Jaron Lanier Explains What Could Make VR ‘A Device Of Nightmares’

by Ian Hamilton • June 8th, 2018

To say Jaron Lanier is a pioneer of the VR industry is a bit of an understatement. His achievements include popularizing the term virtual reality and starting VPL Research, which was among the first startups creating VR hardware back in the ’80s (the company literally created an “EyePhone“).

He’s also a best-selling author on the subject of technology’s impact on humans. Lanier’s most recent book, Dawn of the New Everything, released last year offering a kind of retrospective look back at his own life and his relationship with technology. Lanier also recently spent time in VR social app Sinespace (appearing as an octopus) being interviewed by Wagner James Au and Adam Frisby on a wide-range of interesting topics related to the book. One segment stood out to me as particularly meaningful, and I wanted to break it out for our readers.

The potential of VR to help people do good is what draws a lot of interest to this technology. If you’ve ever been to a VR conference you’ve likely heard the speakers on stage professing their optimism. Lanier, however, has had a lot more time to think about it than most, and his talk helped explain the evolution of his thinking:

If you think about what a VR system is, it’s measuring a lot about a person. You have to measure a whole lot to make a good VR experience including, obviously, accurate motion tracking or else the thing won’t work and in an ideal system, probably facial expression and all kinds of things. And so you have this accurate measuring device and then you are also providing feedback which is a whole experience of reality. So you have the makings of the most complete Skinner Box, even more so than any physical Skinner Box, cause you’re measuring more and providing feedback on more levels.

So yeah, a VR system that’s good for anything, including for overcoming … distance between people, and for making great art, or great education, or great training or any of the things we’re all interested in, in addition to that it can also become the creepiest behavior modification device. So it could be a device of nightmares.

Back in the ’80s when I had the first VR startup I was profoundly concerned with this question of this knife edge between technology going good or going bad. Like, to what degree is it about dreams and connection and to what degree is it about manipulation and trickery given that the technology is good for both those things. What makes it go one way or the other? Back then I had a belief about it, which is that if you just said the right things, if you got people excited about it on the right terms, then you could set it on a course where the good stuff would happen instead of the bad stuff. But…I came to decide that wasn’t true.

I decided that ultimately the most powerful force is economics and what incentives people have in the system immediately that influence their actions. I don’t think creating a system with good incentives is all you need to do to have a pleasant world. There’s a lot of other factors on different levels. But having a bad economic system can definitely ruin a world.

Here’s the full video with the section I quoted starting at around 8 minutes:

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