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Windows on Theory
Posted by Rob Knies
Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents: computer scientist, composer, visual artist, author. He has been called the “father of virtual reality” for his groundbreaking efforts in the 1980s. In recent years, he has lent a strong, unique voice to the worldwide conversation about the merits and limitations of the digital age.It’s quite a résumé. Now, though, he can add a new entry to the list. On June 5, Lanier, an interdisciplinary scientist with Microsoft Research, was named the 2014 recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.The award, bestowed by the German publishers and booksellers association, is an international prize awarded annually and considered one of Europe’s most prestigious honors. It will be presented on Oct. 12 during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for books, held in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.The honor, the association notes, “reflects the German book trade’s commitment to the promotion of international understanding.”“Throughout his career,” the group’s board of trustees announced, “Lanier has consistently and effectively spotlighted the threats our open society faces when deprived of the power to control its own progress and development. While acknowledging the gains in diversity and freedom that accompany the growth of the digital world, Lanier has nevertheless always pointed to the dangers involved when human beings are reduced to digital categories.”Lanier, recently named to Prospect magazine’s 2014 list of the world’s leading thinkers, becomes the first author of the digital era to win the award. For somebody who has made his reputation via the clarity of his vision at peering into the future, he didn’t see this one coming.“It was a shock to me,” he says from his kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., between fielding press inquiries. “This prize in prominent in Europe but is associated with literary and political figures. It hasn’t gone to a technical sort of person before, so it was certainly a surprise on many levels.”The award has been presented each year since 1950. Last year’s honor went to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist. Over the years, recipients have included such figures as Orhan Pamuk, Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa, Václav Havel, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Schweitzer.
Lanier’s most recent book, Who Owns the Future?, was named the most important book of 2013 by Joe Nocera of The New York Times and won a Goldsmith Award Book Prize from Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Upon the announcement of the latest award, Lanier expanded on his wishes for the future of technology.“The one step I wish technologists would take is to look at results once they are available, instead of clinging to ideologies and old dreams,” he says. “We need more empiricism! We techies dreamed that network technologies would increase public understanding of critical real-world issues like global climate change, but that understanding has been on the decline in the USA in the digital age. We must stop and ask why.“Similarly, we must ask why the middle classes have been weakened in the developed world since we digital technologists have been able to wield so much influence. We must ask why social media can be so good at voicing complaints and yet so poor at producing jobs or some other new idea to foster economic dignity for ordinary people.”But don’t get the idea that Lanier, a founding contributing editor to Wired magazine, sees himself as a tech pessimist.“I am still convinced that improving technologies will be a huge source of betterment in the world,” he says. “My basis for that optimism is simply that it has been consistently true in the past, but only if you look at the big picture. Technology in itself is never enough. Society has to evolve to make humanistic use of new technologies, and technological designs have to be carefully crafted to not undermine that evolution.”Lanier’s musical career is as interesting and unorthodox as his work in technology and as an author. He has written new classical works for symphonies, concerts, ballets, and film scores, and he has a penchant for electronic composition and a fondness for a variety of Asian wind and string instruments. He is working on new music with acclaimed composer Philip Glass, to debut in September.Still, his books, which also include You Are Not a Gadget, published in 2010, have been what has kept him in the public eye in recent years. Given his high profile and his catholic interests, why does he choose to remain at Microsoft?“Oh, man, there are a bunch of reasons,” enthuses Lanier, who took his current role at the company in 2009 after spending three years as Microsoft’s scholar at large. “One is that Microsoft Research is one of the best computer-science labs in the world. Fundamentally, I’m a researcher, so I want to be in the best place to do my research. The Microsoft Research community is astounding. It’s huge and international, but also super-high level—a rare combination.“But I also love being involved in products. Kinect was a particularly great example. I had worked on using depth cameras for human interaction earlier, in a university context, but never imagined such things would be sold into living rooms, much less in such numbers. It was really a high point to see Kinect ship and then to be embraced by so many consumers.”Research and products, though, aren’t the only appeal he finds at Microsoft.“Another reason is the academic freedom I have while still being able to interact with commercial endeavors,” Lanier says. “To my knowledge, Microsoft Research is the only institution in the world where this is possible.“And I’m enjoying Microsoft as a company. I’ve been part of four startups that are now parts of big companies, all Microsoft competitors, but am now completely fascinated with the processes of a giant organization as it undertakes a major evolutionary step. When I visit friends at some of our competitors. I always come away feeling like Microsoft is more creative and interesting.”