Saturday, November 20, 2021

Lanier Virtual Reality and Digital Maoism

Jaron Lanier is a US technologist and musician. As he founded the first Virtual Reality (VR) company, VPL Research, to sell VR goggles in 1985 but went bankrupt in 1990, so is seen as the inventor, father or, more realistically, the person who came up with the phrase ‘Virtual Reality’. His insights on technology, such as ‘Digital Maoism’, ‘Micropayments’ and his disdain for the collective output of the web and social media, have also been influential. He has for many years been a gadfly for the big tech companies, critical of how Silicon Valley has turned out. He now works at Microsoft.

Virtual reality

In Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (2017), he takes a wide view of VR, explaining his journey in exploring the medium, presenting its strengths; such as healthcare applications for PTSD and work with those with disabilities, as well as its weaknesses. He presents it as a new medium, not a gadget and explains its complex, fluid and evolving role.

VR now undoubtedly plays a growing role in learning and Lanier’s early work with headsets, gloves, bodysuits and virtual, multi-user spaces, laid the foundation for further developments. His focus on user interaction within those spaces is now being made easier as the technology has improved and the research implemented, and so are its learning and training applications. 

Digital Maoism

Lanier, in a clever phrase, warns against Digital Maoism (2006) aided and abetted by Google, that may take the wisdom of the crowd and turn us all into slavish followers of it and other monolithic services, such as Wikipedia, as the single font of all authoritative knowledge. It drags us towards the single view of authoritative truth that is presented online. He cleverly compares this drift as the sort of drift we see towards totalitarian regimes, towards a single view of the world. 

He also sees the online world as dehumanising people, a place where subtlety and individuality is lost. The subterfuge is that Google monetises your search data and is “selling people (their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.) back to themselves“. This is an interesting counter to the many theorists, such as Engelbert and Shirky, who see the internet as the source of collective intelligence or the wisdom of crowds. For Lanier it has too many inherent vested interests, structures and limitations.


He has little time for Kurweil’s single-event analysis which is part of his general critique of AI, as not being capable of being, even replicating, what it is to be human. In You Are Not a Gadget (2010), he again criticises the mob mentality and structures of the web. His individualism sees collective production, such as Wikipedia, open source and open educational resources, as using the labour of individuals without attribution or rewards. There is a sense in which innovation is curbed by collective builds, as it crushes the efforts and flair of the individual. Attempts at standardisation, such as MIDI in music, heattacks as dumbing down.

He takes up the attack again in Who owns the future? (2013), where he again sees users as being duped into handing over their data, while large online organisations profit from that data. He again puts forward a micropayments solution to this problem, that repays individuals for their efforts. In Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), he takes the Postman idea that social media users are becoming the tool they use and being turned into fractious, tribal addicts, losing their sense of well being and place in the real world.


Lanier has become more critical, polemical and prescriptive in his attacks on online technology, social media and its uses but it is not clear that becoming prescriptive about not using it is justified. Individuals and small businesses and organisations have bloomed and many see the transaction of data for useful free services such as search, translation and communication as fair. His views on technology also, at times, seem somewhat dated as events overtake his analysis, especially in AIU where generated code and transformers break free from what he sees as being the limitations of AI.

It is also not clear that Digital Maoism has actually emerged on the web. If anything it has gone in the opposite direction producing diversity and tribal divisions. On the whole, Lanier tends to play the technology card then swipe it back. This is best summed up in the fact that he has written several books about the hegemony of large tech companies but works for Microsoft.


Lanier’s contribution to initiating and maintaining interest in VR is undisputed and useful. His provocations on the nature of the web have also contributed greatly to the debate around who profits on the web and some of the dangers around its commoditisation. His role as a writer and speaker has allowed him to present interesting and novel theories, such as Digital Maoism, as well as solutions such as micropayments. His work in VR is now also bearing fruit with a growing body of research and learning applications, see Clark (2021).


Lanier, J., 2018. Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now. Random House.Lanier, J., 2017. Dawn of the new everything: Encounters with reality and virtual reality. Henry Holt and Company.Lanier, J., 2014. Who owns the future?. Simon and Schuster.

Lanier, J., 2006. Digital Maoism: The hazards of the new online collectivism. The Edge, 183(30), p.2.

Lanier, J., 2010. You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Vintage.

Clark, D., 2021. Learning Experience Design: How to Create Effective Learning that Works. Kogan Page Publishers.

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