Jaron Lanier, Post-Symbolic Communication, and the Desire for Digital Intimacy

by scholastress

Perhaps no dream in American culture has recurred as often as the one in which a group of spiritual adepts remake the world they have inherited in the image of their ideals. For Jaron Lanier and early Virtual Reality pioneers, this dream entailed a rejection of the limits of conventional language, and a strong faith in the potential for technology to act as an extension of human thought and relationality. The new horizons dreamed therein far exceed the limited spatial critiques of the likes of VR interlocuters Anne Balsamo or Ken Hills.[1] Rather than an escape from history[2] or the body,[3] the motivating desire to construct this utopia can be found in the mixture of New Communalist ideals and interpersonal longing of its founder, Jaron Lanier. Part engineer, visionary and pundit, Lanier’s mark can be found on the shape of early VR idealism and its subsequent aspirational condition.

In many ways, Lanier’s formative years give the impression of a young New Communalist living, and suffering, without a community. At the age of eleven, following the abrupt and tragic loss of his mother, Lanier found himself on the isolated desert of Mesilla, New Mexico working with his father to build a new family home. Like the counterculture back-to-the-land hippies of the Whole Earth network, the young Jaron found inspiration in the writings of Buckminster Fuller’s systems environments and helped his father design and build a geodesic dome.[4] Unlike the communities networked by Stewart Brand, though, the Laniers wanted for communication and exchange with other nodes in a circuit of like-minded individuals. In their commune of two, the Laniers piloted their Earth Ship through desolate space in a period of pronounced withdrawal and solitude.[5] “I was very intensely lonely and very disconnected,” Jaron later noted. “It left me with a profound awkwardness that I haven’t fully overcome.”[6]

Perhaps emerging from this period of lack, an obsession with communication and the limits thereof became a recurrent thread throughout the Jaron Lanier’s varied projects. As a teen, Jaron broke his desert isolation with punctuated visits to military scientists affiliated with the nearby White Sands Missile Range. Long conversations about mathematics led the boy to enroll in the New Mexico State University at a young age, where he received a National Science Foundation grant to study the possibility of superseding mathematical notation. Seeking to sidestep the “obscure and bizarre” semiotics of mathematical equations by way of interactive, graphical representation, the young Lanier learned early computer programming skills.[7] The involvement of code, however, further added another level of communication symbols, and thus proved initially frustrating.[8]

For the next three years music served as the primary object of Jaron’s pursuits as he worked alternatively as a performer and composer of computerized music in California at the cusp of its economic boom. Freelance soundtrack work for Atatri later funded a garage workshop where he began revisit his earlier attempts to escape language through computer representation.[9] At twenty-four, these programming endeavours unexpectedly placed Lanier on the cover of Scientific America. As the magazine’s editorial policies prohibited the publication of names without affiliations, Lanier invented the moniker VPL, “standing for Visual Programming Languages, or maybe Virtual Programming Languages,” to represent his developing pursuits.[10] When, following the publication of the issue, investors began to contact Lanier looking to supply venture capital, the business began in earnest.

From 1985 to 1993, VPL represented the leading commercial developer for VR technology. In what would later find its expression in the Power Glove, Lanier’s company produced the first VR head display and glove in the industry- the VPL EyePhone and DataGlove. As the charismatic spokesman for VR’s potential, Lanier was billed as an electrifying visionary for the technological future.[11] Working in both capitalist and techno-Utopian paradigms, Lanier was an ideal component to the larger networks of reformed New-Communalist peers charted by Stewart Brand’s Global Business Network and Kevin Kelly’s Wired[12] – a critical context often excluded from academic pronouncements on VR.

Showing his counterculture values, Lanier painted a vision of Virtual Reality as a space of liberatory potential and heightened empathy, free from the material scarcity that otherwise inhibits human communication and creation.[13] A morality and cosmological significance to technology often accompanied this vision. In this conceptual future, beautiful, massively scaled public works impossible to realize in physical space would become easily attainable, leading to a heightened facility for the creative arts. VR, acting as a neutral tool, could be saturated in these ambitions, “sponge[ing] up good energy from the physical plane.”[14] Negative energy, conversely, could also be enacted in virtual space, with the effect of diverting such expressions from more tangibly violent outcomes, thereby producing net good. Suddenly able to “behave like gods, albeit in a simulation,” VR could,

…reunite us with the flow of nature. Because ultimately, a new flow we create is just the same old flow of nature popping up in a new place. We’ll just be paying attention to it since we’ll be able to feel powerful in relation to it, which we can’t with the physical one. We can do it a little bit with the atomic bomb every once in a while, but that’s about it. It’s actually very limited and I think it frustrates us terribly. [15]

Casting nuclear war and VR on a continuum of empowered creation or “flow”, Lanier suggests that the proximity to total power induces a new human relationality with a concomitant ethics and return to nature.

This desire for new creative and spiritual heights, combined with a simultaneous call for individual empowerment and communal connection, evokes the conflicted desires of the New Communalists values and the capitalist ‘New Economy’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Similar to Gregory Bateson’s theory of the networked, “immanent mind” and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic humanism, Lanier’s VR subject was simultaneously connected and autonomous, capable of a moral project of world making and human exploration.[16] Not only would access to VR bring human contact to an isolated child in New Mexico’s desert, it would bring creative potential and spiritual understanding back to technology and society at large.

Key to this political and ethical model of technological individualism was the promise of greater inter-personal connection. As VR overcame the material limitations of the physical (such as racism or poverty, in Lanier’s imagination)[17], so too would it overcome the barrier of symbolic communication. In a passage that presages academic debates on the limits of textuality, Lanier’s Whole Earth peer John Perry Barlow criticized the “absurd delusion,” that symbolic information systems could ever be an “acceptable surrogate for the boiling torrent of shapes, colors, sounds, memories and context” of lived experience.[18] To Barlow, the “thin alphanumeric stream which drips from our fingers,” was ever insufficient to truly communicate the nuances of cognition, yet VR and its potential for interactive simulations, might “scratch our eyes, blinded by information, back in again.”[19]

Lanier’s own musings on post-symbolic communication are numerous and both predate and outlive his time at the helm of the industry- yet, there can be little doubt that they vividly shaped his contribution to the field. Contrary to Barlow’s separation of mind from body, wherein the purity of thought is reduced and diminished through the materiality of language and symbols,[20] Lanier’s communication theory suggests that a liberatory technology will necessary serve as an extension of both thought and body.[21] VPL’s head saw language, borne of “a stream of little discrete symbols,” as a second order of the “continuity and gesture” which constituted the world more broadly.[22] This profoundly embodied sense of immanent communication could be found in the near-instantaneous signal transmissions of bodily movement, lucid dreaming, and the act of communing with nature.[23] VR’s intervention, through its plasticity and ease of creation, was to enable one to directly communicate experience experientially through reenacted memory, tactility and phenomena rather than through the veil of linguistic description.

Lanier’s post-symbolic communication thus fundamentally depends upon the total immersion of the human body within its matrix of intelligibility. Whether or not recreating an apple in VR constitutes an escape from its symbolic representation hinges upon the ability of VR’s technical system to supersede the poverty of experiential knowledge about an object inherent to symbolic information. The apple cannot merely look like an apple, is needs to phenomenologically be an apple. While, owing to ongoing technological limitations and the hostile takeover of VPL by a french electronics conglommerate in 1993, this ambitious goal was never achieved by Lanier, it nevertheless continues to inform his writing and consulting on contemporary technologies.[24] This goal, shaped by a mixture of counterculture ethics and a life troubled by isolation, remains absent from VR’s critics. As Barlow notes, “Virtual Reality induces a perception of huge potency underlying featureless ambiguity. There is a natural tendency to fill this gap between power and definition with ideology.”[25] Thus, while feminists and post-colonial thinkers project their politically-informed anxieties about the body into VR and its often exclusionary discourses, it remains essential to foreground the ideologies and ethics of its founders as well. Though post-symbolic communication has yet to be realized on the digital frontier, its remains a founding mythology for the denizens and bodies of Virtual Realities still to come.


[1]Anne Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” in The Feminist and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010),  and Ken Hills, Digital Sensations: Space, Identity and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[2]Hills, Digital Sensations, xvii.

[3]Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” 624.

[4]Jaron Lanier, “Jaron’s World: Shapes in Other Dimensions,” Discover Magazine, 5 April 2007, http://discovermagazine.com/2007/apr/jarons-world-shapes-in-other-dimensions#.UUdHPxzvtAI, accessed 18 March 2013.

[5]Jennifer Kahn, “The Visionary: A Digital Pioneer Questions What Technology Has Wrought,” The New Yorker, 11 July 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/07/11/110711fa_fact_kahn?currentPage=all, accessed 17 March 2013.

[6]“The Virtual Curmudgeon,” The Economist: Technology Quarterly Q3 2010 (2 September 2010), http://www.economist.com/node/16909935, accessed 18 March 2013.

[7]Burr Snider, “Jaron,” Wired 1.02 (May/June 1993), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.02/jaron.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Kahn, “The Visionary.”

[12]Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Ruse of Digital Utopianism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 195.

[13]Adam Heilbrun, Barbara Stack and Jaron Lanier, “Virtual Reality: An Interview with Jaron Lanier,” originally published in Whole Earth Review, no. 64 (Fall 1989): 108-10, now availiable via Jaron Lanier’s Homepage, http://www.jaronlanier.com/vrint.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[14]Lanier, Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 123, 23.

[17]“When people get social and see each other, especially in a context that will be so, let’s say, ‘illuminating’ in the sense …. Virtual Reality is the ultimate lack of class or race distinctions or any other form of pretense since all form is variable. When people’s personalities meet, freed of all pretense of that kind in the virtual plane, I think that will be an extraordinary tool for increasing communication and empathy. In that sense it might have a good effect on politics.” Lanier, “Virtual Reality.”

[18]John Perry Barlow, “Being in Nothingness: Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace,” originally published in Mundo 2000 2, 1990, now available from John Perry Barlow Library, archived on the Electronic Frontier Foundation, https://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/HTML/being_in_nothingness.html, accessed 17 March 2013.

[19]Ibid.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Lanier, “Virtual Reality.”

[22]Ibid.

[23]Intriguingly informed by, yet ancillary to the linguistic theories of the likes of Noam Chomsky, Lanier notes:“First of all, the clearest example of receiving communication that is nonsymbolic is to commune with nature. The direct perception you have when nature communicates to you as you walk in the forest is simply prior to/beyond symbols. There’s no need to prove that. Any linguist who would argue otherwise is beneath contempt.” Ibid.

[24]Such consulting credits include the Microsoft Kinect and the futurist media glove of Minority Report. Kahn, “The Visionary.”

[25]Barlow, “Being in Nothingness.”