If Aristotle were alive today, to paraphrase a famous Timothy Leary adage, he would have a Vimeo channel. So believes Jason Silva, a young futurist and filmmaker with movie-star looks and a childlike sense of wonder. It’s no coincidence that Silva has been described as “a Leary for the viral video age” by The Atlantic correspondent Ross Andersen—and he could be considered, in a way, a hip, 21st century heir to Aristotle. Silva’s online micro-documentaries, starring Silva himself and exploring the “co-evolution of humans and technology,” are deeply philosophical in an average running time of less than three minutes. Highly entertaining rather than drily didactic, the videos have gained more than a million views online. Such popularity has propelled him to a series of high-profile speaking engagements as well as a role hosting Brain Games, a new series on the National Geographic Channel, which will make its debut in early 2013.
Leary’s notion of the philosopher as a performer is a natural fit for Silva. Journalists have praised the seductive effects of his energetic clips, which analyze how we confront, question, and accept innovation via eye-catching clips and Silva’s own soliloquys. He “take[s] the esoteric and package[s] it nicely,” James Brown, co-anchor of CBS News This Morning, said in a TV interview with Silva that aired in August. “Packaging is critical when selling a new idea.”
Silva double-majored in film and philosophy at the University of Miami. Not long after college, He joined the staff of Al Gore’s Current TV project where, beginning in 2005, Silva worked as an onscreen presenter of the crowd-sourced, short-form content that made up the channel’s original format. “Current was such an innovative idea when it launched, it was pre-YouTube,” he said in a recent interview, recognizing his time at Current (which roughly coincided with YouTube’s launch in 2005) as providing “the validation of the power of the short form. I realized I didn’t have to make feature films; I could make short-form content and that content could be meaningful.”
Silva received his first camera at age 12 and became immediately obsessed. Raised in Venezuela by a literature teacher/poet/sculptor mother, he grew up in an “idea-rich” environment that placed a high value on personal creative expression. After initially filming “silly little spoofs” with his cousin and brother, Silva began turning the camera on himself. “I’m a person that has always loved thinking and philosophizing out loud. I fell in the love with the feeling of that instant in real time as [an idea] is bursting forth, as it’s being articulated, and the feeling that I could turn the camera on myself and capture it.”
“Watching the video later, after the insight wore out—after a meal or shower when I was in a different mode of consciousness—created an interesting feedback loop between my ‘experiencing self’ and my ‘remembering self,’” Silva reflected, borrowing a concept from psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2010 TEDTalk.
After nearly five years at Current and feeling ready for a new challenge, Silva left the channel to produce videos independently. He returned to his recorded musings. “I still had that same aspect of my personality where I would get in the zone and would have these epiphanies and would want to film the epiphanies,” but now, as online video grew ubiquitous, he recognized a new opportunity to share his revelations. He thought, “What if I actually film these two-minute rants, and put them to music and intercut with imagery that provides the function of putting people in my head?”
Silva quickly found an audience online—and it scaled. “After the first couple months I started getting more attention than from five years at Current,” he said, and the rants evolved into his signature “philosophical espresso shots,” as he describes his work. Playing with intellectual and visual patterns, the pieces combine dynamic, psychedelic visuals with distinctive sound design to provide viewers with a short, cerebral jolt intended to draw them “out of their comfort zones, out of their egos, out of their heads.”
“If you use the tools of audio and visual together you create a transcendent effect that sucks the viewer so far out of context that what they’re seeing is being presented in such a radically different way,” he explained. “And it’s such an assault on their senses that it literally removes them from where they are mentally.” Viewers tend to agree. After watching a Silva video, “you’ll wind up totally jazzed that technology is transforming humanity for the better,” Arikia Millikan wrote on Wired.com earlier this year.
By removing personal context, Silva aims to immerse his audience in the ideas he presents. “Memory is the enemy of wonder,” he proclaimed, citing journalist and 2010 TED speaker Michael Pollan. “I’m not trying to tell you objectively about something, I’m trying to tell you how it felt to me, to put you in my head.”
Narrating his videos with a rapid intensity that matches his cinematic style, Silva reveals his perspective on the human condition and technology as an evolutionary force by connecting an eclectic range of thinkers. In “Radical Openness,” a piece created for the opening session of TEDGlobal, he explores the power and free flow of ideas through the lens of—among others—James Glick, Richard Dawkins, Nietzsche, Ray Kurzweil, Vincent Van Gogh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Kevin Kelly. Threading together philosophies with his own techno-optimistic viewpoint, Silva invites his audience to share in the awe the ideas inspire within him.
“I create a new butterfly effect, a new pathway for something because they’re affected by this. It’s the power of mind-to-mind communication made possible by technology,” he reflected. “Sharing through time and space, electrified thoughts traveling through time, space and distance are no longer limitations. What kind of ripple effect are those possibly causing in the synapses of others, and how will that change their lives and the people they affect?”
Silva identifies his work as a filter against the “bandwidth anxiety” of the information age. “What we love about the Internet is all the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips. What we don’t like is that all the world’s knowledge is being experienced simultaneously and we haven’t upgraded our brains yet,” he explained. “Until we do, we’re still going to have to apply these filters so we can have meaningful, deep experiences instead of these surface experiences we’re currently having a lot of the time online.”
And now back to the Timothy Leary reference. Like Leary did, Silva understands the power of media to transform education into provocative performance, bringing accessibility to philosophical concepts. “The videos stand as complete content, but they’re not competing with book length treaties,” he admitted. “I still want people to dig deeper but hopefully the aesthetic force of the videos themselves will be enough to get hooked on some video or essay or idea they’ve seen.”
As he prepares to return to broadcast television, Silva remains committed to short films as his art and looks ahead to “short-form content as idea-rich, dense sources of information that can be watched à la carte, that can be shared with your social network,” he said. “It’s beautiful, as good as TV or a movie but made for the Web and made for short attention spans.”
“Creating an immersive experience in the short form nuggets that exist on the Internet is where we merge the idea of deep media, curated experience with the convenience of the Internet,” Silva added with an excitement as infectious as a viral video clip. “Where those two points meet I believe is the future.”