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.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times