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Tuning in to Jason Silva, Nat Geo’s Televangelist for Technological Utopia

Jason Silva

Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

Matthew Becklo - published on 03/19/15

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
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.

Hans Jonas once said of the future of technology: “I fear not the abuses by evil power interests: I fear the well-wishers of mankind with their dreams of a glorious improvement of the race.” After entering into Silva’s “barrage” of optimism, I can’t help but think that Jonas had it right. If and when these technologies do emerge, it’s not the ignoble and imperfect I’m most worried about; it’s the wild-eyed believers in perfectibility. The mind that doesn’t detect danger in the futurist program might just be the most dangerous thing of all: It’s a short leap from eternal optimism to willful blindness, and even shorter from there to reckless abandon – and on this age-old path, the dignity of the human person has never fared well.

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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