Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Oct. 13th
Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, didn’t set out to make a semi-autobiographical film about the death of her greatest mentor. Yet in the course of developing her new film Connected — intended at first to be an examination the impact living in an “always on” society has — fate intervened. Her father, Leonard Shlain, was diagnosed with a terminal case of brain cancer.
The film she had begun to make owed much to ideas her father — author of the books Art and Physics and The Alphabet and the Goddess — had about the roles that art and science have played in the shaping of culture, and how the internet has amplified the shifting dynamic between those two forces.
“It hit me that I needed to know my own sense of connectedness,” says Shlain, “And I think when you’re losing a parent you really think about that. So it started a really difficult process of weaving in my own story.”
“There’s not that many personal documentaries, there really aren’t,” she says. “We are living in such an autobiographical age, where every tweet and post and email is people trying to express who they are in all these different mediums.”
“It really toggles between this personal story of my own connectedness to the larger story, and the exciting moments where [and] when they clicked together and we were really talking about the same thing. So I realize now, that for people to understand these ideas they had to feel them.”
The ideas Shlain refers to are not a set of conclusions about the way that our communication technology is actively changing our relationships, institutions, and even how our minds work. Instead, Shlain seeks to start a dialog amongst her audience about what she sees as something that we haven’t done a lot of conscious consideration of.
“Let’s talk about all the good of being plugged in, and maybe [that] we shouldn’t plug in.”
It’s a little strange at first to have one of the vanguard of the dot-com era (Shlain produced her first Webby Awards in 1997) standing up as a voice of moderation for digital communication. Yet Shlain’s approach is an organic reaction to years of being an earlier adopter. Connected begins with an anecdote of how Shlain was distressed to discover that after traveling cross country to visit an old friend, she had become one of “those people”: incapable of ignoring her text messages long enough to lose herself in a face-to-face conversation. The solution? A “technology shabbat” her family practices every Saturday.
“There’s going to be 20 emails that make you happy and one that’s going to piss you off, and thats the one you’re going to think about on your Saturday. And what’s the one day a week you want to feel long?”
Shlain says that unplugging from the wired world slows the pace of life down, creating a shift in perspective on how much time there is on her chosen day off.
While the speed of communication poses distinct dangers that Shlain readily acknowledges — information over-saturation and the uncanny ability of bad news to travel at seemingly faster than light speed — she’s confident that the key to the survival of human civilization lays in our connectedness.
“We’re at the potential of the tip of collaboration. What this film is not saying is that the Internet is going to save the world, and it’s not saying that the internet is going to destroy the world. It’s all an extension of us. Our desire to connect. We are just creatures, social creatures who are curious. We have good, we have bad, there’s hope, but let’s focus on the potential of this.”
The raw nature of Shlain’s personal narrative in the film can be unsettling at times. The confessional role is one the filmmaker is unfamiliar with, having not injected herself into the subject matter of her documentary work before. Like a blog, the film sometimes crosses over into the realm of too much (personal) information. When viewed through the traditional lens of the documentary essay, this approach can feel like it undermines the arguments encapsulated in the film.
However Shlain’s stated goal is not to play the role of demagogue, but to become the facilitator of a discussion on our interdependence. By marrying the personal and the intellectual in this manner, Shlain points the way towards a different kind of filmmaking, a portrait of how we have already begun to communicate with each other in our highly connected world.
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology opens at New York City’s Angelika Film Center this friday and reaches Denver on October 28th.