Nanomodernity’s Epicurean Challenge – In Conversation with Jason Silva


Thus Life and Death, and young and old,
Are, as the severall Atomes bold.
So Wit, and Understanding in the Braine,
Are as the severall Atomes reigne:
And Dispositions good, or ill,
Are as the severall Atomes still.
And every Passion which doth rise,
Is as the severall Atomes lies.
Thus Sicknesse, Health, and Peace, and War;
Are alwaies as the severall Atomes are.

Cavendish, Margaret (Lucas), “All things are govern’d by Atomes,”
The Atomic Poems of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, 1653

I recently came across an article by Ken Davis, The Age of Semi–Post–Post-Modernism, which rightfully asserts that “Moving beyond ‘postmodernism’ has to mean a shift away from the myopia and cynicism that has characterized our recent past, if it is to mean anything at all.” Following this noteworthy text, a number of artists and curators such as contemporary German photographer, Thomas Eller, echoed its probing into the future of creativity, “Tell me, what comes after Modernism/Post-Modernism/Post-Post-Modernism, etc?”

My response is that we are entering the age of, what I call, Nanomodernity. It is an era in which, according to the father of Transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil, “our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today – the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

Do I honestly believe that these awe-inspiring promises and developments will take place during my generation? Well, it all depends on how long I will live which, if you are a Singularist, is a very very long time. So, yes, we just may live long enough to bear witness to humanity achieving “inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity.”

In many ways, Nanomodernity is a seemingly and dramatically different concept from Postmodernism with its illusions of mass accessibility. During the past thirty or so years, Post-Modernity’s (synthetic) populist pronouncements lead many to believe that no area of our lives is immune to its invasion and that its practices could be adopted by anyone. Of course, this was not truly the case, since, in the realms of arts and sciences, alliances are made with meticulous discrimination.

Even in the so-called democratic Age of the Internet, the Yosemitean disparity between the arts, sciences, and the masses can be profoundly demoralizing. Just as many people, including, art world insiders often fail to decipher rapidly market-driven trends in visual arts, concepts such as the Singularity and Transhumanism baffle scientists and philosophers alike. Whereas the formers’ aesthetically inspired foundations, at worst, intimidate people, the heightened scientific nature of the latter painfully overwhelms the multitude who don’t even know what the Theory of Relativity stands for.

As an enthusiastic, albeit new, convert to the study of the Singularity (and Transhumanism), I have cultivated strong responses to many of its premises. Impressions which I understand need to be perpetually revised in relation to this invigorating and exponentially(!) growing field.

How, then, a traditionally trained art historian and museologist like me, was introduced to such esoteric concepts? Well, I shall credit Murray Gell-Mann who, on September 15th 2009, declared “80 is the new 40.” Late last year, I had the pleasure of attending the 80th birthday bash that the Santa Fe Institute had thrown for the Noble Prize winning American physicist. In other words, my first introduction to the Singularity took place at an outdoor dinner party in the company of some of the world’s most renowned futurists, scientists and strategists. My visit to The Institute catapulted me into a world beyond that of Early Modernist (16th-19th century) aesthetics which I had just left at the University of Oxford. The dizzying, exhilarating and, at times, frankly, bewildering nature of conversations held between the likes of John Smart, Jordan Greenhall, Joseph Coates and John Hagel III marked the beginning of my passionate inquiry into this Late Modern Era pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Fast forward, nine months later, I have caught up with Jason Silva of Current TV who is in the process of creating his 21st century Manifesto on Singularity called Turning into Gods [see video below]. Along with Max Lugavere, Silva is the founding host of the Emmy-winning TV network launched by Al Gore. With national distribution to more than 50 million homes, Current TV is the fastest growing network in television history. The Venezuelan-born Silva is a graduate of University of Florida where he studied film and philosophy. Two years ago, Max and Jason, hosted the first PANGEA Day that included a live 4-hour program of 1,700 acts ranging from film, music, and live speakers; the event was seen by a projected audience of 500 million people in more than 150 countries. With his heartthrob good looks and vibrant personality, the 28 year-old Silva, who recently signed with CAA (Creative Artists Agency), has been hailed as the “apostle of our future” who is “looking to make converts.”

Homa Taj – When did you first come across the concept of Singularity? And, what does it mean to?

Jason Silva – I first discovered Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near a few years ago… It blew my mind. I’ve always turned to original thinkers to challenge me and assault my intellect and make me question everything I thought I knew about the world. I read The Singularity Is Near around the same time that I was really into Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death – a book which laid bare the reality of the human condition. SO my thinking was this: we infuse the world with meaning, creating sometimes exquisite social constructs and mythologies, grand narratives that contextualize our lives as heroic and meaningful… and yet… we end up as food for worms. Religion won’t save us; art won’t save us, though it may inspire us… These things may assuage the anxiety, but our situation is still quite bleak… and yet the one thing that HAS helped us overcome problems is our technological ingenuity… We remake reality with our tools.. We stand defiant before the universe and say: “We do not accept your terms”… and this is where the Singularity metaphor works – as we decommission natural selection and our technology become exponentially more powerful, even entropy will not be able to escape our artistry and technical genius… Soon enough we will reverse engineer the human brain, create an artificial consciousness, backup our mindfiles, and in Marshal McLuhan‘s words will start making sense: “First we build the tools, then they build us.” The Singularity means victory over entropy, decay and death. The Singularity is when the universe wakes up.

HT – You have talked about “The Catalytic Intersection of Art and Technology;” this, of course, is the title of a presentation which you gave at the 2010 Humanity Plus Summit . (Admittedly, I did not hear your talk, however,) I have come across some of your ideas which propose to use the arts to “elicit a sense of awe and wonder out of people.” I would like to see the arts integrated into your mission, not used as tools to ‘entice’ the masses but as an end unto themselves… as their own reward.

JS – I transcribed my talk from Humanity Plus into a Huffington Post article you can read. The basic premise is that package design and art direction are as crucial to the content as the content itself. The way an idea is DELIVERED is pivotal to whether it makes an impact. It really comes down to my love for big ideas… I get off on things that make me go WOW, and my goal is to create content that gives people that same feeling – If we can awaken people’s sense of awe and wonder, titillate the child-voyager inside all of us, the world becomes that much more magnificent. With Turning Into Gods I want to make a philosophical documentary about the reach of our science that dares to push our imaginations further than we might be comfortable with.

HT – I am very interested in ways you relate to the philosophy of Hedonism: for some, this school simply embodies the notion(s) of eliminating pain from our everyday existence. But I take it further to include the Epicurean enhancement of pleasure principles… Where does Singularity stand in relation to this extremely important humane trait?

JS – Hedonism is the philosophy of pleasure… which makes sense to me… Pleasure can come in many forms, sure, but I think we can all agree that illness and death give no one pleasure, as much as we may try to ennoble them. The Hedonistic Imperative is David Pearce’s magnificent manifesto that merges genetic engineering with the principles of hedonism, proclaiming that we should re-write our entire biochemistry, our genomes, the whole thing really, and become “paradise engineers”… so that “genetically pre-programmed bliss becomes as natural as breathing.” What could be wrong with that? We’re already so good at creating beautiful art to articulate things such as love and longing and so much more… imagine the “art” we could make if our genomes become the paintbrushes… reality becomes our canvas. To me it’s intoxicating to consider these ideas. I’m all for stretching out perfect moments forever. As the end of the film Flight From Death said: “Everything has been figured out, except how to live… life exists in individual moments and it is up to us to make sure those moments are vast, interconnected and grand… to make a masterpiece out of life… one that we would willingly live again and again, for all of eternity… this is what we can try for.”

HT – All right then, when a ‘paradise engineer’ considers what brings people joy and happiness, s/he must realize that everyone’s idea of pleasure radically differs from others. For some, aspects of (mainly physical) pain bring pleasure. For others, of (often) religious persuasion, most aspects of pain and suffering signify redemption which, in turn, promise an eternal Utopian existence. So who is to decide what pain and pleasure are and what their role in our lives ought to be? And, how does the Singularity address this critical Epicurean dilemma?

JS – The whole religious device of martyrdom and a “life of pain in exchange for that heavenly reward” is a construct built to ease the pain of existence to many people. For too many people, life is a constant struggle followed by death… How does anyone make sense of that without some consolation? But I think as more and more people are lifted out of poverty, medical engineering becomes more extraordinary, diseases are slowly eradicated… I think we will come to see more obscure forms of suffering also as unacceptable.

HT – This brings us to science’s challenge in addressing human emotions that are as diverse as the number of individuals on earth. In addition, our respective passions/ sentiments/ feelings/ soul (or everything that you wish to call them) evolve and metamorphose according to our physical place and temporal position in the world. How does an overpowering force like the Singularlity which basically proposes to clone humanity deal with human emotions – my understanding so far is that it tries to avoid them?

JS – The Singularity is a metaphor for when we become fully embedded in the technology we are creating technology that will be evolving so many times faster than today that it makes it impossible to wrap our heads around it… What we do know is that technology extends our reach – it extends who we are. Human emotions are still just information… We will be able to redraw and/or manipulate our emotions to suit our tastes….

HT– Technotopia is not a new concept by any means. The very foundations of the Renaissance were based on the marriage between sciences and humanities. However, I think what frightens most people is their lack of understanding of what is going on behind the scenes: the great divide between sciences and the masses is far more alarming than most are willing to admit…

JS – I think the internet brings all the world’s information to anyone’s fingertips, so anyone can become somewhat well versed in science and technology trends. If science is still intimidating to people, it simply means we need to make science more hip… We need another Carl Sagan. We need a James Dean of philosophy and of science. We need to find ways to using beautiful art direction to present wild scientific concepts in a beautiful way… If you visit Space Collective, you’ll see a great example of this.

HT – Personally speaking, I am not interested in sciences, technologies or ideologies that want to dominate nature. As a self-proclaimed Romantic, how do you propose to negotiate between post-biological sciences and their determination to impose their power on nature. What do you say to Ecological Utopists, like myself who wish to advance our world in tune with nature?

JS – I think it’s natural to mess with nature, as long as we don’t destroy our environment. Cancer is also nature… it doesn’t mean we should respect it. There are some things in nature that are ugly and brutal and human intervention is the most noble thing in the world in those kinds of circumstances. Humans are part of a self-organizing system… I think that system will find ways to evolve without destroying its cocoon.

HT – The very genuine fear of political/ nationalists taking over this science aside, my understanding is that many Singularists (& Transhumanists) fear backlash from certain religious groups who will oppose their agenda to advance /alter nearly every aspect of the human condition beyond its present biological state. What I fear the most is that some extremist religious groups will embrace this science and, given many of their institutions’ phenomenon material wealth and mass appeal, be able to adapt it to their respective ideological agendas.

JS – People are always afraid of change, especially change that happens really fast and disrupts the status quo. Too bad. Change is coming, and it’s going to be exponential. However, this happens in millions of tiny steps whereby we probably won’t even be alarmed. I’d say most people would be quite happy to one day enjoy cellular rejuvenation therapies that add decades to our lives, or gene therapies that augment our intelligence of empathy… Our lives will be improved on such a profound level that even the bio-luddites will be seduced…

HT – I would like to return to your Manifesto on Singularity, Turning into Gods. How are you using the milennia-old technique of storytelling and the century-plus-old medium of film to tell your story about humanity’s post-biological future?

JS – I’ve always loved movies and documentaries. They offer a way to make sense of our ourselves and contextualize the world around us. I simply want to explore these wonderful ideas and extrapolations about our future in this way. Almost nothing is as pleasurable as being transformed by a film… They make us see the world in a new way, they move us, they make us laugh and cry and get the goosebumps. They add something to our lives. What a gift!

HT – From a (Hollywood) Studio perspective, how are you planning to sell this project when there are almost no archetypes or very few precedents (i.e. Barry Ptolemy’s Transcendent Man on Ray Kurzweil) that are seen mainly by a handful of individuals at film festivals? The scientific aspect of the Singularity is far too complicated for most to digest and, in the words of one of my favorite screenwriting gurus, John Truby, the Mythical dimension (of films) is “extremely episodic.”

JS – I’m good friends with Barry Ptolemy and he’ll likely be a collaborator on Turning Into Gods... I’m pretty confident we’ll find a way to get Turning Into Gods to make a splash – certainly we’ll benefit from an increasingly wired population hungry to find good content on social media platforms. Maybe we can create a viral campaign. The success of the Turning Into Gods TEASER is already encouraging… It’s been everywhere from Vanity Fair to Singularity Hub… so really running the gamut!

Until the day when, in the words of Kurzweil, “there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. [When] we will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. [When] human aging and illness will be reversed: pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. [And, until] nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem…” I will be meditating on the future of humanity cuddled with a copy of Dante’ Paradiso which is:

The apotheosis of the virtual world, of nonmaterial things, of pure software, without the weight of earthy or infernal hardware, whose traces remain in the Purgatorio. The Paradiso is more than modern; it can become, for the reader who has forgotten history, a tremendously real element of the future. It represents the triumph of pure energy, which the labyrinth of the Web promises but will never be able to give us; it is an exaltation of floods and bodies without organs, an epic made of novas and white dwarf stars, an endless big bang, a story whose plot covers the distance of light-years, and, if you really want familiar examples, a triumphant space odyssey, with a very happy ending. You can read the Paradiso in this way too; it can never do you any harm, and it will be better than a disco with strobe lights or ecstasy. After all, with regard to ecstasy, Dante’s third cantica keeps its promises and actually delivers.

Umberto Eco, “A Reading of Paradiso,” On Literature