Techno-Optimism: An Interview with Jason Silva
Jason Silva is a dynamic "performance philosopher" and techno-optimist who is spreading exciting visions of future possibilities for society and consciousness. His eclectic scientific-philosophical-literary discourse remixes the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Joseph Cambell, Ray Kurzweil, Thomas Kuhn, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Carl Sagan, and Timothy Leary into equal parts non-fiction and poetry.
In a recent talk at Lucid NYC, Jason Silva remarked:"I want to broaden the appeal of these ideas because I'm interested in awe, and I'm interested in how to transmute and communicate awe. I've always been curious about this idea of inspiration and whether it's a haphazard phenomenon -- you know, if you can't really plan for it -- but I believe you can actually engineer inspiration. I believe you can perform a -- what Steve Silberman calls a "metacognitive hack" of the human operating system. And what I'm trying to do now is create content that elicits awe. I'm a big fan of Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary and Buckminster Fuller, who came to refer to themselves as performing philosophers: they'd take intergalactic-sized ideas and use the power of media communications to spread those ideas."
I love this mission of "engineering inspiration." It made me think of Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. A "visionary game designer" with a PhD in performance studies, McGonigal says we can use the techniques developed in game design to maximize our individual and collective potentials in reality. She argues that computer and video games are currently fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is unable to satisfy -- like having a heroic purpose, a sense of community, feelings of exhilaration, and creative accomplishments: "Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales. And they are continuously innovating new ways to motivate players to stick with harder challenges, for longer, and in much bigger groups. These crucial twenty-first-century skills can help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us."
One of the ways that games inspire motivation is by providing what McGonigal calls "epic contexts" for individual actions: "[E]pic contexts for action [are] collective stories that help us connect our individual gameplay to a much bigger mission. " They inspire awe, which "in the form of chills, goose bumps, or choking up serves as a kind of emotional radar for detecting meaningful activity. Whenever we feel awe, we know we've found a potential source of meaning. We've discovered a real opportunity to be of service, to band together, to contribute to a larger cause...a call to collective action."
This is one way to articulate what Jason Silva is doing: providing an epic context for thinking about the nature of reality and our roles in it. Rather than seeing ourselves as fluke developments in an unconscious universe hurtling on a rock through empty space to self-destruction, he's helping to propagate a vision of the universe that invokes excitement and inklings of as-yet-unimagined possibilities. It seems that, in turn, this sort of context might inspire otherwise disenchanted and disenfranchised people -- latent visionaries -- to believe in themselves and their power to manifest ideas into reality. His narratives give people an excuse to dream audaciously.
And dreaming audaciously is a powerful thing in itself, regardless of whether we're hurtling towards an inevitable technological singularity. Matthew Watkins reports a conversation with Terence McKenna: "he claimed…that even if [his Timewave Theory] had no basis in truth, it was still worth propagating. His reasoning was thus: if enough people expect some kind of major global transformation in 2012, this will shape their actions in such a way that makes such a transformation more likely!" It's possible that epic contexts like these provide the necessary cultural platform for instantiating such constructs in reality. They provide a perspective that enables the conception of epic projects: collaborative efforts to tell stories and accomplish missions at extreme scales. An excuse to collaborate: "Epic environments inspire us to undertake epic projects, because they are a tangible demonstration of what is humanly possible when we all work together. Indeed, they expand our notion of what is humanly possible."
I recently talked to Jason about his most recent work and his plans for the future.
Neşe Lisa Şenol: Can you say a bit about how you got here? What were your aspirations when you were younger? Why did you decide to major in film and philosophy? Has philosophy always interested you? What are some of the earliest books (& films) that stoked your bliss?
I grew up in Venezuela and went to University in the States where I majored in film and philosophy. My last year of school, I submitted a short documentary to what was to become "Current TV," the cable network co-founded by Al Gore. My film explored the intersection of hedonism and transcendence, and struck a nerve with some of the staff at the network. Subsequently, my collaborator on the project and I both got offered full time positions to be anchors on the network.
I've always loved "philosophizing" and basking in big ideas -- and Current offered the opportunity to wax philosophical about our rapidly changing world and examine the social and technological trends defining our time.
After four years on the network, I've decided to focus on some other creative projects exploring the co-evolution of humans and technology -- a subject matter that has taken a hold of me. Being a committed techno-optimist and wonderjunkie, I'm endlessly fascinated by mankind's dazzling technological abilities -- an ability to actualize and instantiate our dreams in the "meatspace." As the Imaginary Foundation states, "we conjure up delightful future possibilities, pick the most delightful ones and pull the present forward to meet them!" Those guys get it.
I have been very influenced by Ray Kurzweil's Singularity is Near, as well as the writings of Timothy Leary, Steven Johnson, Matt Ridley, Kevin Kelly and others.
How influenced were you by Marshall McLuhan and media studies?
I think McLuhan's interview in Playboy is magnificent. I read it constantly and am struck by the lucidity of his thinking! He was so ahead of his time and he totally gets it. I love the section where he compares technology and psychedelic drugs and draws the parallels between them. It's similar to when Leary called computers "the LSD of the '90s." Technology and psychedelics can both expand our sphere of possibilities; they can both make us privy to realities outside our baseline perceptions. They're also in a self-amplifying feedback loop, whereby psychedelics have influenced our thinking, which in turn influenced the externalization of our thinking, which we refer to as our "technological artifacts." What is technology if not a "scaffolding, extending our thought, reach and vision?"
Who inspires you?
So many people. There are some passages in Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants that read like rapturous poetry. I adore Carl Sagan. I love Timothy Leary's erudition. Alain De Botton is a joy to read. Ray Kurzweil -- a genius! I love Stephen Johnson. Chris Anderson from TED is an inspiration. McLuhan is poetry and awe.
What precipitated the transition from Current TV to your current projects?
In spite of my creative freedom, Current TV entailed me being a quasi-journalist, and I was itching to take more poetic license in my work. Journalism can be too literal for my taste, and fails to capture deeper aspects of the human condition. As Werner Herzog said, "If facts were the most interesting thing, then the phonebook would be the world's most interesting book." I describe my work now as equal parts ecstatic poetry and non-fiction content -- a kind of "performance philosophy."
You said (in your Reason.tv interview) that you haven't tried strong psychedelics, and yet you articulately argue for their epistemological significance and advocate for their use in appropriate sets and settings. Can you explain the background to this in more detail?
David Pearce wrote in The Hedonistic Imperative that "today one can't responsibly advocate the use of psychedelics because the risk of a bad trip is too great." Sam Harris wrote something similar: he said that while psychedelics were responsible for some of the most earth-shattering, ecstatic moments of his life, the bad trips he had were profoundly terrifying -- so much so that he would hesitate before completely advocating for their use. I'm interested in the development of "designer psychedelics" that can be adjusted to eliminate the risk of a bad trip.
Having said that, I have used marijuana as a creative catalyst for years and find it an invaluable tool. "It's divine for associations," as Norman Mailer said. Carl Sagan, another hero of mine, seemed to get a lot out of it as well. What I like about marijuana is that with low to medium doses, it's a functional tool. It can expand your mind, lead you to wonderful places and spaces, and wear off in time for dinner. It fits inside of one's busy life. I'm sure skydiving is a wonderful thrill, probably one of the greatest that exists, but I haven't done it -- why? Because I'm terrified of the parachute not opening!
Do you have any thoughts about DMT?
I'm sure for some it is beyond transformational and ecstatic. For some people, one session can easily lead to greater psychic readjustments than years of conventional therapy. And yet -- I'm not sure everyone is ready for total ego-death.
What kind of reception have you received for your work?
Chris Anderson from TED called my "Beginning of Infinity" video "stunning," which was a treat! I showed my work at The Economist Ideas Festival, which was so awesome! My work has been featured in Wired, Smart Planet and Forbes among others. It's a thrill.
What are some of your longer-term goals?
I'm working with an Oscar-nominated producer to raise financing for a feature documentary. I'd also love to take my short videos to the next level -- at the moment they are PSA's ["public service announcements"] to infect you with awe! Imagine what I could do with a sponsor! They seem to really be resonating. I want to do many more! I like giving people "downloads." It's fun to use an audio/visual medium to "epiphanize" people.
Do you often find yourself talking about the ideas you promote in your "off time"?
This is my life. It's what I think and breathe and talk about all the time. Those videos all came from unscripted moments of ecstasy. I get in the zone and the words come out. It's like tuning in. I suppose I am afflicted with neophilia -- the desire for novelty.
How do you spend an average day (as if there were such a thing)?
My mornings involve caffeine and computer use. I exercise. I plan situations and unfoldings. I trust serendipity, but I cultivate its precursors. I plan for transcendent moments.
How did you end up going to the DLD [Digital - Life - Design] conference?
I was lucky enough to be asked to speak. I'm thrilled. WIRED UK called it the "hottest conference in Europe." It will be a wonderful place to share some awe. The Edge Foundation has a wondeful logline, I try to live by it: "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, gather the world's most interesting minds, put them together in a room, and have them ask each other the questions they've been asking themselves!"
Do you have any suggestions for people who get revved up by your ideas and videos? What do they do with all that awe and excitement?
Hopefully the videos elicit "euphoric curiosity" and an eagerness to learn more. I want people to catch a buzz off my work, and also to feel like good things are happening. Awe is quite energizing, it fuels us in a way that material rewards just don't. I'd suggest that people take that feeling and sit with it, let it marinate and then influence how they see the world.
How often do you encounter resistance or skepticism towards your ideas? How do you react to it?
I've spoken at several public events, and most of the time people are inspired and energized. Occasionally people disagree, but I'm pretty good at defending the ideas.
Have you ever been to Burning Man? Do you have any thoughts about it?
I haven't been to Burning Man, but I need to go -- I'm well aware! I think it sounds astonishing. Radical self-expression.
How much time do you spend reading, generally? Are you a fast reader?
I read a lot, every day. I also read in pieces, and many things at once. I return to things, I put them down, I transcribe passages that move me, and create notes on what I'm reading. It's fuel for the hyper-priming and free-association that comes later.
When did you first get into the notion of "performance philosophy"?
In high school I hosted "salons" in my house on Friday nights inspired by Charles Baudelaire's "hashish house," where a carefully selected group of friends would join me for intellectual explorations. We used to film the most inspired moments! Without really giving it a name at the time, I suppose those were evenings of performing philosophy. I first read the term in an article by Rene Daalder, from SpaceCollective.org, who used it to refer to Bucky Fuller and Timothy Leary. It just clicked. Once you give something a name, it becomes real.
What did you think of the DLD conference?
DLD was amazing! I met Freeman Dyson! He watched my talk, which was incredible! I also met Esther Dyson and George Dyson, and I had dinner with John Brockman, the founder of the EDGE Foundation. It's always such a treat to be around such minds, the serendipity engines go into hyperdrive. "Our thoughts shape our spaces and our spaces return the favors," says Steven Johnson. Spaces like DLD really lead to wonderful conceptual collisions.
Have your own questions? Head to one of Jason's upcoming talks:
- March 27 - The Googleplex, Mountainview, CA
- March 28 - The Economist's Ideas Economy: Imagination, Berkeley, CA
- March 30 - PSFK Conference, New York, NY
- April 2 - The University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
- April 20 - The National Arts Club, New York, NY
THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY
TO UNDERSTAND IS TO PERCEIVE PATTERNS