Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain

The documentary filmmaker, whose new film is Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology, describes the good, the bad and the hope of digital connectivity.

A filmmaker, founder of The Webby Awards, co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences and Aspen Institute fellow, Tiffany Shlain was honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” Her films—known for their approach in unraveling complicated subjects—have been selected by more than 100 festivals and won some 30 awards. Shlain also lectures on the Internet's influence on society and co-founded The Moxie Institute, which uses new ways to create and distribute socially-minded films, such as her newest, Connected.


Tavis: Tiffany Shlain is the co-founder of the Digital Academy of Arts and Sciences, the group behind the annual Webby Awards. She’s been named one of the women shaping the 21st century by “Newsweek” and is the director of the new film, “Connected.” Here now, some scenes from “Connected.”


Tavis: Tell me more about “Connected” and why you think it’s so important for us to wrestle with this issue.

Tiffany Shlain: I think we are moving quicker than we ever have, and we have this opportunity right now, we’re living through a human experiment where we’ve never been more connected before in human history, and we’ve created this central nervous system around the world where you can react and share ideas and information.

There’s so much potential in that, globally, there’s so much potential. Personally, it’s overtaking so many aspects of our lives, so this film hopes to open a conversation of what’s the good, what’s the bad, what’s the hope. It just seems like a really good time to kind of talk about what it all means and how do we want to direct it moving forward.

Tavis: You’re taking the conversation directly in the direction that I wanted to go, which is what the good, what the bad and what the hope is. Topline those for me, as you see it. What is the good of all this connectivity?

Shlain: Well, I think the good is that we have access to so many more ideas than we’ve ever had. People have access to information and you can find community in new ways. You can stay connected to family members all over the world, all over the globe, stay connected to people and ideas. So that’s the good, that’s the potential.

They’ve showed that throughout history that innovation always happens when you get different perspectives kind of bumping up against each other, so we have this global framework for that to happen. That’s the good.

The bad is that we’re online 24/7, and my family and I, since making the movie, where I did a deep exploration of the subject and something happened to me personally that I explore in the film too, I now – we unplug. We call it our technology Sabbat.

So Friday night (laughter) we unplug, we disconnect from all screens for 24 hours, and that’s been very profound to me, because I was just plugged in way too much. I forgot what it was like to be present and be in the moment and be alone with my thoughts and not be able to act on every single thought I’ve had.

So that is what I’d say is what I’m concerned about, just being present, deep thinking, being present with the people you love.

Tavis: And the hope?

Shlain: The hope is that I think we’re going to enter this amazing period of collaboration that we’ve never seen before. I still kind of feel that we’re in this social space with the Web, and these tools, we’re just at the edge of seeing these tools that we’re going to create where we could hopefully tackle some of the biggest problems of our day – the environment, poverty, the economic situation.

So what do people all over the world think should happen about this issue? If we can create the tools, which we’re at the beginning of, to come together from different perspectives, I think that we have the potential to innovate in new ways that we can’t even imagine.

Tavis: Since you are one of the persons in the group behind bringing us the Webby Awards, which honors stuff on the Web, what’s happening on the Web right about now that you think is deserving of being honored? I don’t mean passing out prizes to an idea specifically.

Shlain: Yeah, I ran the Webby Awards and founded it for like a good decade of my life, and now I make films full-time, but something I was very excited about a couple of weeks ago, these scientists from the University of Washington had been trying to solve this folding of a protein for a DNA strand for AIDS, and they hadn’t been able to solve it.

They put it up on the Internet as an online game, and online gamers were able to solve it, from around the world, instantly. That to me, that kind of thinking of let’s bring everyone in on this, everyone has an unusual thing to bring to this problem –

Tavis: Your point about collaboration.

Shlain: That’s exactly right. So that’s where I go, God, if we can take that to the next level I think we could take humanity to the next level, if we direct it that way. Again, any technology we could talk about I could tell you three good things about it and three bad things about it.

I think the news – and a lot of people focus on the worst parts of what this technology is doing, and I’m kind of saying, hey, we should talk about that. We should talk about privacy; we should talk about things people are worried about, because that’s an important part of the conversation, too.

But let’s also talk about the hope, and let’s talk about all this technology is just extensions of us. People talk about it as if it’s this other thing, but we couldn’t see far enough, so we built a telescope. Our brains could only grow so big; we built a computer and now we’re connecting all the minds in the world.

So technology is us. It is an extension of the human spirit, which is all the things. It’s good, it’s bad, it’s got hope. So let’s focus on the potential of what it could be, and I think that if we do that we have the hopes of making the world better with these tools instead of kind of overtaking our lives.

Tavis: The recent passing of Steve Jobs reminds us in this country, and for that matter, around the world, how important innovation is to the future. As a matter of fact, it may be at the epicenter of how we move into the future, how well we innovate. What’s your sense of how we are – speaking of connected – how we are innovating these days?

Shlain: Well, I think what you’re saying about – it’s so interesting how much of a zeitgeist moment it was when Steve Jobs died, and I think, and of course, like everyone, we kind of felt something collectively, which the Internet also allowed us to feel that.

But going back to innovation, where I think we can innovate is really problem-solving. My husband is a professor at Berkeley. He was just talking about how the concept of brainstorming was – the book, the brainstorming book was like 50 years ago. It hasn’t been innovated. How do we brainstorm collectively? He’s working on a lot of tools for that area.

So that feels like all these ideas are kind of mutating and crossing up against each other with the Internet, and how do we take that all to the next level? So that area gets me really excited. I should say that all of these things – what’s exciting as a filmmaker is this is my eighth film but I’ve never had a film done when the Internet has been so alive, so after people walk out of the screenings – we’ve premiered all over the country and we’re in theaters now – people go out of the theater and they go onto our Facebook page and they post articles and videos and we kind of extend this conversation outside of the movie theater on the Web.

So that’s been this whole other, as a filmmaker who makes documentaries, this other way to kind of extend ideas about these issues, which has been really cool.

Tavis: Just scratching the surface here on a fascinating conversation, innovation, technology and how connected we are, and what that does for the future of humanity or not, as it were – as Tiffany would say, the good, the bad and the hope. Always a fascinating conversation. Her new project is called “Connected,” and Tiffany, I’m glad to have you on to talk about it.

Shlain: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

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Last modified: November 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm