Tiffany Shlain: On Connectedness, Interdependence and the Ripple Effect

“Do something radical and true,” voices from around the world echo in a three-minute, crowd-sourced film curated by director Tiffany Shlain. In Declaration of Interdependence, a tapestry of different languages forges a universal tongue, which proclaims at the end, “For centuries we have declared independence. Perhaps its time we declare our interdependence.”

Naturally, the founder of the Webbys (an awards series for the best of the Internet) would be acutely sensitive to technology’s role in defining what it is to be human in the 21st Century. Shlain further explores this theme in her feature film,Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology. Through her unconventional documentary style of blending images and text, Shlain conveys how the Internet is accelerating our interdependence, and how this shift can be used as a force for positive change.

The film’s central claim is both refreshing and optimistic. Through the Internet, which, Shlain argues, taps into both our left and right hemisphere by mixing text, images, and linkswe may be approaching a new age of enlightenment. By synthesizing the two hemispheres of the brain, Shlain posits, humanity is moving forward towards a new, highly effective state of thinking and doing, parallel to the genius displayed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Tiffany Shlain

Tiffany Shlain

Heralded by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” Tiffany Shlain is a renaissance woman in her own right: she is a filmmaker whose work with technology, film, and activism has received forty-eight awards and distinctions, a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Last year, she delivered the 2010 Commencement Address at the University of California, Berkeley, drawing upon many of the same themes featured in Connected, including how technology can help women advance.

Like any power, technology has both positive and negative effects. While the Internet quenches a desire for knowledge and connection, it can easily prevent us from appreciating the relationships right in front of us. Or, cloaked by anonymity, we may be encouraged to make statements we wouldn’t otherwise make. Among other ground rules, Shlain advocates a weekly technology ‘Shabbat,’ or twenty-four hour period of disconnecting from our electronic devices. By stopping to think, we can avoid the less attractive facets of technology.

We recently talked to Shlain about Connected, and the thought-provoking questions the film raises such as: How can we use the Web responsibly? How can tools such as social media be used to address our world’s largest problems? Can we nurture our relationships through technology? How will the consequences of our actions “ripple” out?

“Our goal with this film is to get people talking about connectedness. And people are so ready, they’re so hungry for a space to do it,” explains Shlain, who in promoting her film, seeks to generate a healthy conversation about one of the most important issues of our century. And while our chat with Shlain had to end, this discussion doesn’t. Beyond this space, a vital conversation about technology and humanity continues on Connected’s and Wild River’s Facebook pages.

WRR: In what ways do you feel that your children will view the world differently than you as they are growing up in the digital age? How is technology changing the youngest of us?  

TS: I think it’s completely changing the way that they think and process information. They have these extensions of all of their thoughts and access to so much more information and images as well as other people’s ideas based on what they’re searching for. I know a lot of people feel like children are very distracted, but I also think you could look at it as if we’ve finally created a workspace environment that mirrors our stream of consciousness, which is very non-linear. So, I think we are evolving. Just as when they invented the written word and people thought that it would destroy our memory. Well, it certainly changed a lot of oral memory, but it has added all of these new ways of thinking with the written word. I think that every time we have a new invention it shifts the way that we evolve and the way that we think.

WRR: Since the Internet is accelerating our connectedness at a dizzying rate, how do you think our brains are adapting to the influx of information we receive daily?  Is there a point where we won’t be able to keep up?

TS: Since I finished making this film, I take a pretty serious technology Shabbat every week. That’s twenty-four hours every week that my family and I all unplug completely. Friday night we turn all the screens off and they’re off for twenty-four hours. I know that personally I was reaching that saturation point where I was finding that I needed to let my mind breathe and not be plugged in and connected. It’s a beautiful day off and then Saturday night I can’t wait to get back online.

I think that having a weekly unplug is very important. The concept of Shabbat is practiced in many different religions and it’s very old, 5,000 years old, but I think today we need it now more than ever. I highly recommend that everyone take one day a week, every week, off. Go out in the garden, read, write in your journal, or sit with a thought that you can’t act on.

WRR: In many ways the Internet is still the Wild West where the rules have not yet been fully defined. You mention a ground rule of being shut off one day a weekare there any others that you can think of?

TS: Actually, I’m thinking of writing a ten-point list on how to live in the digital age with another writer Sherry Turkle, who wrote a great book called Alone TogetherWhy We Expect More from Technology but Less from Each Other. Here’s another one. Don’t talk on your cell phone just as you’re walking in the door to greet your partner. Finish that calldon’t walk in mid-conversation because it’s not respectful to the people you love.

I think we’re all on this planet for a short amount of time, and as wonderful as all of these inventions are, let’s not forget to be present with the people that we love. When I tell people that I unplug one day a week, people look at me like, ‘You can do that?’ Yes, you can. Anyone can.

WRR: While the film has a global scope, in parallel, you portray the intimate relationships you have with your daughter and your father. How do you think a child’s relationship with her parent contributes to her growing into a fully realized adult?

TS: When I started the film, it didn’t have anything to do with my personal story. The film took four years and the first two years were just about the ideas of connectedness and humanity. Then, in the middle of production my father got very ill and I realized that the only way I would understand humanity’s desire for connectedness would be to understand my own sense of connectedness. We all learn how to be connected from our parents, family, and community, but it starts with our parents.

A sense of feeling connected and loved contributes to so much. Of course many people do not feel like they got that growing up, but I think that you can then get it later in life in different relationships. For me, it was a really great tool to have felt love from both of my parents, they did have a horrific divorce and my father was diagnosed with cancer when I was young, so it wasn’t necessarily a rosy childhood, but I did feel loved.

I think that really contributes to my optimism, because I am ultimately optimistic about this world. It’s amazing to me, in looking through the Q & As from press on the film,  how very pessimistic people are. I believe if you only listen to the news, if you keep thinking the world is heading in a really bad direction then it will. If you look at where we are with all these technologies, the potential of minds being connected, women being more empowered, and if you understand that you have agency in simply being in this world, that you have the power to make it better, then I think you’ll be more optimistic.

We are evolving. Because I would not be a female Jewish director if we were not evolving. You only have to look at the anti-slavery movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and gay rights movement, to understand how we are evolving. We’re living in a very interconnected world, so we are very empowered with all of these tools.

WRR: That’s actually part of our mission statement here at WRR. We really want to provide stories and role models so that people feel that they have examples of ways that they can contribute positively.

TS: Exactly. We have a whole discussion kit that goes with the film and a very active Facebook page. The most exciting thing is that everyone that’s walked out of the theatre has gone to our Facebook page. We just launched and we already have 8,000 people. We wanted to start a global conversation about connectedness in the 21st century and it’s happening on that Facebook page.

WRR: Another powerful part of the film is when you examine gender and how those roles and those power structures changed over time.

TS: I think that’s why Pam [Academy-award winning filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll included my father in her film, Who Does She Think She Is? because [his book], The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, laid out such an incredible look at civilization and gender roles. His big was question was, “Why was it that all the women used to be worshipped and goddesses and suddenly in every culture it switched to be very patriarchal and male? What was the single event that kept happening that would do this?” He looked through the history of civilizations and saw that it was when literacy was introducedwhich was known as a very left hemisphere, male, way of thinkingthat it rewired society. But then with the invention of electromagnetism, photography, film and now the Internet, with all these imageswhich are very right hemisphere and feminine and all about relationshipsthat women are on the rise in society.

I just wrote a blog post that is going to go live shortly called “The Woman Wide Web.” It’s all about women being empowered through the Web because women care so deeply about relationships and that’s so much of what the Web is about. I think the Web is the tool the feminist movement always needed. I look at my mother. She had to leave the house to go back to school. But I am now able to only go to work two days a week and be a present mother but also be a contributing member of society. The Internet has allowed me to do that.

WRR: How can we get more women working in technology? As you say, it’s a great tool for allowing women to be at home more, but there are a disproportionate number of men who are in the industry.

TS: That’s true. I think it’s continuing to change. Women are all over Twitter and Facebook, so I think that once the tools become more seamless, which they are, we will start seeing more and more women rising in power and technology.

WRR: In Connected, we learn that your father bought The Making of a Woman Surgeon for you and your sister four times. However, you disclose that it was your brother who became a surgeon, while you and your sister both entered the creative arts. How do you explain this, and do you feel that this example lends any credence to what society sees as the analytical/male left brain and creative/female right brain dichotomy?

TS: Well, I might say that it did…except that my daughter wants to be a surgeon. (laughs)

I can only speak personally. I just think in images. You see it in the way I make my films. Somebody said to me, “Why aren’t there interviews in your film?” I’ve just never made films that way. I always want to take an idea and put lots of images against that idea to lead you to a new thought, that’s always my process. I’m completely image-based. The combination of images and words together to create a new idea really interests me.

WRR: Understandably your father is a large part of this filmcan you talk a little bit more about your mother and how she influenced your career?

TS: My mother and I are very close.  Because this was a film about losing my father I focused on him, but I tried to include her influence on me; the fact that she went back to get her Ph.D., how much she taught me about psychology and emotion. I used this at the beginning and at the very end of the film, which really helped me reach my epiphany: Emotion drives everything we do. Twitter and Facebook are really about our desire to emotionally connect with each other. They’re just new extensions to connect. And my mother, I’m so proud of her. First of all she does what she loves. There was no question that she wasn’t going to do what she loves. Both of my parents were like that. And she’s a practicing therapist today and really is a nurturing mother and grandmother to my daughters.

WRR: In an interview with CBS you said, “I love the fact of 7 billion minds on the planet [are] all being connected and that I can be connected with so many more people I love. The potential of technology globally and personally is exponential.” What do you make of the less attractive aspects of the global information village? Take the case in 2005, where a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad started in Denmark and then rapidly spread around the world, sparking outrage in Muslim countries. Can more communication mean more conflict? And how can this be avoided or ameliorated?

TS: There’s a great quote that technology is neither good nor bad nor neutral. It is us. Humans have good and bad, but I tend to believe that humans are good. I believe in the human species and I think we had opportunities to blow up this planet and we didn’t. All of these things are just us.

Just like we couldn’t see far enough until the telescope, now we have evolved to create all of these extensions to communicate, to feel, to act and what goes with that are all the aspects of the human spirit. My goal in having a conversation about all of these things is if that we can be more mindful, and hopefully we can use these tools in a more conscious way.

I could tell you three good things about any technology and three really bad things about it. But let’s focus on some of the positive ways that we can collaborate in new, amazing ways. What if we were able to solve the biggest problems of our day? I just heard this great example of these scientists at the University of Washington who have been trying to figure out this DNA strand for AIDS and they hadn’t been able to. So, they put it on the Internet and made a game around it. Online gamers from all over the world tried it and they solved it in about two weeks. We’re just at the beginning of seeing the power of these tools for collaboration and my hope is that if we talk about it and focus on ways to come together from different perspectives to tackle our problems that we’ll be at a dawn of a new renaissance of innovation.

WRR: So it’s all about maintaining a certain balance and measured approach to technology… The difference that technology brings right now is the speed with which knowledge is spread and problem-solving (but also miscommunication) can occur. What responsibility do you feel we have in using technology and the power of our interconnectedness today?

TS: I’m all for attaching a thought to a real person and not hiding behind anonymity to say things that you would never say personally. Trying to contextualize all of the information that you share, who it’s from, what the context was, is important. And again, knowing when not to use it, knowing when a face-to-face meeting and a phone call are more valuable are also important. But I do want to put together a whole ethics list—this is the same list of living in the digital age that Sherry Turkle and I want to do.

Our big goal is to bring about interdependent thinking and systems thinking back in a new way in the 21st century. We have a tab on our Web site called “What’s Next?” and it lists the way that we can use these tools more consciously, as well as how to use them to act more interdependently in the world, understanding that every action you have has many ripple effects.

WRR: The thing about technology is that it doesn’t engage all of our senses. How do you see the future—again, we can’t necessarily synthesize all of our senses when sitting in front of a computer—should technology seek to bridge that kind of gap?

TS: Good question. I don’t have a simple answer for it. I do feel that people want to be together, that they want to experience something together. I go to all my premiers and its packed. I remember when I started the Webby Awards everyone said “Oh, technology is going to isolate people, they’ll never leave their houses,” and that’s not the case. We love to be near each other. We’re just social creatures, so as much as we’re evolving, that won’t change.

Lauren McConnell

Lauren McConnell

Lauren McConnell

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Lauren McConnell is a writer who subsists on a healthy diet of Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, T.S. Eliot, and Diana Wynne Jones. She is Assistant Editor for Wild River Review, a Professional Tutor at Rider University, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Medieval Literature at Rutgers University.

Lauren enjoys collecting antiques, growing orchids, and volunteering for her local animal shelter. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and scholarly non-fiction, she enjoys drawing and painting when the mood strikes her. She lives with her fiancé and three cats in Hamilton, NJ.

Paulina Reso

Paulina Reso is a freelance journalist whose articles have focused on literature, technology, and cultural oddities. She has contributed to The New Yorker, Village Voice, New York Daily News, and When she isn’t writing, she’s playing jazz clarinet, toying with HTML and CSS, or concocting vegetarian recipes.