Futurist, philosopher, artist, TV personality, filmmaker, and public speaker — Jason Silva was born and raised in Venezuela and came to the United States when he was 18 to major in philosophy and film at the University of Miami. His lifelong passion for media, storytelling, and the big questions of life led him to have dialogues on these big ideas in front of the camera.
Silva started his professional career as a presenter and producer at a user-generated-content channel called Current TV, where he sought to democratize the media, giving the power back to the people to tell their own stories. A few years later, he was nominated for an Emmy for his five seasons with National Geographic’s “Brain Games,” and hit what he calls a “perfect storm”: digital media, hit TV series, and corporate speaking. Now, he hosts a new series on National Geographic called “Origins,” exploring how we humans became who we are — how we essentially domesticated ourselves, how we built our tools, and how the tools have come to build us. But perhaps his most powerful new role is producing his web series “Shots of Awe,” which can be seen on YouTube. This passion project, like Silva himself, is kinetic, psychedelic, and thought-provoking. Brain World recently had the opportunity to talk to Silva about his passion for artwork and his vision for the future.
Brain World: Tell us more about your most recent work.
Jason Silva: I continue to do a lot of public speaking events, and I’m still doing my digital media. One of my biggest passions is the technology of interspace. What are the ways that we can hack our own consciousness? It doesn’t matter how advanced the world becomes. We can’t enjoy it unless we make sense of our own subjectivity and optimize it. In an age of abundance, people are killing themselves at rates above any other time in history. Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels even though we have more than we’ve ever dreamed of as a society. That’s been interesting to me — a deviation from my techno-optimism progress. Because in spite of all this progress, people are still experiencing existential distress, fear, and panic. So I recently really just dove into advances in psychology, technology, neurobiology, and pharmacology. These are the four forces of ecstasy that are being deployed and employed now to help people deal with mental distress. I think that technologies of interspace are as important as external technologies.
BW: Why do you think we are in this situation?
JS: Ernest Becker wrote the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book called “The Denial of Death.” He basically distilled the human condition, and he said human beings are burdened by this neocortex. This neocortical hardware is an evolutionary advantage — it allows us to conceive of future scenarios and to plan accordingly. No other animal can step outside the present. We can step outside the present and think of a million years from now, or think of a million years ago. We can conceive of 10 years from now and also imagine 50 years from now when we grow old and die. So, from the unique capacity to think about the future has come a paralyzing anxiety to know that we are all going to be food for worms. The explicit awareness that you’re a piece of defecating meat destined to die and ultimately no more significant than a lizard or a potato is not especially uplifting.
We are symbolic animals that live inside of symbolic realities. Together we create stories, essentially. The fact that no story will save us from mortality, I think, is the source of existential dread. We used to turn to religion. Now we do so perhaps a little bit less. Instead, people turn to nationalism or other identities, but that does the same thing. It catapults you into a blissful state of immortality. People may think that this politician will save us, or America will be great again. There are a lot of articles that talk about this election cycle as being totally reflective of the ideas of Ernest Becker.
Other ways in which we can dissipate our anxiety is by falling in love and elevating our partners to deities. She’s like the wind. She’s my salvation. She’s my sun. Or we measure our self-worth with our job or social status. Like I got a million fans on Facebook so I’ll never get old. But no romantic or professional relationship can bear the burden of godhood. Our lovers or icons reveal their clay feet. Your girlfriend will reveal herself as being beautifully imperfect and maybe that’ll be enough. Your favorite actor will get old and that reveals a crack in our facade and in our illusions. So depression and anxiety kicks in again. We’re hungry for ultimate truth and ultimate meaning. We are ephemeral beings in ephemeral times. Knowing that is the disappointment everyone feels, I think.