As well as being an obsessive collector — and player — of several hundred musical instruments (favourite: the Laotian khaen), Lanier is a Berkeley-based composer, computer scientist, virtual reality enthusiast, author, Microsoft-affiliated researcher and scourge of social media. To revert to epithetic journalese, he is a one-man polemical polymath.
In a Silicon Valley culture that mythologises youth and creative destruction, the 58-year-old Lanier can sometimes seem like the eccentric uncle in the room, worrying about the impact of technology on humanity and determined to keep society in the loop. He was one of the early pioneers of virtual reality, founding VPL Research in the mid-1980s and developing VR goggles and gloves. But he never fully bought into the tech sector’s “magical thinking” and later sold out to Sun Microsystems. If you do not believe in the Silicon Valley myth of the great man, he later wrote, it is hard to aspire to be one.
In a series of subsequent books and essays, Lanier has been both evangelist and heretic, enthusing about technology’s creative possibilities while warning of its destructive effects. He was among the first to raise the alarm about the harmful fallout of social media on our lives, a theme developed with passionate force in his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. We would all have a clearer understanding of our world, he claims, if we relabelled the likes of Facebook and Google as “behaviour manipulation empires”. His argument is that “pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation is unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane”. In short, this weaponised form of advertising is polarising society, destroying democratic debate, and turning us into “assholes”.
I had read that Lanier considered music his first love. He tells me how his mother Lilly taught him Beethoven piano sonatas as a young child, even if he insisted on playing in his own “comically overwrought style”. That emotional connection has fuelled a lifelong fascination with performing music, which he describes as a kind of “instantaneous creation of the future”. “For the most part, the world of music is joyous and generous,” he says, noting that even the Laotians indulge his idiosyncratic khaen-playing style.
Such passing joy contrasts with Lanier’s childhood, which reads like one of JG Ballard’s bleaker novels. His beloved mother, a piano-playing prodigy from Vienna and a Holocaust survivor, was killed in a car crash in the US when he was nine. He and his father then moved to the New Mexico desert, where they lived in a tent for two years while they designed and built a home in the form of a geodesic dome. Later, while studying at university, Lanier paid for his tuition by breeding goats and selling their milk and cheese.
According to a New Yorker profile, Lanier’s girlfriend was so disconcerted by his disheveled appearance that she took him to a laundromat on their first date. You can perhaps see why The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has described Lanier as the “most unusual person I’ve ever met”.