Jason Silva: A New Voltaire for the Age of Singularity?

Jason Silva

Jason Silva is easily one of the most passionate philosophers of the Age of the Singularity. A handsome, emotive, charismatic and poetic speaker/creator who has been electrifying viewers and elite gatherings for the past six years.

His subject? Philosophy and the astonishing pace of human technology.

As we race toward a future of tech and science whose implications have only ever been contemplated by religion and fantasy, we find ourselves poised on a fundamentally new kind of human consciousness. One that is being transformed by radical developments in biotechnology, genetic experimentation, artificial and network intelligences, brain to brain communication and world transforming ideas.

Jason occupies a fairly exotic space in this transition. You would call him a prophet, except that hes more an interpreter, reading the not so quixotic handwriting on the wall, and then translating and humanizing the messages to be found there.

Its a heady position, one which has brought him into contact with some of the greatest minds and creative teams on the planet–working at the furthest reaches of technology.

But Silva is no Moses. Nor is he a Daniel, speaking esoterically to an audience of one.

He brings to his work the inquisitive and intellectually sensual embrace of philosophy. Jason strokes the cold language of tech with the enveloping questions of our common humanity and in the process imbues every minute of the inquiry with a visceral and emotive heartbeat.

In this respect, he is closer to Voltaire perhaps. The electrifying figure spreading the ideals of The Enlightenment in a way that moved the world with passion for philosophy and progress.

There is hardly a gathering or event of note which hasnt hosted or been influenced by the thrust of his work, From TED to The Festival of Dangerous Ideas to a hundred other similar sounding boards of technology and enlightenment. Regular people have access to his thoughts and philosophy on his heavily subscribed YouTube and social media channels, and you can see him on National Geographic with Brain Games and Origins

Stephen Dare spoke with the new Voltaire at length. Check it out.

 

The Interview

Hey, Jason, are you there?

Jason Silva Yes, Sir.

This is Stephen Dare .

Jason Silva And this is Jason Silva.

Stephen Dare Thank you so much for making time, Jason.

Jason Silva Thank you so much for having me, Stephen. I appreciate it.

Stephen Dare Would you mind giving us a description of what it is that you’re doing on a daily basis?

Jason Silva Yeah. So I kind of describe myself as a digital media artist. And I play with all kinds of media, and I sample and remix media and ideas to create content that hopefully helps people dissolve boundaries of thought, and see the world in a new way. I think if media is a drug, we have the choice to make it into a drug that helps us dissolve boundaries in our thinking, better than a drug that stupefies us. All too often, we call content programming because it programs our minds, which I totally understand, but I think we have a responsibility to make content that orients and programs our minds and our attention towards spaces of introspective contemplation, probing the adjacent possible, thinking about big ideas. And this is my passion. And this is, I think, my responsibility. I host a television show on National Geographic channel called Brain Games, which is about neuroscience and perception. And my passion project is a digital series called Shots of Awe, A-W-E, Shots of Awe, which I do with Test Tube Discovery Digital Networks, and their YouTube channel. I also have a Facebook page, facebook.com/jasonlsilva where I post a lot of my media content. But, yeah, it’s really about using digital technology to electrify thought, and share thought at the speed of light. That’s the goal. That’s the responsibility. Make people think differently. Inspire the world.

Stephen Dare And your videos are having visceral responses. People come away from your videos, even the short ones, the ones that are a minute and a half, transformed in how they’re thinking about several central issues. Philosophy. Technology. How it’s changing our life. And you seem to be a huge proponent and popularizer of the ideas behind exponential progress, and the singularity?

Jason Silva Yes. Definitely.

Stephen Dare How did you come across these ideas, man?

Jason Silva I think driven by my own existential anxiety about what it means to be a sentient mind that can contemplate the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. And we are a matter superorganism built out of atoms that were created in the furnaces of stars, and at the same time feeling dealing with the fact that we are mortal beings. So this idea that we are simultaneously gods and worms is at the crux of the human condition, and it pushes me toward a place that’s seeking out better explanations for what we might become. The idea that we’re ultimately food for worms is just way too depressing for me. So I’m looking for other alternatives. And the fact that I did not find those in religion, or in humor has led me to a place of technology and philosophy, where we use technology to address the grand challenges of humanity and overcome our boundaries, and we use philosophy to make sense of the ways in which we overcome those boundaries and what it means for the future of what it is to be human.

Stephen Dare And you have a degree in philosophy, is that true?

Jason Silva Yes, Sir. I went to the University of Miami, 2001 to 2005. I majored in Film and Philosophy. Double major. Since I left Miami, I lived in Los Angeles for five years. I’ve lived in New York for three and a half years, but I’m often on the road as well, giving a lot of speeches and a lot of keynotes to technology companies like IBM, and Google, and Wellcome, and Intel. I come in at a lot of their company summits and talk
about the future.

Stephen Dare One of the most amazing speeches at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, We are the Gods Now.

Jason Silva Yes, people love that one.

Stephen Dare What an amazing talk. We’re there, aren’t we? We’re within a lifetime of being there, these almost godlike powers of technology and possibility, and you temper all of your discussions with very literary references, philosophical references, some poetry, and your style seems to be very influenced in spoken word. Have you ever participated in spoken word or–?

Jason Silva I have not because I try to find a way of using media to create, in a way, my own genre and there’s definitely a lot of influence there from standup philosophers like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna who would get up on stage and just wax rhapsodic in a kind of freestyle philosophy format about their ideas, where all they were really doing is paraphrasing and rehashing what they wrote about in their books, but they were doing it without a script and they were doing it on stage lending it a freestyle quality, freestyle rappers I think also engage the same kind of pattern recognition and flow states, and the lateral thinking was you kind of connect the dots in real-time and in new ways. It is definitely like a kind of mental gymnastics, and certainly, there’s a spoken word quality to it as well. But, no, I have not gone to spoken word type of gatherings because I’m not interested in being put in a certain category. I wanted shots of Awe to be its own thing. I wanted it to be its own format, its own genre, its own thing. I mean it’s just the notion of just inventing emotion transmission devices and using the media at my disposal to do it.

Stephen Dare Well, it’s so evident, and you’re a filmmaker and your kind of mastery of the short form and the ultra-short form, I mean you have moments of real philosophic [inaudible] going on in these videos–

Jason Silva Yeah, as well. Yeah, you’re right.

Stephen Dare –and I can’t even imagine, or I can’t even explain to you, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen people reduced to tears that they cannot explain as a result of listening and watching your videos. Is that common? Do you hear that a lot?

Jason Silva I love you for saying that, man. Yeah. I mean, let me give an example, when I spoke in Australia and I did that talk, the We are the Gods Now, that talk actually was at a conference called Dangerous Ideas, and people attended this event the way they would attend a concert, they thought they came to talk to, listen to rock star intellectuals share their musings, and afterwards there was autograph signing, again, like in a concert, and I went to say hi to some fans, and a couple of people embraced me and one of the women started to cry. She gave me a hug and she started to cry. She said she was profoundly moved by some of the ideas, which I thought, of course, there is this moment of radical empathy when you feel somebody being felt so intensely, and it’s a very moving moment for sure. I had a similar experience in Las Vegas when I keynoted a CES for Intel, and what looked like a 65-year-old man came over to me afterwards and started to cry as well. So I’ve definitely seen that happen at some of my live events. Yeah.

Stephen Dare What do you think is behind that?

Jason Silva I think a combination of the juxtaposition, right? So there’s a lot of cerebral ideas presented in I think a romantic, humanistic way that you can feel. Like you said, there’s a lot of poetry, there’s a lot of philosophy even as I’m talking techno jargon, so to speak. So even if you’re not a technologist, I think you could relate to the framing and that poise that I use perhaps. I mean I use myself as a barometer, right? But when I’m speaking, I’m really speaking to myself. I’m sort of like trying to bring into my frontal lobe in as organized a fashion as possible a stream of ideas  and try to cohere them into this montage so to speak, a montage of words and images. So it’s very much like a freestyle exercise, but you’re self-monitoring as you go. You’re adjusting your cadence as you go depending on where your stream of thought flows to. And so I think, I don’t know, maybe people witnessing all of those qualities together creates a powerful effect. I’m a big believer in the power of how I package. I’m a big believer in the power of aesthetics. So presentation matters. And certainly, having a sensitivity and the sensibility with presentation and aesthetics I think probably influences how I come across in the videos.

Listen To The Interview with Jason Silva

Stephen Dare Yeah, I think the future is imbued with magic. I mean, there’s something magical about the future whether it’s dark or light magic, where you’re either inspired or terrified by it which is– technology seems to be that dark and light inspiration when all of us talk about futures now. But I think when you seek, you take this magic thing and you make it possible for people to imagine themselves experience.

Jason Silva So Moore’s Law is a term coined by Gordon Moore. He was a co-founder of Intel which of course is a semiconductor company. And his law was based on an observation of the rate in which semiconductor chips accelerated in progress. They got cheaper. They got smaller. And they got more powerful. And what he found was that there was an exponential curve. And exponential growth is magical because it’s like compounding interest. It’s one of those things where at first, it’s baby steps where those baby steps are compounding. And all of a sudden, they become huge overnight. So if you take 30 linear steps and you do it linearly, you get to 30. If you take 30 exponential steps, you get to a billion. And that’s a big difference, right? Linear steps gets you to 30. Exponential steps gets you a billion. So when you realize that technology is developing exponentially, it throws out of whack our capacity to make inferences about the rate at which things change. So things change faster, and that speed telescopes just gets faster and faster and feeds on itself exponentially. And so that’s where the notion of Moore’s Law comes from, and it’s being used now as a mathematical principle to may be able to invent the future technology, make predictions to measure and scale the way in which these technologies will improve over time. And so it basically tells us that the world and our capacity to change the world is accelerating at a rate that is hard to wrap our heads around. And that’s why we live in disruptive times. That’s why software is leading the world. That’s why the computer in your pocket today is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than it used to be a 60 million dollar supercomputer that was half a building in size 40 years ago.

And it’s just happened up until now. That’s going to continue forward until we are talking molecule-sized computers.

It’s been remarkably consistent. In fact, before technological evolution, we saw exponential growth in biological evolution. The speed in which single-celled organisms clumped into multi-cellular organisms took a lot longer than multi-cellular organisms turning into early animals. And then it got faster and faster. And then humans, we’ve only been here 100 thousand years. And then we invented the wheel, and then language, and then technology. It just keeps getting faster, and faster, and faster.

Stephen Dare Which kind of leads us to a question of transhumanism. Jason, I’m a real fan of history. And I was trying to think of what would be kind of a parallel to what you do because you take ideas that are kind of out there. People know about them, educated people do. And then you synthesize them, and you create a world of possibility that you can recognize immediately as possible. And I think to me, it’s very much like Voltaire. And he took the ideas of the Enlightenment, synthesized them in such a way that pretty much set that century on fire for those ideas.

Jason Silva Yes. It’s beautiful.

Stephen Dare And they changed the world. They brought democracy, and science, and reason, and education to every single one of the places touched by that culture.

Jason Silva Yeah.

Stephen Dare And I wonder, what is your endgame on this when you are doing these things?

Jason Silva You just said it, right? It’s to awaken us to our common ecstasy, to use media to create more empathy, right? Because empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. So if you can extend what people can see, if you can dissolve their boundaries of thought, if you can dissolve their patterns of thinking, if you can make them see the world in a new way, you’ve expanded their mind. And once a mind is stretched by a new idea it never returns to its original position. So we’re all in a propaganda race in the attention economy to see what are the ideas that are going to shape this decade and this century. And so to be a player in that is a wonderful creative ambition I think anybody has. Anybody who paints, or writes music, or writes books, or shares blogs wants to inform the thoughts of others, or at the very least, stimulate the thoughts of others. So I suppose the end game is for Shots of Awe to resonate with as many people as technology allows. Why not, right?

Stephen Dare And these are right near the center– and you are in the center of it. And you’ve spoken with the people responsible for the ideas. You have spoken with Kurzweil. You’ve spoken with many of the people responsible for this set of ideas that, taken together, are more profound than anything we’ve ever had in our history.

Jason Silva Precisely.

I’ve met and chased down many of these people because they’re endless inspiration for me, and I wanted to thank them.

Stephen Dare Now, one of the most beautiful turns of phrases that I think I have ever seen, and you have repeated in several of your videos is, “Imagine if the technology for oil painting or music had not been developed in time for the genius of Mozart, or for Van Gogh. And so, imagine what possibilities are around the corner for the new technologies we’re developing.”

Jason Silva It’s a visual metaphor. It’s a perfect analogy because it’s hard for the mind to conceive of what’s inconceivable. But using an example of something transcendent like music, music is said to be ineffable. Music is almost inconceivable until you’ve experienced it. So if you tell people that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a piece of technology, and you say, “Imagine if the world didn’t have that, how sad it would be,” that’s a very good way to getting people thinking about, well, imagine then what might come next.

And it decouples the idea of technology as simply the tool of money, doesn’t it? And it puts it back on to technology can also be the tool of inspiration and humanity.

Yeah. I mean, dude, language is a technology, and without language, the mind wouldn’t know what it was thinking.

Stephen Dare It’s literally rhapsodic, and it’s breathtaking the way that you’re able to explain that and re-synthesize those ideas.

Jason Silva A sort of bi-product about my brain works. I think that my brain– I grew up in Venezuela. I speak Spanish. I speak English. Fully bilingual. So I think in something that sort of feels like it’s outside of either language, right? And so I’m not sure how that changes the brain, but I know that it does. I mean, there’s been a lot of research about bilingual people and multilingual people have a more fluid kind of creativity because they’re privy to multiple worldviews. Because language scripts thought. You can only think within the boundaries of the language that you speak. And so each of the languages– and of course, language is informed by culture, and beliefs, and stereotypes, and all these things. So, yeah, language sculpts thought. Language sculpts thought, but imagine somebody who speaks two languages and it happens in two cultures. I also studied at an international school. I had friends from Israel and Nigeria and this and that. So that requires you to model minds that are very different from your own because when you meet somebody you’re modeling their mind and that is when you’re creating a model of their mind in your mind, an estimation of what their inner world is based on what you’re seeing and what you’re picking up on, and the accuracy of your modeling of their mind is what determines how you approach them. If you’re able to make a connection with that person, that means that you’ve effectively modeled their mind well enough to establish intersubjectivity, a shared subjectivity with them. So imagine, in my experience, since high school to be modeling minds that were from all parts of the world and be forced to make models in my head of what these people’s experiences were like and where they were from and what growing up was like for them, again, it stretches the range of all possible thought that you can have. So you bring that and then you bring in multilingual upbringing together and then you have a mixed media, a love of video, short-form content, social media, sharing new thoughts, a love technology, philosophy, I mean all of these things working together, the instruments when my brain thinks, and–

Stephen Dare And so that process, that just comes from you sitting down and doing it.

–and you can quote me on that. [laughter].

Stephen Dare Yeah. So I was recently discussing one of the foremost dance theory and choreography figures in the world, Christina Teague-Mann, and she is using–

Jason Silva Whoa, say that again. Say that again. Sorry?

Stephen Dare Christina Teague-Mann, and she’s also a fan of your work, and I know she had real resonance in the idea of all of those different paradigms kind of being overlapped and interacting and that now it’s possible for us to kind of inter-meme each other–

Jason Silva Yeah.

Stephen Dare –especially in dance, we not only meme and create memes, but that becomes its own verb, and–

Jason Silva Yeah.

Stephen Dare –when you have dancers who a nonphysical language, many nonphysical languages, and being able to transmit that via YouTube that were just impossible even ten years ago that it’s transforming the way that people perceive and can understand and appreciate dance, and so there’s real resonance for me in the power of technology to transform culture and art, and I know–

Jason Silva 1,000 percent.

Stephen Dare What do you think it’s going to be like for you and what do you think are the changes in the human condition we’ll be able to see in 2025?

Jason Silva Yeah. Well, I think what Kurzweil and all these people talk about the most is just radical advancements in biotech and healthcare, right? So if you think of biology as software, biotechnology is mastering the information processes of biology. So once we can upgrade our biology the way we upgrade IOS on our iPhones, we’ll be able to create software patches to alleviate illnesses, software patches to condition our genes to move away from certain diseases, software patches even for aging itself. I mean there’s a reason that the Google guys are getting into the life sciences with their company Calico, the Califonia life extension company. So I think there’s going to be radical, radical transformation in the way that we can have personalized healthcare, medical preventative intervention at the genetic level, at the molecular level, and that’s what’s really exciting because I think the Holy Grail is to cure this whole thing about aging. When human beings stop aging and when aging becomes something variable or something you can control, that’d be great because then we move into a space where sentience, which is the most wonderful thing in the universe, self-awareness is no longer housed in a rotting vessel, but we can actually salvage subjective worlds, salvage all of our minds, and that’s what we need to do.

Stephen Dare In 2005, Facebook was coming on the radar of most people, and social media has transformed the way that two generations of human beings interact and communicate with each other.

Jason Silva Yeah.

Stephen Dare And sometimes it’s hard to remember just how much daily stress there was in trying to figure out and track where your close ones were. When I grew up how you knew it was time to go home was you could hear your mom in the backyard three blocks down screaming.

Jason Silva Of course, of course. I remember.

Stephen Dare And cell phones and texts have changed all that. So you can lie in a more sophisticated way, but you can also kind of check in that you’re okay.

Jason Silva Yeah, exactly.

Stephen Dare So, and the world has changed. And so you think that’s going to be the biggest thing is biotech?

Jason Silva Yeah. It’s also the most pressing thing, man. I mean people should not be dying of cancer in an age where we fly 100,000 airplanes through the sky or where you and me can communicate wirelessly collapsing space-time as our minds intermingle with meme exchanges. It’s the miracles that we take for granted coexist with people dying of cancer. That’s not acceptable. Also people shouldn’t be starving.

Stephen Dare Right.

Jason Silva People should not be starving. Poverty, the whole thing, biotechnology could solve poverty. We could solve this starvation issue. We could do in vitro meats. We could grow all the meat that we need with tissue engineering with stem cells from a cow and never kill another animal and feed the world. The fact that this stuff is not like scaling yet, that’s problem, and it needs to be.

Stephen Dare I mean this, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time because I know you’re pressed for schedules, and, God knows, it was quite the journey getting to where we could be on the same phone line at the same time.

Jason Silva I know. But it’s been wonderful, brother.

Stephen Dare Yeah. I feel the same way totally. Am I missing something? Is there something I should be asking you that you know that I am not aware of? What would you say?

Jason Silva No. I would say, look, I think we all want to make a ripple. We all want to impact others, share compassion, share creativity. That’s just everybody, everybody is creative at heart, everybody is trying to share, trying to communicate, trying to reach out, even to one person, and I think that this is what this media is all about, about sharing curiosity, sharing wonderment, sharing beauty, reminding us about what matters, and I think all too often we get distracted, sometimes it’s not our own fault, into things that are dead ahead of me, and I’m just trying to wake people up.

This is Stephen Dare and Jason Silva.

Ridley Scott and the search for a technological deity

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Stephen Dare

Editor in Chief

Traveller, writer, chef, entrepreneur and natural born gossip. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, but has lived in the five corners of the US. (Florida, San Francisco, Seattle, NYC and Muncie, Indiana). Big fan of Dorothy Parker, Thorne Smith, Ogden Nash, Quentin Crisp and Graydon Carter.