Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier sees tech’s dark side

Now an “interdisciplinary scientist” at Microsoft Research, the virtual reality pioneer avoids social media. He compares the social networks’ influence in our lives and politics to “an evil hypnotist” and says they need better controls “before virtual reality becomes mature.”

BERKELEY, Calif. — Jaron Lanier is the most unusual person I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot of unusual people.

A barefoot Buddha with dreadlocks, perched in a crazy fun house in the leafy hills of Berkeley, Lanier is a founding member of the digerati. The 57-year-old computer scientist, musician and writer has been christened the father of virtual reality.

“I’m a professional illusionist,” he says. “In some ways, I might know more about making illusions than anybody.”

Jaron Lanier

Age: 57

Upcoming book: His memoir, “Dawn of the New Everything,” will be released Nov. 21

Education: Studied as a teenager at New Mexico State University, while earning money as an “independent goat milk and cheese provider”

Career: In early 1980s founded VPL Research to sell virtual reality products. Founder or principal at several startups.

Scholar at Large for Microsoft from 2006 to 2009, and Inter-disciplinary Scientist at Microsoft Research from 2009 forward.

Source: Jaron Lanier

Lanier is one of the few prophets who admits that the spawn of Silicon Valley could become evil, but he tries to stay on the sunny side. It helps that he avoids all social media.

“The popular ones are designed for behavior modification,” he says, wearing his usual black T-shirt and black pants. “It’s like, why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”

At this moment when dark clouds loom over Silicon Valley, Lanier is able to talk about the Lords of the Cloud with affection yet candor, as he worries that these tech gods creating new worlds may be getting “high on their own supply.”

“This is such a scary time, isn’t it?” he says. “I mean, it is for me. I had always feared we would create this social-manipulation technology out of computers.”

In his forthcoming memoir, “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality,” the Microsoft wizard is enthusiastic over how VR “weds the nerdy thing with the hippie mystic thing,” high-tech…

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