The Wow Factor

Jason Silva interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

Jason Silva is perhaps best known as a founding producer and host of Current TV, the Emmy winning youth-oriented lifestyle cable network started by Al Gore. Equal parts Ray Kurzweil, Tim Leary, and P.T. Barnum, Silva is an unabashed optimist with a belief in the magic and power of technology to extend and transform what it means to be human. His prophetic quest to spread the word currently finds him working to expand his short documentary, The Immortalists into a feature-length film, Turning Into Gods. The film records his global journey to ask the big questions of the most brilliant minds alive and is interspersed with psychedelic visual experiments to expand viewers’ perception of the world around them. Here, Silva outlines his efforts and suggests why philosophy should always be a performance toward the future.


Jeffrey Inaba: You are interested in science and technology, along with the relation between science and art. How did that begin?

Jason Silva: I have always been a person who gets captivated by ideas. The ‘Imaginary Foundation’ makes these awesome, cosmic t-shirts with beautiful imagery. One, for example, has a Venn diagram that places ‘wonder’ in the intersection between ‘art’ and ‘science’. Wonder tends to be the precursor to ‘awe’; it is the sensation of aesthetic arrest that you have when these things come together and you connect the dots to get an aerial view of something that transforms you and gives you catharsis. Ever since I was a little kid, I have always been hungry for such stimuli. I am not a scientist by training, but I am in interested in the philosophical extrapolations that we can make from grand scientific achievements—the narratives that have come out of the discoveries that science has given us. One only needs to look through a telescope or microscope to see how much more is there in every second that we are not privy to. What we see only serves to remind us of how much more there is that we do not ordinarily see. It is the opposite of existentialist claustrophobia.

JI: You see it in terms of a creative aspect. Some people would take that knowledge and be overjoyed with it, but that would be the end. It seems that for you the idea of aesthetic arrest leads to something creative in turn.

JS: I think that there is a definite feedback loop. We are co-creators of our subjective reality, and most of us fail to realize this. We stay within our reality tunnels that are circumstantial or geographic. One of the exciting things about technology is that it allows us to move to a post-geographic world where we can really be connected to one another through our passions and our eyes can be opened to so many more possibilities. Kevin Kelly talks about the role of technology as increasing possibilities in all directions and that’s really what it is—instruments that increase our capacity to flourish. For me, it ultimately comes down to the moment when I read Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. It was this dissection of the human condition that replaced the Freudian idea of sexual repression as the cause of our neurosis with this notion that we are consciously aware of our mortality and that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety. Our minds can ponder the infinite, we are seemingly capable of anything, and yet we are housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body. We rebel against these imaginary gods that have punished us with mortality by creating art, by participating in science, by transcending our limitations, and by expanding our sphere of possibilities. With the implications of biotech and nanotech, the new canvas for aesthetic design is life itself. Freeman Dyson says that we have a future with a new generation of artists that are going to be writing genomes the way that Shakespeare used to be writing verses. What new forms of art are going to be coming out of that?

JI: The idea of death is one of the defining elements that traditionally colors our view of life. What makes life meaningful is the knowledge that it is something terminal. The idea that one would be writing with the very matter of our existence is another thing that transforms what we think of as human. Does it mean that because we can be creative with these things, whatever is created will be a further representation of us as humans?

JS: I definitely ascribe to the wonderful Robert Anton Wilson. He talks about how we think of ‘reality’ as a noun, as this inert thing, whereas really we should think of reality as a verb—as an unfolding work in progress. So to that end, what it is to be human has been changing at the pace of our ability to conjure up new stories about ourselves and put ourselves into context. What great thinkers throughout history have done is provide an aerial view of things that subsumes the previous paradigm and forces a new narrative that includes a wider perspective on who and what we are. It is a new consciousness; it transforms us. Whether that happens symbolically, metaphorically or by tinkering with our genes, I think it is what we have always done. The things that we take for granted today have radically transformed us from the original Homo sapiens, We are already homo-cyberneticus. We are telepathic. We have extended minds. We outsource our memory to smart phones. What we are doing is shrinking the lag time between what we imagine and what we can create. It took years for an Egyptian Pharaoh to enslave his whole society to build a pyramid, but the reality is that now somebody can design something through three dimensional software on a computer, put a bunch of minds together, and then bring that model into existence within a few months. Once we master nanotechnology, we are really going to live in a world that as I imagine, so it becomes. And that’s the very essence of magic. We are going back to the idea that technology is magical in the Aleister Crowley sense because it becomes a manifestation of our intent. You could think of the iPhone as the modern magic wand, extending your will beyond time and space.

JI: With your work with Current TV and the movie that you are doing now, what do you see as being your role in this magic? Do you see yourself as a facilitator and accelerator of ideas? Are you a maestro that relates things that going on in creative spheres to things in technological ones?

JS: I am exuberant, I excite easily, and I enjoy being a communicator. When Timothy Leary and Buckminster Fuller used to refer to themselves as performing philosophers, I thought that is the perfect term. If Aristotle was alive today, he would have a talk show, he would have a Youtube Channel, he would be spitting his philosophical ruminations onto the Internet, shooting them on his iPhone while he wanders the globe. On Current TV, I was a media personality. I hosted a show, tossing pieces of citizen journalism and pieces of user generated content. But beyond that, what I want is to be the curator of ‘wow’. I want to incorporate radical technological developments into the sphere of what I think is awe inducing and wonderful. I think that what I bring to the table is an ability to take something that is happening and articulate its significances from a profoundly meaningful place and in an aesthetically relevant way. With the film Turning into Gods, I will take this journey to talk to my heroes and ask them questions. I follow the ethos of the Edge Foundation, which says to gather the world’s most interesting minds, put them together in a room, and have them ask each other the questions that they have been asking themselves. That intellectual mind candy is a dream.

JI: As you take the journey making the film, what are things that you want to tackle that you haven’t yet? What are new frontiers of knowledge that you want to explore?

JS: I am particularly interested in exploring how these exponentially evolving technologies will transform the human experience from the aesthetic perspective, from the philosophical perspective, and from the existential perspective. I am interested in how our subjective experience and the way that we interface with various aspects of our realities will be changed. The new exhibition at the MoMA, ‘Talk to Me’, suggests how objects now have to have a script of meaning inside of them. They have to be more than functional. They have to engage in a feedback loop with us. The more feedback loops we have, the smarter the system becomes. I am interested in finding complex visualizations showing the emerging and recurring patterns across different scales of reality. How are we similar to a slime mold? How are the neurons in the brain similar to galaxies and the mycelium pattern of mushrooms? The joy of insight is like a drug. We are all wonder junkies. I think that human beings are natural philosophers. Other life forms learn and evolve but we actually get an enjoyment out of it. We are aware that we learn and we love what it feels like to learn because it expands the way that we see ourselves. The expansion of consciousness is akin to progress.

JI: What are the particular aesthetic qualities that you want the film to be about visually? What are the sensations you wish to evoke?

JS: I have been told a lot in my life that I should speak a little slower or not shake my arms so much, but energy and movement are part of my thinking process. When I’m speaking, often I am thinking aloud. I don’t really plan what I am going to say, it literally happens in that act of speaking. I love the term ‘performing philosophers’ and I think that a philosopher should be allowed to ruminate, to have ecstasy out loud and on camera. To record the bursting force of ‘aha’ is a thing I aspire to in the film. In terms of the visual, I really like transcalar imagery, juxtaposing the very small and the very large. There is going to be a lot of cutting between the scale of the universe and the scales of cells dividing. I am really interested in showing different scales of reality and compressing the footage of those scales using time-lapse, stop motion, or whatever it needs because by compressing them, certain patterns are revealed that otherwise we would not be privy to. The effect would be similar to the notion of psychedelics, removing our mental filters and allowing us to perceive so much more at once. That’s the goal—to just wow and to shock and awe.











Jason Silva