Viral video philosopher Jason Silva: "We're going to cure ageing"

It might seem like our greatest inventions have turned against us - the internet, climate change - but Jason Silva wants to challenge these assumptions with an unrelenting belief in technology as a fundamentally good thing.

“There’s mind everywhere, you see mind in nature. A seed is an information file that tells the soil around it to self-organise into a tree. Nature’s just nanotechnology that works, man!”

Jason Silva and I are sitting in the foyer of the Science Museum, between the exhibits about space travel and the industrial revolution. We are almost literally between two distinct eras of human civilisation, as marked by their defining technologies. It’s a good place to be, considering Silva - speaker, filmmaker, viral video philosopher - has an evangelical belief in the power of technological innovation, and progress, as a force for good.

"The linear perspective that we are privy to is a wiring issue, it’s an algorithm that’s written into our humanness," he explains. "Exponential growth requires a cognitive leap. Linear projections are reflexes, exponential projections have to be explained - you see the data, you see it’s true, and then you realise it’s completely counter-intuitive. Even to this day, if you’d told people in the past that 500 people would be flying through the air in a machine made of metal, and that you’d be able to send your thoughts from that machine made of metal to other people on the Earth instantaneously, they’d think you were fucking mad. Today, we take it for granted, and if the internet signal goes off we freak out."

"Even knowing that, knowing that this device allows me to engage in a form of technologically-mediated telepathy so my thoughts transcend the limits of time, space and distance, if I was to tell you that in 50 years this would be implanted in your brain and you’d be living in the Matrix, people would say 'no no, that’s impossible'. The reflex is the linear thing. When you tell them biology is about to become software, gene sequencing is going three times faster than Moore’s Law, people say 'no that’s impossible'. We’re going to cure ageing! Google just started a fucking company to arrest the ageing process!""

To speak with Silva is to be barraged with optimism. He doesn’t just believe in utopia, he believes in a “technologically-mediated” utopia, where “the full flourishing of biotechnology and nanotechnology will lead us to a world that can be rendered into existence the same way we render software into existence”.

Key to this is that it's completely false to claim that there's a dichotomy between nature and technology. We’re just waiting for “the flimsy distinction between user and world [to] disappear - at that point we’ll be living in a world that is all mind.”

His videos - like his Shots of Awe shorts, or his speeches with characteristic titles like “We Are The Gods Now” - skip over the little details to focus on the bigger, longer-term future, as he riffs on existential themes over b-roll footage of babies being born and galaxies burning out. Sometimes he’s hiking in the woods, or hanging out on a boat. He drops references so fast it feels he must have memorised every pop-sci book of the last two decades, but he clearly understands how to apply that knowledge - his fast-talking act isn't, as it were, an act.

For example:

Or:

The Atlantic describes him “a part-time filmmaker, and full-time walking, talking TEDTalk”. In another era, he would have curated the exhibits at a World’s Fair, or have been a writer for Dan Dare. In our time, he makes two-minute videos exploring philosophical themes in a way that gets millions of hits on YouTube. Russian Standard Vodka has just announced him as their new “collaborator”, and he’s appearing in their new ad campaign, rhapsodising on the confluence of nature and technology. He was once compared to Timothy Leary and that comparison doggedly follows him wherever he goes.

Despite his optimism, though, and despite his assurances, I put it to him that feels like our technology has turned on us. The internet has been turned into a surveillance tool, and climate change is driven by the same economic growth model that gives us rapid technological innovation.

“I think that technology has always been a double-edged sword,” Silva says. “If you look at the work of Steven Pinker, Better Angels Of Our Nature, the world has never been less violent than today. The chances of a man dying at the hands of another man have never been lower than today. If we can transcend our overactive amygdalas that are always focusing on the danger, you’ll find the world is getting better on a whole range of indicators.”

“There’s always been a terror about new technology. The same was said about the radio and television. There’s a great book by Steven Johnson - it’s called Everything Bad Is Good For You - he talks about how video games, for example, engage our problem-solving and strategy skills in an immense way. There are all these counter-intuitive examples of tools that we were afraid of, but at the end of the day it’s just evolution, man. Minds like ours were made for merger.”

Silva is also dismissive of the possibility that we’ll run out of resources, because “technology is a resource-liberating mechanism”. Nanotechnology will allow us to perform alchemy, reconfiguring materials on an atom-by-atom basis. Water wars are ridiculous because “we live on a water planet”, and advanced desalination technology “is going to give us more water than we ever could need”. Overpopulation is misdirection. Technology doesn’t hurt us, it brings us out of poverty and is our method of reaching a higher plane of existence. The little details don't matter when you realise that the big picture averages out as an overwhelming positive.

“People say these new technologies are only for the rich, I say, ‘yeah, just like cellphones’. Everyone in Africa has better communications technology than the US president had 25 years ago.” If anything, Silva appears to be arguing for a post-scarcity future of the sort written about by a range of economists and science fiction authors for decades, if not centuries. “The capitalist underpinnings of society would be completely transcended - people would be liberated,” he explains.

Silva is compelling when he argues for a future where humans and machines become one, and we move into a new, ethereal sort of existence. But, he is realistic to a degree about the technical “growing pains” on the way.

“One of my biggest issues is there’s so many signals competing for our attention these days,” he says, gesturing with his hand at our surrounding. “You’re walking into a museum and you’re looking at your phone, you’re not getting what you need. I think curation and managing our attention, and well-practiced, experienced design is going to be the key to consciousness of the 21st century.”

“Google Glass is still transitory, but I think eventually, dude, they have designs for contact lenses with LED screens. Our brains are behind two inches of skull. We only know the world through instrumentation of our senses. If everything is representation, it doesn’t matter if we create a dance between what is purposefully represented and what is just represented by our senses. I think eventually we will enter into universes of our own construction. Landscapes of mind, liminal zones that we’re all going to live in.”

These kinds of words justify the comparison with Timothy Leary, and I had to probe him about his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. He’s frank about his fondness for marijuana and alcohol, but also admits that, for all his interest in expanding the human mind, he’s never done “the strong psychedelics”.

He said: “It’s perfectly natural for us to alter our chemistry, whether it’s using cognitive technologies, chemical technologies, or fasting, or yoga, whatever it may be. From what I gather, 99 percent of a psychedelic experience is conditioned by the set and setting anyway. These are psychic amplifiers, not to be taken lightly, not to be played with, but rather to explored in controlled environments and conditioned environments, to induce the types of experiences we want. I’m pro-more mediation, not less.”

In the 1960s, Leary’s more rigorous attitude towards psychedelics contrasted with the more chaotic West Coast hippies - like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters - who felt compelled to drive across America in a school bus while high on LSD, drowning themselves deliberately in new experiences. That isn’t Silva’s style.

“People are like ‘oh the randomness, you should just take it’ - no, it’s conditioned experience. You could say an aeroplane is a tool that allows you to soar through the sky, but I don’t want anyone to fly the plane, I want a pilot who’s been trained."

The thought of expanding our minds, of becoming a new kind of human where the things we want are predicted before we know we want them, is frightening to some people. Silva doesn't see it that way at all.

"The word psychedelic means 'to manifest the mind'. When you think about technology, it has become the literalisation of the psychedelic dream of mind expansion. The dream of transcending our boundaries, of overcoming the limitations of mind, of distance, of space, has been literalised by our technologies."

He laughs. "At the end of the day, you know, the fact that a person in Africa can afford a piece of high-technology that a billionaire couldn’t have afforded 50 years ago is kind of astonishing."

You can watch Jason Silva's collaboration with Russian Standard Vodka here: http://www.youtube.com/user/RussianStandardTV

Jason Silva believes technology is a force for good. (Photo: Russian Standard)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile