If Aristotle had had a YouTube channel, it might've looked something like this
"I am a poet above all else," enthuses Jason Silva: a personal disclaimer for would-be critics. "I may cite science or quote studies, but I am not an academic." Silva could be described as a connoisseur of inspiration. Even on a casual basis – when he's not documenting his epiphanies in real time to upload to his YouTube channel – his infectious enthusiasm and captivating speech is enough to blow your mind multiple times over in a half-hour conversation. A photographic memory combined with what he defines as "pattern recognition" hones a conversation littered with facts and quotes, which not only support everything he says, but simultaneously enthral and inspire. "Did you know that the average person in Africa with a smartphone has access to better communication technology than the US president did 25 years ago?" he asks. "Or that nanotechnology could eventually transform all matter into a programmable medium, like software?"
So it makes sense that recently, he's been busy. Off the back of his online videos, Silva has spoken at TED Global, acted as keynote speaker for tech giants like IBM ("the amazing speed of innovation") and Dolby ("how to create soundscapes that condition our inner spaces") and gone on to present National Geographic's most popular television programme in history, Brain Games. Furthermore, an unlikely pairing with Russian Standard Vodka has seen one of Silva's favourite topics – "how manmade systems and natural systems mirror each other" – materialise as a 60-second TV spot and accompanying online short film that dissects the production of vodka, featuring time-lapse footage filmed by none other than Ron Fricke: director of orgasmic sensory overloads Baraka and Samsara.
"Everything I've done is based on the idea of this genuine enthusiasm, a sense of wonder and curiosity," notes Silva, and it's true that if anyone were going to transform an alcohol ad into a religious experience, he would be the guy to call. Glowing reviews regularly draw comparisons between Silva and his heroes – like Ray Kurzweil or Carl Sagan – but for all the glamour that comes with success, Silva is as wide-eyed and awe-inspired as ever.
Dazed Digital: Your work is pretty multi-faceted. How do you define what you do?
Jason Silva: I'm a media artist. I create content that inspires the imagination, that makes people think, that makes people question their beliefs. I'm interested in experience design and I'm interested in making content that changes the way you see the world, content that's almost hallucinatory. The word "psychedelic" is rooted in the term "mind-manifesting". So this is, in a way, psychedelic media: it's media than manifests in the mind, that shows you what the mind is capable of, that illustrates the kind of radical universe that we live in, and that allows for all these insane innovations to transpire. This is fitting, because, as Marshall McLuhan once said, computers could be considered the new LSD: they're the new mind expanding tools.
I talk about the amazing speed of innovation, I talk about exponential change, I talk about why we should not be afraid of the seemingly disruptive changes caused by technology. I talk about the essence of creativity, about how to think outside the box and the power of human imagination.
I create content that inspires the imagination, that makes people think, that makes people question their beliefs
DD: Where did the idea for your videos stem from?
Jason Silva: I'm tortured by the idea that everything is temporary and I'm fighting against impermanence. Inspiration is fleeting: it comes and goes. So what do you do with that inspiration? Well if you're an architect, you create a building. You instantiate that inspiration. The goal of humanity is to instantiate the mind in the world, transform imagination into a tangible thing that's – at least on a human scale – able to persist despite our own impermanence. With media, and I'm trying to grab these fleeting moments of exaltation, these lightening bolts of meaning that I have when I'm inspired and turn that inspiration into a solid thing that'll persist post-epiphany.
DD: Why is a sense of wonder so central to your musings?
Jason Silva: Moments of rapture – particularly in a secular context – offer an experience of something more that we as humans hunger for, even as we become post-religious beings. We don't get from religion what we might have gotten from it before the scientific revolution, but we still aspire to connect with something transcendent.
Awe is an experience of such perceptual expansion, that your mental models of reality have to upgrade in order to assimilate the experience. Studies show that regular encounters with awe-like experiences reset our mental models of the world, and they leave us with residual feelings of well-being, compassion and altruism. In short, awe makes us nicer people: I am a kinder person, and able to serve my fellow man and the community better if I blow my own mind constantly. It's a great moral justification.
We don't get from religion what we might have gotten from it before the scientific revolution, but we still aspire to connect with something transcendent
DD: There's a sense of positivity that runs throughout your video which is void from much modern philosophy: how do you justify it?
Jason Silva: Let's take language as an example. The greatest information technology of all time is language, and it can be used to compose Shakespearian sonnets and weave worlds of meaning into being, but it can also be used to compose hate speech propaganda and make people hurt each other.
In spite of the gloomy media landscape, the fact is that the world has never been less violent than it is now. The number of men dying at the hands of other men is the least its ever been in history. The work of Hans Rosling shows that by every measurable indicator, the quality of life across the world has improved: even the poorest nations are doing better than they ever have. There was even an article in the New York TImes recently that said the most extreme form of poverty on a global scale has almost completely disappeared. But people are stuck in the quagmire of the limited perspective of their own universe, concerned with the idea of the shrinking American middle class, when 300 million people have been pulled out of poverty in China.
DD: What do you ultimately want to achieve through your work?
Jason Silva: I want to affect the way people think. I want to be part of a global conversation that ripples outwards. You could argue that the ultimate ambition is to make a dent in the universe, to actually inform people, make them see technology differently and enhance the understanding of what these tools are and what they can do for us. To be part of that conversation.