ILLUSTRATION BY BEN STAINTON
Futurist and modern philosopher Jason Silva reveals his caffeinating thoughts behind metaphysical intercourse and digital cities.
efore the modern wonder cure—herbal supplements, synthetic Soylent Green and gluten free everything, the rage in 17th century British cities was for an exotic bean drink of Turkish origin that was said to prevent everything from melancholy and indigestion to miscarriage. As it evolved from medicine to mass consumption, spreading from Oxford University student environs to London, coffee gave birth to a new urban culture of spirited debate, news consumption and invention—The Enlightenment Age. Before losing ground, in the late 18th century, to private clubs and other exclusive drinking establishments, the British coffee shop left an undeniable mark on the British city, framing it as a space for invention and discourse.
“The rise of the coffee shop led to radical innovation,” explains Jason Silva, the host and creator of the web series Shots of Awe, “because people were tightly knit in close quarters, drinking lots of caffeine instead of alcohol, and ideas could percolate. So cities, naturally, are extensions of the coffee shop.” Today, says Silva, the utility of the coffee shop has moved online giving us the power to have these spirited stimulant-fueled interactions on an unimaginable scale.
“One of the things the internet has given us is the ability to transcend the usual Euclidian restrictions of time and space.” says Silva, “So with the internet, we find ourselves having serendipitous collisions through hyperlinking.” This uploading of consciousness, Silva believes will lead to a future where the urban agoras—coffee shops, bars, town squares—and by extension big cities, becomes less important and we instead live in high-tech habitation hubs, “little islands,” spatially apart from each other yet intimately linked through the net.
Inventing a kind of social-media shamanism, Silva’s web series combines spiritual doctrine, pop psychology and social criticism given to you in the form of rapid-fire videos. With 316,628 YouTube subscribers and growing, Silva’s appeal comes from his ability to distill vast existential concepts into short bursts of manic energy.
he handsome 32-year-old Venezuelan-born filmmaker, philosopher and actor also enjoys quite an extensive female fan base. This appeal has helped propel him into gigs at Current TV and the National Geographic Channel—among others—where Silva hosted Brain Games, one of the highest-rated shows to ever appear on Nat Geo at an astounding one million viewers for the first two launch episodes.
But don’t worry, Silva’s vision of an exurban tech utopia—or more likely dystopia—is still far off: “We haven’t fully uploaded our consciousness yet.” says Silva. “We’re still interfacing, it’s just the rudimentary square screen, so I think humans—our mammal body still craves the physical presence of other people. So we haven’t completely graduated from cities yet.”
“What really inspires me lately,” Silva tells Ruins, is the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. In it, Johnson delves into “the ecology of thought” and his assertion that ideas can have sex. As he explains it, in our minds there’s a space for dynamic change, a “vertical integration for general related industries.” It’s this organic collision, and the density that exists in cities that leads to heightened creativity and the birthing of ideas and effects.
As anyone who has ever gone down a digital click-hole knows, there are many winding paths in the internet city. Wandering leaves you open to chance inspiration. While Silva believes these types of digital cities are the wave of the future, we still have a way to go. Singularity is the hypothetical state where artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces have evolved to the point of greater-than-human intelligence.
Silva believes that the seeds to the cities of the future already exist in our current metropolises. “I think a city itself is a physical technology,” explains Silva. “The city is a piece of technology—the city is congealed imagination! The city is…agency! Think of all the signals that are around us at any moment. Everyone who is punching fingers against their phone screens are sending signals that traverse around us and through us at any given moment and a thousand times, a million times a day. I mean, if we could see those wavelengths—if we could see those frequencies, holy moly, that spectrum of activity, that agency and intent that surrounds us at any moment—it’s mind-boggling! That’s the chemistry of life, of oxygen of air—we’re buzzing, everything is connectivity, and we’re living in a hurricane of activity.”
Silva has resurrected Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur, one who walks the city, and updated it for the digital age. “I get caught up in the digital rabbit holes. On the internet, especially if you’re adept at search combinations, the results just get weirder and weirder. You can really stumble upon some obscure, brilliant thought. All these links and random articles and random things are going into a kind of salad, and later it all comes down into my videos.”
This leads to Silva’s broader philosophical question: How do you filter out the meaningful from the non-meaningful? The street noise from the conversation? “We have to be careful.” he says. “Of course you have to filter the non-meaningful from the meaningful, but if you get too good you might miss out on something that’s unexpectedly relevant. A creative person can’t just dismiss everything. The creative person has to be open to surprises, which means those filters have to be permeable. So you sometimes have to go down that rabbit hole to plant some piece of data in your brain that’s going to connect to something else later. I think that the real world and the internet are becoming similar in that you can go down [digital and intellectual] pathways, and walk down similar pathways in a city. People should let themselves wander around the internet in the same way.”