the available information which is wonderful. My first project is the music of Tutankhamen‘s court. Instruments exist from tombs and we can infer a lot about playing situations and what the function of music might have been. We know what the musicians looked like and what their affect might have been like from visual representations. And we can have a sense of tuning from wind instruments that are either represented or in a few cases survive. And we can look at living musical cultures that bear some relationship to it. And there are a few accounts of the music that have survived in one form or another, not precisely that period but of descended musics. There are all these various techniques. So you have a body of information and from there you have to apply imagination. So it’s a project creeping along. It’s already a couple years later than it should have been, but it will happen.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Just one last comment. I understand that there’s a Polynesian island that’s issued a stamp in your honor. How did that come about?

JARON LANIER: I’m not entirely sure. One day people were calling me to congratulate me on my stamp. And it turns out the island of Palau issued a stamp of me and I have a particularly fondness for Palau because it’s one of the primary homes of the giant cuttlefish, which is a creature that I’m obsessed with. So I was very happy to be on their stamp and I hope to be able to go there soon to mail something using my stamp.


Come Along
Suling (Bali), Esraj (Bengal region of India), samples –Jaron Lanier 1:00
Khaen/Violin Duo #6
Khaen (Laos, Thailand) – Jaron Lanier; Violin – Barbara Higbie
The Story of Water Dancing in the Night Sky
Gu Zchung (China) – Jaron Lanier
Piano, Angklung (Java and Thailand) – Jaron Lanier
Suite For Saxophone Ensemble
George Brooks – Musical Director, Soprano Sax; Steve Adams – Sopranino &
Alto Sax; Danny Bittker – Tenor, Bass & Bari Sax; Jim Norton – Soprano Sax;
Rob Sudduth – Alto & Tenor Sax; Bruce Unsworth – Bari & Tenor Sax
Tremolo Silence
Piano – Jaron Lanier
Circular Saw
Bowed Psaltery (Appalachia) – Jaron Lanier