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High-tech visionary comes home for NMSU's University Speakers Series

The man who helped to shape the digital world as we know it and is often referred to as the father of virtual reality once claimed New Mexico State University as his personal playground.

Portrait photo of Jaron Lanier.
Computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author Jaron Lanier is the featured speaker at NMSU's University Speakers Series. (Submitted photo)

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, musician and author, is this year's featured speaker at the University Speaker Series, sponsored by the Honors College and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. The event takes place on Tuesday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Atkinson Recital Hall on the NMSU campus.

Lanier, who wrote the best-selling book, "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," spent an eclectic childhood in the Las Cruces area. After his mother died in a car accident, Lanier's father moved himself and his son to Mesilla, where they lived in a tent while building their home.

"NMSU was a lucky place for me to grow up near for a lot of reasons. One was that the math and computer science departments were amazing," Lanier said during a phone interview. "I grew up in a sort of rural way in the Valley, and as a kid to have access to the people and the resources was really huge for me.

"The very first publication that showed a computer graphics rendering of an object with the sides filled in ? where it wasn't just lines ? I remember finding it when it came out at the NMSU library," he continued. "I was so excited that I ran out onto the street and started showing this journal to random strangers. I was so electrified by it. This would have been sometime in the early '70s. I also remember staying up all night working on a computer in the math building. I have a lot of good memories."

He also is grateful to former faculty members such as the late Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930.

"Clyde Tombaugh was very helpful to me informally by showing me things about optics and telescopes and all of that, and that world really made a difference in developing virtual reality," Lanier said. "The sorts of resources that collected around NMSU in those days were influenced by the needs of White Sands Missile Range, but were also part of the organic growth of the character of the campus. But for whatever reason, they happened to be really suited for giving me the resources I needed early on for what I ended up doing."

The young boy from Mesilla began taking classes at NMSU when he was just 16, grew up and eventually made his way to Silicon Valley during the early cowboy days of the Internet and the high-tech industry. A pioneer in the field of virtual reality (a term he is credited with coining), Lanier founded VPL Research, which sold virtual reality technology for medicine, design and numerous other fields. Currently he is a "partner architect" at Microsoft, where he has worked on the Kinect device and Xbox 360.

In recent years, Lanier has gained attention outside of the high-tech field by questioning the direction of his industry and the current state of the Internet.

"I'm overall very supportive and delighted with the development of the Internet," he said. "I just feel like I'm surrounded by so much self-congratulation in the technical community and so much resistance to any critical thinking and so much resistance to the taking of responsibility that I do end up feeling like I have to speak out against that, and that makes me be perceived as a general critic. I don't feel like I'm a critic exactly. Sometimes I'm perceived as having turned against what I once believed in and I don't feel that way either."

While he applauds the fact that social networking and the Internet in general can help fuel movements such as the Arab Spring, he also cautions that cyberspace must move beyond being mostly reactionary and begin creating ? whether that be the arts, computer programs or even jobs.

The Internet can create movements such as Occupy or the Tea Party, but Lanier warns it also can produce a type of echo chamber, where people who share the same beliefs rarely venture out to find the other voices and points of view available online.

"What you have to remember is that the way the Internet is designed right now, people only see the world they want to see," he said. "It's what's called a filter bubble by some people. People tend to talk to people who are of like mind and see the news filtered in a way that will please them, because the outfits presenting them the news want to please them in order for them to stick around so they can see the ads. You tend to see people who are very self-satisfied and thinking they are taking over the world because the Internet gives them that illusion,"

In his 2010 book, "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," Lanier also shined a light on the growing Facebook and social networking movement and what it may mean for society. He voiced particular concern about young people posting all manner of information and photos of themselves without regard to the effects it could have on their futures. He also worried about whether social networking sites were conditioning young people to conform and present the world an image of who they think will be accepted rather than who they really are.

Even Lanier, a man who has been dubbed a tech guru and once was named to Time magazine's annual list of people who most affect our world, realizes he can fall into the social networking traps as he sees them.

"The main reason for me not to be signed up on something like Facebook is that I don't want to tempt myself with the narcissism that it feeds," he said. "I just think there are these little demons within all of us that can respond so much to the kinds of emotional ploys that come up in those kinds of services that say, 'Oh, you have followers.' I don't want to tempt myself in that way."

However, since his book was released, Lanier says he's observed anecdotal evidence that Facebook is losing some of its allure to a younger generation.

"A year and a half ago I saw total conformity on the use of social networks," Lanier said. "Now I'm starting to see younger people who are rejecting it. They don't see it as their generation's message. Instead, it's a thing imposed on them by older people.

"What might have happened is that there was a band of people who hit (Facebook) at a certain time when they identified with it as being the thing of their generation, and they will stick with it," he added. "And there will be people both younger and older who are not into it. It might be associated with a certain generation."

After a discussion on the philosophical issues that the Internet and the high-tech industry pose, Lanier excused himself from the interview to rush off to another meeting. But before he did, he eagerly imparted another bit of wisdom.

"The other thing I would say is that I have this addiction to Las Cruces red chile sauce," he said. "I simply never taste the same (chile) anywhere else I travel ? that certain bite where you can really taste the Mesilla Valley in it. I've just never had that when I travel. Unfortunately I eat too much of it when I'm in Las Cruces."

For more information on the University Speakers Series, log onto honors.nmsu.edu.