The futurist fantasy of "Brain Games"--what could go wrong?
I recently stumbled on the work of Jason Silva, the host of Nat Geo’s “Brain Games.” Silva – described by The Atlantic as a “Timothy Leary of the viral video age” – is a filmmaker, philosopher, and full-blown futurist with dreams of divinizing the human condition à la Ray Kurzweil.
I know countless bleary-eyed college students have probably already flocked to Silva’s videos in droves – and I don’t say that disparagingly. I wouldn’t be surprised if this self-proclaimed “epiphany addict” is sparking a lifelong passion for ideas in thousands of young viewers. More importantly, they’re ideas that matter. While the reigning materialist orthodoxy trades in unwieldy “religious” questions for tamer and more proximate ones, Silva’s trailer-esque “Shots of Awe” like get us thinking about the big picture again through a kind of digital age religious sense. Materialism, Silva declared over Twitter, “is not subtle enough to deal with the complexities of a multidimensional universe.” We have a need to go beyond matter in motion and seek some ultimate meaning – and Silva is doing just that.
On the other hand, if there’s one thing Silva lacks, it’s subtlety, especially where his philosophical ideas are concerned. His sound byte manner of throwing quotations and insights together – usually over a base of Terrence McKenna (the “intellectual voice of rave culture”), Ernest Becker, and Leary – feels a lot like surfing the internet. It’s wild, it’s fast, and it gives a superficial glimpse into all kinds of exciting things, but where any one area of study is concerned, it can’t stay too long or dig too deep. It’s too hopped up on a “psychedelic Promethean dream of mind expansion,” and has to keep moving or else face the dreaded come-down.
So basic philosophical questions get a painfully inadequate treatment, as if it goes without saying that they’d be obviated by Silva’s longed-for “psychedelic renaissance.” When the subject of God comes up in videos like and his commentary amounts to the assumption that Feuerbach and Nietzsche (adapted, of course, for Kurzweil) basically had it right. With that, an entire universe of knowledge and wisdom from philosophers, theologians, and mystics about God is brushed aside like a dead insect.
When it comes to the metaphysics of consciousness, Silva’s “shots” are as murky as they are shallow. Compared to the rigorous, hairsplitting work of philosophy of mind, looks and sounds like a philosophy major’s bad trip: cybernetic feedback loops meet “Buddha consciousness” in a panpsychic heap of broken images that really doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about the mind, but throws in the final frames of Eraserhead to let you know yours was just blown.
It doesn’t seem to matter – and that’s the point. Because for Silva, it’s always about that pixelated futurist fantasy. That’s really the end game: the long-awaited royal wedding of human biology and information technology. As Ian Steadman puts it, Silva has a kind of “evangelical belief in the power of technological innovation, and progress, as a force for good.” He sees a “technologically-mediated” utopia on the horizon, one 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”.
Meanwhile, the world we live in – the fallen world – can’t put the kibosh on cyberbullying, much less cyberterrorism. Why shouldn’t the singularity inherit all of humanity’s moral and spiritual blind spots, only now, with powers never before imagined at our disposal? Silva’s commitments force him to frame this as a classic “fear of progress,” not an extrapolation of the bloodiest of all centuries, i.e. the twentieth. “There’s always been a terror about new technology,” he says blithely. “The same was said about the radio and television. There’s a great book by Steven Johnson…” And on it goes.