Director Tiffany Shlain on Connected
“Some films go deep,” filmmaker Tiffany Shlain said at the Sundance premiere of her documentary, Connected. “Mine goes wide.” Indeed, Shlain’s film does go wide — it’s like a rubber band stretching in multiple directions while not breaking. Examining the ways in which technology can productively unite our global citizenry, Connected details nothing less than the history of consciousness and its arrival within today’s always-on, hyper-wired mind. Through voiceover narration and breezy montage, Connected explores the right brain/left brain split and its effect on social and economic organization, and it highlights the transformative potential of today’s communication tools. As a modern-day David Hume might argue, the film thoughtfully and entertainingly proposes that the Internet’s power to spread knowledge and experience can create a worldwide community capable of embracing the goals needed to sustain ourselves and our planet. Connectedwants you to use your handheld connective devices for good — social improvement that even includes better conditions for the workers along the supply chains in China that produce these same devices.
Connected is in the midst of a national theatrical release, propelled by the energies of its indefatigable director, previously best known for founding the Webby Awards and for short films like The Tribe. Connected is her first feature, and it opened at the Angelika this weekend before traveling at the end of the month to Denver. For its one-week run in New York there will be a number of guest speakers at the screenings. Social media theorist Rachel Sklar will speak about the effect of connectedness on women, Meetup’s Scott Heiferman will discuss how online activity can facilitate offline organizing, producer Ted Hope will talk about new technologies and independent film distribution, and Professor Paul Levinson will discuss direct democracy and Occupy Wall Street. Visit the film’s website for a list of upcoming screenings and speakers.
Filmmaker: Tell me, how do you describe your feature, Connected?
Shlain: “An autoblogography about love, death and technology.” And, yes, we made up the word “autoblogography.” It speaks to the fact that the film is part memoir and part doc, and that it’s about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. I look at the subject of connectedness both personally and globally, giving it a historical context and discussing where we are today and where I hope we go moving forward.
Filmmaker: I know the production and editing of the film was a long journey. How did the project’s conception change during the course of its making?
Shlain: Connected is my eighth film. With my background founding the Webby Awards, I originally set out to make a film about connectedness and how technology is changing us. That was what I was interested in, and that’s what I pitched to funders. The film took four years, and around year two, I was sitting in the editing room, and I watched the film from beginning to end. As you know, a lot of times you work on little sections and don’t see the whole thing. So I sat and watched the rough cut and had this horrible sinking feeling that I was not connected to the material. It was a film about connectedness, and I didn’t feel connected to the film! It had a lot of ideas but it was all “left brain.” There wasn’t enough heart. Probably the reason I felt this was that my father had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been given nine months to live, and this happened the same week that I found out I was pregnant. I was going through such an emotional period thinking about losing my connection to my father, and I remember sitting in that editing room and realizing that I needed to explore what connection means to me personally and then work my way outwards to this larger idea of connectedness to humanity. And that started a rewarding, exciting, creative process. I brought on a story editor, which I knew I needed if I was going to bring myself into the film. The exciting moments were when the global and the personal clicked, where me speaking my truth about something personal spoke also to a global truth. So that’s why the film is called an “autoblogography.” Now there’s a lot of humor, heart and head in there. It’s an emotional film that will, I hope, make you think, laugh and cry.
Filmmaker: In addition to being a personal history and a bit of a history lesson, your film has an activist goal. How do you hope the film motivates your audience?
Shlain: I want them to think about connectedness in their own lives. We want to start a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. We’re all moving so quickly, and we’re so intoxicated — or scared — of these tools. I feel so much benefit will come from a conversation. What does it mean to be wired all the time? Since I made the movie, I now unplug one day a week for a technology shabatt. My family unplugs all the screens for 24 hours starting sundown Friday night. And then Saturday night we can’t wait to go back on. As a mother, wife and friend I needed to have a protected space where I was present — that’s important to me. And in terms of global ideas — what a great time to be alive and be a filmmaker and have access to your audience! We have a very active Facebook page where they have posted articles about ideas in the film and their personal blogs. Humanity, we have a lot of problems, but it’s the first time we have a tool that can link us together with so many different perspectives about [solving] those problems. My hope is that if we have a dialogue — with yourself, your friends, your company, your organization – there will be ripple effect and we can think about how we can collaborate to solve the bigger problems of the day.
Filmmaker: How are you facilitating this conversation beyond the film itself?
Shlain: We have a discussion kit, conversation cards, a book that goes with the film, and we have an app that’s coming out. The central idea is to have a conversation, and there all these different ways you can enter into it. In a darkened theater – nothing replaces that. But then we have all these other ways to trigger this conversation.
Filmmaker:Let me ask you about that darkened theater. You’re so associated with short-form web content from doing the Webby Awards. Why a feature film? Isn’t that hopelessly old school?
Shlain: No, it’s not. Since the early days of the Webby Awards, everyone has always felt that “something would replace the other thing,” but to me it’s this additive, networking [process]. There are always new way of experiencing something, but nothing replaces that feeling of connectedness in a theater — laughing, crying, experiencing something in a group. And now we have new ways to also take that experience deeper. So, with Connected, we have theatrical distribution, and then we are doing all these experiments in social media. We crowdsourced a short film that takes off where Connected leaves off, and we crowdsourced it and released it a couple of weeks ago. It’s exciting, and I’ve learned so much about traditional distribution. [Previously] I was making my own rules, doing it my own way, but those were for my shorts. With features, there are “windows” – I want to learn about that [theatrical release] system so I can help make it better for other filmmakers using these new tools. The combination of social media with the theater experience — that’s where I get excited. It’s not about dissing what used to exist, it’s about what can we add on to make it better.
Filmmaker: You’re midway through your theatrical release. What has surprised you about the process, both in good and bad ways?
Shlain: Well, that I’m exhausted right now. I’m having to fly to all these premieres, which is exciting, but I’m only human, and I’m the mother of two small children I want to be with. We did the Webbys, which was a lot of work, but it was just one event. Now we’re having five Webbys a week! Not that I didn’t know it would be so physically demanding, but I’m older now – I’m 41 – and I’m a mom. The whole reason I stopped doing the Webbys and went back to making films full time is that I wanted to work more efficiently. The Webbys would take 80 hours a week. With my short films, I could spend four months on them and they’d play forever. They didn’t need me. I loved the scalability of something not needing me and still making an impact. But [with this theatrical feature], I feel a lot of energy is needed from me at every event, and that’s been hard. Another thing that surprises me is how much we are pushing everyone to our Facebook page. We don’t even push them to our website anymore. It’s such an exciting dialogue – people have seen the film and want to talk about it, or post their own articles. I’m so glad the film came out about now is because everybody really understands Facebook, using Twitter, and trying Google Plus. Hitchcock said a film is made three times — when you write it, shoot it and edit it, and now I think there’s a fourth way, which is when you distribute it. You can be just as creative in taking it out in the world. Getting back to your question, another thing that has surprised me from the screenings is that a lot of people are very pessimistic about the world. They feel they have no power, no agency. But if you just listen to the news and think that way, [that loss of agency] is going to happen.
Filmmaker: Interestingly, your movie is coming out at a time when there’s a real debate over social network platforms, both from a conceptual standpoint but also in terms of their user experience. Facebook just unrolled a new batch of design and UI changes, and people are still trying to figure out where Google Plus fits into their lives.
Shlain: We’re all taking part in this human experiment right now. Who knows what’s right or wrong? There were things Facebook did two years ago that we threw our hands up about, and now we can’t live without the newsfeed, for example. We’re this undulating, organic human experiment, and we’re figuring out what works. People need to play around with Google Plus and Facebook, figure out what’s right for them and help influence their development. We all have agency in this. Technology is just an extension of who we are as humans. [It reflects] our desire to connect and our curiosity. We are living in a time when we have the power to communicate through social networks, to focus on finding solutions and making things happen. That’s empowering. Let’s figure out how we want technology in our lives.
Filmmaker: So where do you think you sit within this dialogue going on right now about the positive and negative aspects of Web 2.0? When you and I first met, we talked about Jaron Lanier’s book, You are Not a Gadget. He’s quite critical about the way Web 2.0 has shaped the manner and substance of our communications within this so-called “wired lifestyle.” And then of course there are people who cheerlead every new technological innovation as being positive for humanity. Despite the optimism you’ve expressed here, I see you as someone taking a middle position.
Shlain: I think you’re right. I think people want to paint everyone as black or white, but no one is once you get deep into their ideas. Even Jaron, he just wants to push the conversation, to engage the public more so they’re not just at the mercy of developers. So, yes, I’m in the middle. I want the film to open up a deeper conversation so we can talk about the good, the bad and the hope. I believe when we talk about these things, we can make them happen. I want to talk about technology, wrestle with it with people, and I want them to speak about it in their own lives. There’s a great quote: “Technology is neither good nor bad nor neutral.” It — and we — are all of those things.
Filmmaker: Let’s end by talking about your father, Leonard Shlain, who is one of the film’s major subjects. How did you incorporate his work into the film?
Shlain: I know I’m his daughter, but he was one of these brilliant, special people. He was a national best-selling author who wrote Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, about how art and scientists where speaking about same ideas through different languages. And then he wrote a book The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess, about the conflict between word and image. He looked at why women were worshipped in some societies and then taken out of power when they became patriarchal. He found that it was when literacy was introduced. He thought literacy rewired societies to be more left brain, which is associated with male traits. Then he saw with the rise of electromagnetism, photography and film that these were more right brain, and that women are on the rise, gaining their power again and that more balance in the world is happening. He wore a lot about the precursors of the internet. He was a great dad and a great guy. He passed away, and that’s the ending of the film. He was a co-writer, but most of the the actual filmmaking happened after he died. I was dialoguing with him through his books, and I’m taking a lot of his ideas and [viewing them] through my lens, which is technology. I wish he had been able to see the film.