Jaron Lanier is one of the foremost digital visionaries of our times. One of Silicon Valley’s key early innovators, this dreadlocked digital prophet has been dubbed the ‘father of virtual reality’ and named as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
A former goatherd and midwife, and a virtuoso player of rare instruments, Lanier is sometimes called the ‘alternative Steve Jobs’. Neither a tech optimist nor a doom-monger, he is unique for always seeing the opportunities offered by technology as well as the dangers. In bestsellers such as You Are Not A Gadget and Who Owns the Future? he sounded an early warning about the perils of the internet – describing the tech giants as ‘spy agencies’ and ‘lords of the clouds’ for the way they reduce the value of humans to that of the data they provide. But he has also proposed another, more imaginative way to use technology. A ‘human-centered approach’, he argues, ‘leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.’
Now Lanier is going back to the field where he did his pioneering work in the 1980s: virtual reality. VR has become the new frontier of human engagement with tech, and has become a medium that has transformed surgical trials, aircraft design and the treatment of injured war veterans. But it is not only about design, games and headsets, as he argues in his new book, Dawn of the New Everything. Virtual reality can extend the ‘intimate magic’ of childhood into the adult world, Lanier says, and allow us to imagine life beyond the limits of biology. But it will also test who we are. In the same way that he foresaw the dangers of web 2.0, Lanier offers a warning. Virtual reality has the potential to isolate us from each other – and render us even more in thrall to predatory tech companies.