Jaron Lanier is among the most influential pioneers in the VR industry -- indeed, he's widely credited with first popularizing "virtual reality" as a term in the first place. However, in my article for Wired, he comes off as much less utopian about the technology than the other industry figures I talked to there -- especially compared to Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. He even ascribes Luckey’s vision of the planet’s poor uplifted by VR to youthful naiveté: “I’m going to make a guess that once he’s a little older and has been around other parts of the world, he’s going to have a different opinion than that.”
Lanier himself (now 55) had a different vision when he was closer to Palmer's age: “I do think that there will be a new emergent social consciousness that can only exist through the medium of Virtual Reality," Lanier said back in a 1988 interview with the Whole Earth Review. “Virtual Reality is the first medium that's large enough not to limit human nature. It's the first medium that's broad enough to express us as natural beings. It's the first medium within which we can express our nature and the whole of nature to each other.”
Lanier is still dedicated to VR technology (he is currently working with Microsoft on Comradre, a multi-person virtual reality platform), but when I interviewed him for the WIRED story, his enthusiasm was notably less evangelical. Lanier told me he’s thrilled to see a new generation embracing and finding delight in VR, but at the same time, admits disappointment that virtual reality has not always succeeded in ways he had predicted decades ago.
Why? One reason he brought up relates to the popularity of 3D games, which have become more and more immersive in the last three decades:
Back then, he had hoped virtual experiences would be able to channel and pacify destructive behavior, for instance. “To the degree that it’s working, it’s not working well enough,” he now says, citing by example the misogynist depictions of women in immersive 3D games. “The depiction of women in games does seem to translate to some of the fandom’s negative attitudes toward real women,” Lanier told me.
I'm considerably younger than Lanier, but having worked around the game industry for over a decade, I share his concerns. As the Gamergate phenomenon clearly illustrated, many hardcore 3D gamers (VR's first target market) have a fraught relationship with females, irrationally afraid and angry that women like Anita Sarkeesian were going to take away their super-hot, half-naked virtual female game characters, and that women like Zoe Quinn were now becoming part of the game industry. For similar reasons, it's unsurprising that VR porn seems to be the most desired use case of virtual reality, after gaming -- finally a technology where women are completely virtualized, under gamers' full control.
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