When Max Lugavere and Jason Silva met at the University of Miami, they were two young idealists who found common ground in film, psychology, and philosophy. But when Al Gore announced his plans to start a TV network powered by a worldwide legion of socially minded young people and their video cameras, the dynamic duo found their calling. After getting the network’s attention with their own documentary work, they’ve been consistent faces of the channel since August 2005, appearing every weekday at midnight as hosts of Current TV’s Max and Jason: Still Up.
Max and Jason act as curators of the networks’ prodigious video documentaries and tour-guides through topics as diverse as travel, development, education, and fashion. But the two couldn’t leave their shared perspective on science and the human condition behind. Their mantra is to show how understanding and appreciating the natural world—and the modern technology that reshapes it—can cross geographical, cultural, and religious divides. And by combining their own profiles of research institutions and non-profits with vignettes form videographers across the globe, they’ve put their philosophy into action.
Seed editor Evan Lerner spoke with Max and Jason about their perspective on science communication and how the power of social networks is changing how individuals learn about the world around them.
SEED: Still Up is notable in that it’s a general-interest show that delves pretty deeply into scientific topics. How did that mix come about?
MAX: From day one, we’ve felt like it’s our duty to carve a new niche. We’re all about authenticity and honesty and big ideas; we sort of made it our career mantra to steer clear of any of that traditional TV entertainment stuff and at the end of our show in its highest moments, we like to think of it like a televised TED or something like that. But we also want to maintain true to what got us the job to begin with, which is the juxtaposition of the highbrow and the lowbrow.
JASON: We also believe that the juxtaposition allows people to be more willing to come on a ride with us when the subject can be a little too highbrow, like when we do an hour about the impact of technology on culture. The next night we’ll have something about the party scene in Brazil, which is completely compelling and global. We want to make the show mainstream, so if it was only science, it could limit the people who might initially tune in. But, if people spend five minutes Googling us, they’ll end up finding everything on the show goes back to our interest in one thing or another. And they’re going to pay attention to us because we’re going to make sure they’re not bored.
SEED: So do you feel you’re more hosts and entertainers or documentarians and journalists?
MAX: We’re somewhere between the Mythbusters guys and Anderson Cooper.
JASON: We’re curators of big ideas. We have a partnership with Causecast.org, which aggregates all types of non-profits into one place to help them gain visibility. There are the traditional educational and development non-profits, but then there’re also things like the Methuselah Foundation, which is about helping extend human life using biotechnology. We also have a big interest in the role of technology in society, especially Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about the accelerating pace of technological progress. These ideas occasionally fall into the fringe side. You tell someone, yeah we’re going to re-program our biology and we’re going to eliminate mortality from the human condition, they are going to say, “Are you nuts?” And we’re like, wait a minute. These guys are really just extrapolating from existing trends: a computer that used to occupy half a room at MIT you can now put it in your pocket, and it’s a thousand times faster and more powerful. So we want to make those ideas sexy. We want to package them better.
SEED: How much of what you choose to spotlight is done with an eye to your audience? I can see a lot of the people who come to Current TV because of its “green” pedigree not being on board with these sorts of transhumanist or techno-utopian messages.
MAX: We’re into science for the betterment of humanity. I think what we have done on Current has been in the nature of social good, and I think where we divert from something like Mythbusters is that we’re not interested in science for its own sake, but for making sure people all around the world can be fed, making sure we move toward a paradigm of abundance in terms of health, wealth, and education. These are our primary concerns. And that’s what transhumanism is all about—transcending our biological limitations.
JASON: Transcending one’s limitations always sounds like something scary. We don’t label ourselves as transhumanists; we label ourselves as libertarian techno-optimists. But really, I think philosophically it goes back to our innate sense of wonder and awe. One of my heroes is Carl Sagan—he had the ability to talk about science in a way that invoked those feelings. Ray Kurzweil has said, if we used a branch or stick to reach a fruit in a higher tree, then we’ve used technology to extend our reach, to extend our possibilities. That’s why going to the Moon inspired billions of people around the world. This is about the unlimited potential of the human spirit.
And I think for too many people, maybe they weren’t inspired by math and biology in high school. Hopefully, they can have a conversation with us and we can blow their freaking minds wide open, you know? Because that’s where the packaging is important. Always talk about the implications, don’t just tell people about the numbers. Make people go, “Wow.”
MAX: Certainly that sense of awe is the same sense of awe that religion provides: that sense of trying to connect with something transcendent and divine. But to think that taking pictures of stars means looking at something millions—billions—of years ago, that is more sublime than what you see in most monasteries or churches. We just try to share that enthusiasm whenever we can spotlight anyone who is doing that, whether it is TED, or Seed, or something like Kurzweil’s Singularity University.
SEED: But that would arguably be connecting with people who are already on board with science, preaching to the choir, if you will. How do we get this message to everyone? What needs to change?
JASON: I mean, if we were among Obama’s advisors, we would say that these scientific endeavors need faces, ambassadors. People who are respected, or at least admired, that can inspire others. That’s the value of celebrity.
But I also think there’s something to be said about the power of like-minded individuals. Social networks like Facebook, if used well, can provide a forum to have brilliant interaction. Users are all curators for each other, which makes them exponentially more connected to interesting things. It’s the very same thing that we say that we like to build bridges with the entities and organizations that we profile in our show. All of us having relationships, all of us talking, all of us being on Facebook—that cross-pollination creates exponential growth.
SEED: And a lot of your show is user-generated…
MAX: Current has a library of award winning documentary videos. Of the four thousand in there, 30% of them are viewer-created. But those segments are much more premium than anything you would find on YouTube. Every night the show has a different theme, whether it’s human enhancement or social entrepreneurship. So we have a production assistant that helps us dig up video segments that work in that context, or we try to find organizations we can spotlight that somehow relates to the theme that we’re discussing.
SEED: But how does it actually work? How do you connect to users?
MAX: The website is a lot like YouTube. You can upload content, comment on content, and vote on content. The stuff that gets the most votes will go on TV.
JASON: We’re big on Facebook and we’ve done the whole Twitter thing, too. Our audience, I think, feels really connected to us. They have dialogue with us. They’re re-tweeting, re-posting. All the breakout items that we do could be embedded anywhere. For example, the Huffington Post recently launched a new section called “Impact,” which is connected to entrepreneurs and people who are changing and impacting the world. We’re now contributors to that section because of our relationship with Causecast. So now we have a forum on Huffington Post to publicize whatever we want. We can literally put our profile of the Methuselah Foundation on Huffington Post, which is something that probably wouldn’t have been written there otherwise.
MAX: The thing is, there’s no platform too small. You know like, we’ll talk to anybody and that’s sort of been our mantra since day one and I think that’s a key ingredient for success.
SEED: One of the things that people point to about Carl Sagan’s success in popularizing science is that his appeal was very broad; Cosmos was for a general audience, he was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show, and so on. Do you think this generation needs an ambassador with that same sort of appeal?
MAX: For the most part, it’s about hitting all the little niches and moving towards an a la carte content stream that’s personalized for whoever’s watching or reading. It’s less about having a single place where everyone meets. One thing technology has been able to do is eliminate distance and time as hurdles to creative endeavors. The sky isn’t really even the limit anymore.
Originally published January 25, 2010