The Professor Was There: Virtual Reality, 1988, Addendum to Jaron Lanier

[some of the original VR equipment from VPL, including the data glove]

[some of the original vr equipment from jaron lanier’s company vpl that The Professor tried out circa 1988, including the data glove® and the eye phones®]

The Professor shared an interview he did in 1988 with Jaron Lanier in a previous post “The Professor Was There: Virtual Reality, 1988” [10 June, 2014]; that post is at:

As mentioned in the intro to that post, in the 1990s, Jaron was the most vigorous proponent of virtual reality; its most visible symbol and the person who seemed most able to engage with its non-trivial problems including those having to do with the digital augmentation of human experiences. The Professor interviewed him by phone in 1988 then visited his company VPL in Redwood City, California, for a hands-on demo. In this post, The Professor adds to the text of his original interview based on a follow-up conversation; like that initial interview, this is the first time that this addendum has been published. The Professor has occasionally added [bracketed words] to Jaron’s text to increase his clarity and intent.

Jaron began our talk by bringing up what he called “the karma vertigo effect” which he defined as “when you realize how much we have, it makes your head spin.” Then, he said, “there’s the sedimentation effect, with MS-DOS on the bottom layer, which has made the act of having [computer] files so sedimented.”

[The following quoted remarks are all Jaron’s]:

“Do those effects matter? I’m afraid, very afraid, [that] they do. What future cultures have we disallowed by doing it in these ways? The architecture of information technology is never neutral; the current [1988] digital stuff is scary—it’s decreasing the number of distinctions in the universe. We have to remember that we are making a constitution for the future of culture. Like Mitch Kapor said, ‘In computer networks, architecture is politics.’ ”

“Other people who have to use tools like musicians and builders love their tools: musicians, builders and so on. The way that things really cast a shadow is by the degree to which they are loved. But those who do the best PC work hate their tools; nowadays, when you get really good, you end up expressing the essence of MIDI or Postscript, not you. PC’s now run on ‘user interface event loops,’ but the problem is that you can’t tell if the PC got smarter or if the user got stupider. Becoming stupid, becoming bored, is the biggest risk we face.”

“‘Agents’ are now [1988] a mainstream notion; Bob®, Newton®, AT&T®. You can see the transformation happen with people who use these tools; you give them autonomy and they take yours. They’re basically a database query program whose user interface is so bad you have to pretend it’s a quirky person; it’s like they’re the Devil’s Dictionary definition of the term!”

“I believe that in any instance where there is an agent, there’s always a better alternative waiting to be found; you can’t adjust to an agent in any good way.
We as a people need to be massively preoccupied; we are the kid who, during summer vacation, gets in trouble if there’s nothing to do.”

“Why do I do this? To confront the possibilities of mysticism.

So ends the addendum. Looking back on the previous quotes, The Professor would highlight Jaron’s culturally inflected concern—in 1988—for where technology is taking us. Not because it should take us where it has, but because we were caught up in it, unaware that we were being taken along for the ride. For Jaron that wasn’t a sufficiently strong reason to be where we are now [or where we were headed then]. It’s like Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “reality” in the above-mentioned The Devil’s Dictionary: “reality is the dream of a mad philosopher,” and that’s why Jaron ultimately is philosophically calling into question our acceptance of certain technologies—and that’s why they call me The Professor.



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