Jaron Lanier, ‘founding father’ of virtual reality, speaks at Berkeley Forum event

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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On Wednesday night, Jaron Lanier, known as a founding father of virtual reality, spoke to UC Berkeley students and community members at a Berkeley Forum event about “how the internet is screwed up and how to fix it.”

Lanier has a rich history in the tech industry. His startup, VPL Research, manufactured the first commercial VR products. Lanier was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010. He is known for his outspoken criticism of the way social media is used by corporations to manipulate human psychology.

Lanier’s talk centered on how he came to oppose some facets of the industry he supports with his work.

“I started to feel we were making a huge mistake about how the internet was going,” Lanier said.

Lanier mentioned how he started to notice the internet becoming an intersection of both communist and capitalist ideas, with the advertising industry facilitating some of their interactions. Lanier said advertisements become problematic when people who connect can only do so through a third party.

The psychological influence of the internet is especially concerning to Lanier. He noted that B.F. Skinner’s “Skinner box,” in which an animal’s surroundings are manipulated to evoke a response, has influenced online interfaces.

“We have backed ourselves into a behavior modification loop,” Lanier said. “(Social media) algorithms have all this data to engage and persuade. (They) engage viewers in the platform … persuade the advertisers to get (them) money.”

Using high-tech advances, social media companies and websites track a user’s fight-or-flight response to stimuli, according to Lanier. When an algorithm detects a controversial topic that could elicit a particular emotional response — such as the Black Lives Matter movement — companies show similar content to engage the viewer, according to Lanier.

Such actions facilitate the rise of new far-right movements because they “(link) fearful people together,” according to Lanier.

Lanier mentioned how the internet could also affect people’s livelihoods. For example, people who translate for a living are seeing their job opportunities decrease as online translation tools rise in popularity. He added that people should be paid for their data.

“It is evil to tell someone they’re worthless when they’re still needed,” Lanier said. “The only reason (they) do it that way is (to keep) the myth of AI.”

Lanier also acknowledged the potentially positive effects of social media, mentioning that one of his favorite benefits is the way people with unusual diseases can find each other and connect through the internet.

Lanier finished his program by playing an ancient instrument from Laos.

Varda Shrivastava, a campus senior, said she came to the event because of her interest in virtual reality, technology and design.

“It was good to get that humanistic view,” Shrivastava said. “I think you can get stuck in tech perspective … it was good to step out of that.”

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.