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.

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“I was frozen to the spot”: the psychological dangers of autoplay video

Videos that play automatically are now ubiquitous across social media, but the format leaves many viewers vulnerable to harm and distress.

Have you ever seen a dog being skinned alive? Witnessed a child, whimpering for his mother, getting beheaded? Have you watched a man, pinned down by two police offers, being shot multiple times in the chest and back?

A few years ago, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have been considered deranged. Possibly, you would have been on a list somewhere, being monitored for seeking out disturbing and illicit videos online. Now, you’re more than likely just a victim of social media’s ubiquitous autoplay function.

No one likes autoplay. Back in the Nineties, homepages often came with their own jaunty background tune that would automatically play, but it didn’t take long for this annoying and invasive practice to die out. Nowadays, when you click on a website plastered with noisy adverts and clips, you immediately click off it. But although users frequently bemoan them, autoplay videos remain a huge business model for social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

That’s fine, of course, when the autoplaying video in question is a bird’s-eye view tutorial on how to make nacho-chicken-pizza-fries (though even then, the videos might be gobbling up your data allowance without your consent). The problem arises when disturbing content is posted by users, and even media outlets, without any warnings or disclaimers.

“There are many incidents where the autoplay feature has affected me negatively,” says Sarah Turi, a 19-year-old college student from Boston, USA. Turi suffers from anxiety, and says that anything related to horror or gore can keep her awake for multiple nights on end. She has previously experienced anxiety attacks after viewing autoplaying horror movie trailers.

“Recently though, many of the videos that begin playing have to do with police brutality or terrorism or riots,” she says. “There was one incident where someone had shared a video of an execution. The video started playing, and before I could scroll away, I watched a man get beheaded by a terrorist organisation. It left me pretty shaken to say the least. I wasn't crying, but I was frozen to the spot. Even just thinking about it now leaves me feeling somewhat ill.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, tells me that autoplay videos on social media raise a variety of ethical concerns.

“Social media is more personal in nature compared to news channels and it is also often idly browsed with little conscious effort or concentration, and, as such, users may not be mentally prepared for the sudden appearance of a distressing video,” she says. “Suddenly witnessing a beheading, rape or graphic animal cruelty whilst scrolling through photos of your friends and family, holiday snaps, baby videos and wedding announcements may provide a real shock to the viewer.”

Branley says that, in her line of work, she has spoken to users who have experienced distress at photos of abuse and violence on social media, and speculates that autoplay video could only exacerbate this problem. She also notes that they can trigger vulnerable users, for example, people who suffer from eating disorders or PTSD.

Even those without pre-existing conditions can be negatively affected, however, as anyone who has seen disturbing footage before knows how it can pop into your head intrusively at any time and refuse to budge, remaining plastered to the edges of your skull. Even trolls are aware of this, as some tweet distressing footage at people, aware that it will autoplay.

In January 2015, Facebook responded to these issues by adding warnings to videos users flagged as graphic, meaning the footage wouldn’t autoplay and was preceded by a warning message. Viewers under 18 would be shielded from seeing violent content on their feeds. Yet just over seven months later, in August, autoplay meant thousands inadvertently watched footage of the shooting of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Remember when I said no one likes autoplay? That’s not strictly true. You have three seconds to scroll away from an autoplaying video before Facebook counts it as a view. In a world where Facebook, and the users of it, are desperate to tally up as many views as possible, autoplay is considered a smart business model.

“Autoplay video originated as a way to capture viewers’ attention and prevent them from ignoring or scrolling past website content,” says Branley. “The autoplaying nature of a video is likely to capture the viewers’ attention and may potentially be harder to resist watching – compared to a static image and text.”

For those profiting, it seems not to matter that some people who can’t look away are viewers like Turi, frozen on the spot by distress.

Because of how profitable autoplay is, then, many news outlets continue to upload sensitive footage that might better be suited on their website – a consensual click away. They might add their own pre-roll warnings, but Branley notes that these are easy to miss if the video is autoplaying. If you were online yesterday, you might have seen this in action, as footage of a boy – or rather the boy – in an ambulance, distressed and bloodied, autoplayed repeatedly across social media.

News outlets have been called out for this before, and have admitted their mistakes. In August 2015, New York Times social media editor Cynthia Collins told The Media Briefing that she wishes she’d added a warning to a video of men being shot and killed at sea. After backlash from their audience, she said:

“If we could do it all again . . . there would have been a discussion about whether or not we should upload the video at all. But if we decided to upload the video I absolutely would have added a warning.”

The video ended up on the website, and viewers had to click through a handful of warnings before watching it. News footage has always had the potential to alarm and distress, but at least in the past viewers had a choice about whether they watched it. Although many news outlets have guidelines on graphic content (such as, for example, the famous breakfast test), these haven’t always been updated for social media.

It’s important that users are made aware of potential solutions to this problem,” says Branley, noting that Facebook and Twitter include options in their settings to turn off autoplay, and your browser or phone may also allow you to disable all autoplay. “However, that does not detract from the moral obligation that internet platforms should consider when introducing autoplay.

“I would suggest that an ‘opt-in’ approach (where users are required to switch on the autoplay setting if they wish to enable this function) would be much more appropriate than the current ‘opt-out’ approach, which requires users to find the settings to switch off autoplay if they do not wish to use it.”  

This seems like the simplest and fairest answer. It’s hard to argue that distressing videos shouldn’t be posted on Facebook – last month, the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting dramatically shed light on police brutality – but it seems only natural that viewers should have a choice about what they watch.

“It is possible that autoplay videos could be used to raise awareness of sensitive topics and/or to grab users' attention for positive reasons like charity campaigns,” says Branley. “However, it is a fine line between raising awareness and distressing the viewer and what one viewer finds acceptable, another may find highly distressing. Therefore, care and consideration is required.”

Right now, both care and consideration are lacking. In its current iteration, autoplay is like Anthony Burgess’ Ludovico technique – pinning our eyes open and forcing us to watch violence and horror without our consent. There are things I know I never want to watch – the curb stomp in American History X, an Armenian weightlifter dislocating their elbow during the Olympics – that could be sprung upon me at any time. Why? Because someone, somewhere, profits.

“I don't think autoplay is necessary in Facebook,” says Turi. “I think that people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to watch something. And yes, I think that it should be banned.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.