Interview: Tiffany Shlain of ‘Connected’

Posted on October 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

Tiffany Shlain’s new film is “Connected,” a personal memoir and broader exploration of the ways we connect and misconnect through technology.  The film is opening in select theaters across the country: It opened in LA at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood on September 30, and opens in Seattle on October 7 and in NYC at The Angelika Film Center on October 14.  For more information, follow Connected on Facebook and on Twitter @tiffanyshlain.

She wrote:

I hope that Connected will help create a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century.  I believe that by engaging people to talk about connectedness in their own lives and in the world, the ripple effect of these conversations will have far reaching impact.  Appreciating that this is a huge subject, I employ many tactics (humor, animation, archival, and my own personal story) to attempt to untangle what interdependence and connectedness mean in terms of the history of the human species and moving forward. Through this journey, I wield a large magnifying glass to look at some of the absurd and beautiful behaviors of our species and our world. While the core components of humans desire to be “connected” have not changed since we first appeared on this planet, I believe a new zeitgeist is emerging through all these new technologies that are making our world smaller and more intertwined, and that that zeitgeist can make the world a better place.

Shlain, whose film about Barbie and the woman who created her explored Jewish identity, answered my questions about the way technology aids and thwarts communication.

When was the first time you went online and what was it like?

1995. I was working on a CD-ROM on the musician Sting. (remember the CD-ROM days;) someone said to me, “you have to see this thing called the web, and he showed me this website where people from all over the world were talking about how they loved Sting. I was blown away. I knew it was going to change the world.

What keeps us feeling optimistic that despite the odds that our next email is spam or some dumb joke that’s been circulating since DARPA-NET we keep checking because it might be something great?

We are linking up everyone on the planet and creating a central nervous system. The fact that we are going to such a diversity of ideas all circulating is going to help us tackle some of our biggest problems. We are just at the beginning of seeing what collaborative tools online can do.  That gets me excited. Also, I think we are opening up new channels for empathy….people are sharing more. These are all very good things. The internet is just an extension of us…all that goes with that. With “Connected,” we hope to trigger a conversation about the good, the bad, the hope. We think now is the perfect time to talk about what all this connectedness means in our lives personally and globally.

I believe in humans and humanity and in our innate ability to change for the better.  Look at the end of slavery and apartheid, the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and other political and social transformative movements in the last few hundred years, and you can see how we are indeed evolving. There are two things that make me optimistic. We as humans are curious and we have a deep desire to connect. These two things will make us move us forward to a better place.

How did you look for the archival footage you used and how does it help tell the story of technology that is less than a decade old?

Ever since I was young, I had always loved film and technology. When was at UC Berkeley, I took “history of film,” as an elective with an incredible teacher, Marilyn Fabe. She had an infectious enthusiasm about how each technological advancement in film radically changed how ideas could be conveyed and activate the viewers to think in a new way. I was hooked. This was the way I wanted to convey ideas. However, there were no film production facilities, so mostly I edited together archival images I found from old movies or sound slug on a 16 mm editing table I discovered in the back of the architecture department. Recontextualizing images from many different eras to get at some larger ideas was very exciting to me. That archival aesthetic still informs my style today. Around 70% of our film “Connected,” is comprised of archival images from every era imaginable sewn together with original animations by the very talented Stefan Nadelman,  in my attempt to put my arms around our world, where we came from, and where we’re headed.

What is the source of the little hits of pleasure we get from feeling connected through technology?

I found clues when reading about the hormone oxytocin, which the brain releases when humans connect with each other. Oxytocin decreases fear and anxiety, creates empathy, trust, and cooperation, and reinforces our urge to connect. The human brain is also designed to seek pleasure because of a hormone called dopamine. Researchers now know that the brain releases dopamine when new information is received. So every click, search, tweet, or text has the potential to stimulate the same hormonal rush as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. But an interesting thing happens with dopamine—you never feel fully satiated. It’s called an “infinite dopamine loop,” leaving you constantly wanting more. The combined release of oxytocin and dopamine when plugged into cyberspace helps explain humans’ insatiable hunger for knowledge, approval, and being constantly connected.

Does use of social media strengthen or weaken our ability to create in-person intimacy?

I think it does both.

Do you ever take a break from technology?  Do you have any technology-free spaces in your home or day?

My father loved quoting Sophocles, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”  So, from the beginning of time, every new technology and advancement brought with them a complex mix of positive and negative repercussions as well as unintended consequences.  “Connected” addresses the potential of these new 21st century technologies, the importance of harnessing their powers, but also covers the ramifications when these new technologies take over and even overwhelm our personal lives.

I’ve started practicing what I call “technology Shabbats” with my family. Every Friday at sundown, our whole family disconnects until Saturday night.  No cell phones, no internet, no television, no Ipads. No multi-tasking. We disconnect completely. Or maybe I should say we connect completely – with ourselves and each other.

I am learning that turning off technology is just as powerful as turning it on and that our society needs both.  Technology can be so enticing and overwhelming, but we also need to remember how important it is to be fully present with the people you love and also be alone and quiet.  The potential of technology globally and personally is exponential, but we need to know where the off switch is and when to shut it down.

Do you see social media or multi-player games replacing the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater?

No. these are all new experiences but nothing will replace being in a darkened theater experiencing something together with a group. Laughing, crying, thinking together. We are social creatures. We will always go to the movies.

What has surprised you in the audience reaction to the movie?

At the end of the screenings, after sharing something so personal everyone in the theater feels very connected to me and to each other, which I didn’t expect. Normally, after you feel connected with someone, you are compelled to share some part of yourself with them..but with “Connected,” here I was experiencing the reverse. In the film, I share and then people feel connected. It has been exciting to then see the audience in turn feel connected to not only me, but to the bigger ideas in the film.

And lastly, everyone is ready to have this conversation about “what does it mean to be connected in the 21st century?” It feels like everyone has been waiting to have it. No one wants to leave the Q & As. Our goal is to trigger a global conversation about “connectedness” and it seems people are ready.


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