He’s the Silicon Valley visionary who gave us virtual reality. Now, in a new memoir-cum-manifesto, Jaron Lanier recounts his sad, unusual childhood and calls for a re-evaluation of our ties with the digital environment
Jaron Lanier has written a book about virtual reality, a phrase he coined and a concept he did much to invent. It has the heady title Dawn of the New Everything. But it’s also a tale of his growing up and when you read it, what you really want to talk to him about is parenting. Lanier is 57, but his childhood as he describes it was so sad and so creative and so extreme, it makes him almost seem fated to pursue alternative worlds.
Lanier’s parents met in New York. His mother, Lilly, blond and light-skinned and Jewish, had somehow talked her way out of a “pop-up concentration camp” in Vienna after the Anschluss, aged 15. The family of his father, Ellery, had escaped a murderous pogrom in Ukraine. They met as part of a circle of artists in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Lilly was a painter and a dancer, Ellery an architect, but when Jaron was born in 1960 they moved to El Paso, Texas, right on the border with Mexico. Lanier was never sure why, but he believes it was an effort, given their own childhoods, to “live as obscurely as possible”, off grid. His mother did not trust American schooling, so he went across the border to a Montessori school in Mexico each day; then, after a change of heart, to a Texas public high school, where he was bullied.