If you’ve ever watched a video from the Exurb1a YouTube channel you’ll probably be impressed with the slick visuals, the pithy dialogue, and the crushing sense of dread they convey that leaves you entertained and a bit perturbed when it’s over.
As one Reddit user put it: Exurb1a and another channel, Casually Explained, are great if “you want to have a laugh while also having the nudging feeling in the back of your head that all of what they are saying is absolutely true and you’re going to die alone very soon with nobody showing up at your funeral afterwards”.
We caught up with the “reluctant 28-year-old” – who now lives in Sofia, Bulgaria – to talk about his videos.
Exurb1a My early videos are actually way earlier than they appear. I made them while bored at university around 10 years ago. Back then I had no idea how to edit. Today I still have no idea how to edit. The turning point really came with a video about AI called “27“, which the internet kindly gave far more views that it deserved. As soon as that happened I started taking the whole thing far more seriously.
htxt.africa Why the name “Exurb1a”, and why the tortoise?
Exurb1a ‘Exurbia’ is a bit of an unusual word meaning the outer districts of a city, or just the peripherals of something. It sounded nice and sort of had an edgy ring to it. Several years ago while I was living in England, my friend and I owned a baby tortoise together. When I moved to Bulgaria I found myself missing her a lot (the tortoise, not my friend). It was a little homage to her, really. She was quite charming and enjoyed strawberries the most. Tortoises also just seem extremely wise and lazy. I’m not remotely wise but the second one I have in great abundance.
htxt.africa Many of your videos veer into the “existential dread” territory. Do you enjoy making us all feel a bit uneasy, in an entertaining way?
Exurb1a It certainly wasn’t my intention. My father used to ask me lots of open-ended existential questions when I was a child and we’d be walking our dog together. “Where do you think we go when we die? How does sentience work? What caused the universe to start beginning?”. These are not questions conducive to the healthy development of a young mind and I suppose it left an impression on me.
Among other things, I developed a fear of sleep as a result of that kind of thinking. I still have a phobia of it as an adult these days. It just seems too much like death and I generally don’t sleep unless I’m exhausted and have to. On top of that, I know my dad watches my videos and is probably quite proud of the psychological damage he did. He often writes to me suggesting horrific existential scenarios for new videos or sends me music suggestions.
htxt.africa How long does the average video take to create?
Exurb1a About 2 weeks: 3 or 4 days refining the idea and working on a script (which usually involves several scripts that are abandoned if they don’t work for some reason). Then about ten days trying to nail down a certain style or work out how to make something visual and edit it together. I usually stay inside during this bit and drink a lot of coffee.
htxt.africa You’ve made a few videos about the possible future of mankind with the most optimistic being Humanity: Good Ending. What do you personally think is going to happen to us hairless apes in the long run?
Exurb1a Ahhh, that’s a wonderful question. Please let me preface my answer by saying I’m an authority in absolutely no field. However: I was, for a long time, a huge technological optimist. Nanomachines and AI and what have you would solve poverty, genetics, would banish involuntary dying, machines would be self-aware soon enough. These days I’m more ‘centrist’ I guess you could say. I am extremely excited to be alive now, as I think we all should be. We’re probably watching the birth of technologies that will be around for centuries; the internet first and foremost. But every brilliant innovation – industrial automation, aviation, nuclear physics – has brought with it a horrific unintended consequence: unemployment, aerial bombing, and devastating mega-weapons to name a few. (I’m also recently quite cynical about the idea of AI being conscious any time soon. This was largely as a result of learning about the Binding Problem).
The future may be fantastic, I hope it is. But our ancestors would’ve imagined us living in a utopia today, and we’re far from it. It would be silly for us to make the same mistake, expecting utopia for our near descendants. Before I shut up about this, it bears mentioning that as a species we have done so much good, despite our dumb tendencies. We (including me) moan all the time, but there’s so much we have to be proud of as a species. In many areas of the world civil violence is the lowest it’s ever, ever been. Drinking water is often clean. Travel is easy and getting cheaper. We’re making just the most brilliant progress in the sciences. But our mental hardware is still very primitive compared to the technology we’re wielding, and that makes for a pretty uncertain future. It pays to be cautious, I think.
Exurb1a Possibly, but I’m not sure. I didn’t really like those videos much to be honest with you. I’ll see what happens.
htxt.africa Speaking of future videos, can you tell us anything about new projects you’re working on?
Exurb1a I’m currently trying to finish editing a book that I hope to get out by December. It’s getting pretty taxing at this point and most days I regret ever starting the f*cking thing. It was a joy to write but editing is awful. It’s quite different to anything else I’ve done, and I’m just trying to keep slogging away until it’s finished. Very briefly it’s set partly in the present, with a man trying to find his missing mathematician wife. The entire affair is being researched about 10,000 years later by a machine consciousness. More than that I’m afraid I can’t really say without spoiling it.
htxt.africa How has your channel been affected by the recent round of demonetisations, affectionately known as “adpocalypse”.
Exurb1a Considerably less than I expected, if at all. This really should be stressed actually: I’ve noticed lots of creators, particularly smaller ones who talk about political stuff (left and right regardless) getting hit with problems. Most of the time I’ve watched the video in question and I can’t personally see anything inflammatory there. My stuff is sweary and a bit caustic at times, so I was surprised I wasn’t much affected. The problem is that I totally understand YouTube’s position of needing to keep advertisers on board. If you do it at the expense of the creators themselves though, you’re basically just cutting off your nose to spite your face. I really, really, really hope we can preserve dark comedy and difficult subjects. YouTube will not be the same without it.
Exurb1a I am, though ageing is kicking in already and slowing me down. On top of that hangovers are getting more unpleasant and body parts just stop working for no reason whatsoever occasionally. Biology is weird.
htxt.africa Where did you find the time to write The Bridge to Lucy Dunne and what can we expect from you in terms of books in the future? More short stories, a longer piece of fiction? Something else, or nothing, entirely?
Exurb1a I often heard the adage growing up that went something like, “If you find work you love, it won’t feel like work”. I can now confirm this to be true. I absolutely hate creators moaning about how much time they put in. I always read those tweets or whatever and think, “But… you have one of the best jobs in the f*cking world…”. However, you do have to work your arse off, as with any job. But it’s a joy. Most of us who are doing this used to work for someone we didn’t like, doing something we hated. Now we’re working for ourselves and we basically get to make whatever we want. I really can’t justify complaining about it when I keep that in mind.
When trying to finish a book, I’ll usually take a week off video editing, go and stay in another Bulgarian city, and just try to concentrate on writing. Please don’t get me wrong, YouTube is an absolute treat and making videos is the closest I suspect I will ever come to my favourite profession in the world. But writing is my real love. That applies to writing scripts, as well as books. Sometimes an idea will fall into your head in the gym or out walking or something, and you just can’t wait to get home and find out if there’s any mileage to it. Sometimes there isn’t and you abandon it. Actually almost always. But sometimes, on those lucky perfect days, there is something to it and you get to tease the thing out. The script or the book then writes itself.
Videos and books are totally different formats. Videos – to me anyway – feel a bit like you have to covet the viewer’s attention at all times, slimming down every sentence, making sure they’re following along with the joke or whatever it is. With books, you can really try and romance the reader, draw them into something a bit more complicated, make it dark or nuanced. I grew up respecting my writing heroes more than any other humans, and it was always a dream to learn how to practice that same magic myself. Writing will always be my preferred medium, even if I’m crap at it, and the fact that anyone bothers with my written stuff at all (or the videos) never ceases to be amazing, nor do I ever stop feeling enormously thankful for people taking an interest.