Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier
Image: Getty Images

Jaron Lanier arrives a little late for our lunch at a Peruvian restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia, having been distracted by a Ukrainian shepherd’s flute. As excuses go, that one is certainly novel.

His polite minder had warned me of the delay, explaining that Lanier had been “sucked into the vortex” of Hobgoblin Music, a shop for rare musical instruments next door. When Lanier finally emerges, he says the Ukrainian flute would be “disturbing if I were a sheep”, but is still kind of interesting. “There are a few temptations there but I’m undecided at the moment.”

Lanier is not the type to remain undecided for long. An imposing bear of a man with long, tangled brown dreadlocks, Lanier rarely passes unnoticed, even in an anonymous black T-shirt and black trousers. He sends the cutlery flying on the adjacent table as he settles into his seat but does not seem to notice.

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”.

He calls the likes of Google and Facebook ‘behaviour manipulation empires’, and fears the weaponised form of advertising that polarises us, turning us into ‘assholes’

Lanier’s traumatic early life, nomadic intellect and fascination with technology have given him an unorthodox perspective. As an FT columnist who writes about the impact of technology, I had long been intrigued to meet the writer who has done so much to delineate the contours of our shape-shifting digital world. First, though, I decide we had better order some food.

The light, airy Pisqu seems strangely quiet on a Friday lunchtime in the heart of London. It is located just off Oxford Street on Rathbone Place, where the great 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt once lived. Pisqu is, however, well suited to cater to Lanier’s emailed list of dietary restrictions: “No meat. No cephalopods. No sugar. No alcohol.” Lanier has developed an obsession with the octopus, which he values both for its intelligence and amazing ability to morph. We both order the ceviche of sea bass, sweet potato, coriander, Inca corn and lime tiger’s milk, a pleasing contrast of tastes and textures. Given that alcohol is off-limits, we stick with tap water.

I am intrigued by how Lanier can be so productive across so many different fields. He describes his work style as “compressed procrastination”, switching from one activity to another, like cross-training. “You can get away with feeling like you’re being lazy all the time and yet at the end of the day all the things have gotten done,” he says.

Fortified by the ceviche, Lanier launches into an unsparing assault on the Big Tech companies — although he stresses that the problem is not so much the technology itself or even the corporate leadership as the economic incentive system in which we operate. Sadly, the early libertarian idealism of the internet has resulted in the creation of “gargantuan, global data monopsonies”. Like many internet pioneers, Lanier wants to revive the technology’s original promise. “I miss the future,” he says.

Lanier argues that these platform companies are using their colossal computing power to gain a vast informational advantage, keeping the economic rewards for themselves while radiating risk out to everyone else. “It’s reminiscent of a gambling economy where the only sure position is in the casino.”

He is particularly damning of social media companies, even if he accepts that their services have real benefits: connecting patients suffering rare diseases or helping users find lost pets. The trouble is, as he puts it, that Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram all have a “manipulation engine” running in the background, working to the advantage of unscrupulous advertisers, scammers or Russian spies.

“The current incentive structure is that any time two people have any contact, it’s financed by a third person who believes they can manipulate the first two,” he says, sweeping his dreadlocks off his shoulders like some demure debutante. “There’s never before been a society in which everybody is under constant observation, constant surveillance and in which they’re constantly receiving this stream of experience that is being dynamically adjusted to find ways of manipulating them.”

He says his wife Lena, who has been successfully battling cancer, has found it hard to track down useful information about her condition online because the internet is so crowded with garbage from hucksters and fakers. “It’s like a labyrinth of deception.”

He accepts that his campaign will not persuade many people to delete their apps. Social media has been designed to be addictive and its dominant companies enjoy “preposterously grand network effects” that make it hard to quit. But he hopes enough people will disentangle themselves for long enough to ensure there is a small, sheltered island of alternative public debate.

How he can write so sweepingly about the effects of social media if he long ago stopped using it? That, he concedes, is a “valid, inevitable criticism”, but counters that “those people who are in prison will know more about prison life than the reporter writing about prison life. Yet we need the reporter to be outside or else there will be no report at all.”

One of his biggest critiques of social media is that it de-contextualises and mashes up meaning. Every statement is chopped up into algorithmic-friendly shreds and recontextualised, often triggering a “cranky backlash” that renders it meaningless; the election of Donald Trump was the natural outcome of this cognitive confusion. Lanier says he has met Trump several times over the past three decades and has always regarded him as a typical New York conman. But, he argues, Trump has been reprogrammed by his interactions with social media. “What has happened with Trump is that he’s taking on a personality disorder that’s associated with social media addiction, the snowflake personality, where the person is super-insecure, super-ready to jump into a bizarre social pissing match.”

According to Lanier, Trump’s election has shaken the social media companies out of their complacency. The subsequent scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook data has further rattled Silicon Valley and left the sector open to outside thinking. “I’m still considered a bit of an outlier, and my ideas might be somewhat radical but they’re definitely treated as a normal part of the conversation now.”

Despite growing talk about the need for state intervention, Lanier does not have much hope for regulation, fearing that it might only strengthen the incumbents. Somewhat surprisingly, he says Facebook and Google are more likely to reform themselves, partly in their own self-interest and partly under pressure from their own ethically minded employees. “The one thing that will kill them totally is if the good engineers start leaving. Then the companies will die.”

Lanier has been working with a group of radical economists to design an alternative information economy. He is an eloquent champion of the Data-as-Labour movement, arguing that if people do use social media then they should at least be paid for their posts and photographs. He hints that he is involved in backroom dialogues with the tech companies to bring about such a restructuring. “I don’t see how any society can hope to survive unless there’s at least some degree of alignment between society’s interests and economic incentives.”

In his darker moments, he wonders whether we might have lost control to our digital creations. “I’ve started to think of social media a little bit, you know, how Richard Dawkins suggested that we think of the gene as if it had a will of its own.” Is it a coincidence, he asks, that social media is trying to undermine the politicians who are trying to tame it?

Just when European governments are moving to regulate social media and data privacy, they are assailed by populist movements. The test case may come in Germany, which Lanier describes as “the centre of resistance to a lot of the madness” today. He sees evidence of the same destabilising process at work in Italy, Poland, south-east Asia, India and Africa. “If somebody wants to disrupt a particular area, they just make everybody cranky and paranoid and cynical in the way that you can using these tools because that’s what the tools are precisely optimised to do. And so we’ve entered a world of insanity. The Trump election is only one example. There will be many more until we fix it.”

Lanier speaks in enthusiastic waves of well-modulated paragraphs but still polishes off his avocado risotto with gusto. My grilled fish are delicate, if somewhat dry, spiced up by the criolla sauce. He shoots a glance of disapproval when my fork wanders near a piece of octopus.

Since completing his book, he has come up with a new metaphor for the interaction between social media and politics: toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that rewires rodent brains to make them less fearful of cats. Once the reckless mice are devoured, the parasite reproduces itself in the cats’ guts. He suggests that Trump — or the Russians — eat the metaphorical mice only because the social media parasite is making people crazy. As I raise a sceptical eyebrow, he laughs: “I’m expecting the metaphor commandos to fire into this restaurant at any minute and put me under arrest.”

Lanier retains credibility among many West Coast technologists because of his pioneering work on VR. He became fascinated by VR as a “lonely, traumatised kid” seeking a way to connect with people through shared imagination. In his quixotic book on VR, Dawn of the New Everything, he described wanting to replicate the trifecta of his childhood sensory delight: the art of Hieronymus Bosch, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mexican chocolates tinged with cinnamon.

Lanier debates with himself whether Mexican, Brazilian or Peruvian cuisine is the finest in South America but declares himself happy with Pisqu. We’ve been talking so intensely that we don’t find time for dessert. That’s a shame because the Amazonian chocolate mousse with passion fruit sounds pretty tempting.

As a VR pioneer, Lanier has argued for “post-symbolic communication” in which symbols such as words fade away to be replaced with a form of communication through improvising a shared reality. But he also came to realise that such a powerful technology could alter people’s behaviour. “This was a very terrifying realisation. Inherently, VR is the most purified form of both the best and the worst of technology’s potential.”

Hard as it is to credit at times, Lanier calls himself an optimist. But I admire the personal credo he described during a prize acceptance speech in 2014 in which he argued that death and loss were inevitable and so boring. “It is the miracles we build, the friendships, the families, the meaning, that are astonishing, interesting, blazingly amazing. Love creation,” he declared.

He supports the idea that the world is broadly healthier, better educated and happier. But he argues this has only come about because of the activism of the discontented. His stark criticisms serve a higher purpose. “At every increment of improvement in human history somebody got pissed off and said, ‘This can be better, this must be better’. To be an optimist has to mean being a critic. The enemy of the future is not the pessimist but the complacent person.”

And with that final rhetorical flourish, the happy but discontented critic heads back to the music store — to check out that Ukrainian shepherd’s flute.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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