Is technological connectivity mankind's next evolutionary step?
"We created computers as an extension of our brains, and now we're connecting through those computers and the Internet cloud as a way of expanding them," says filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, 41, who's best known for creating the Webby Awards as well as her expertise on the Internet's influence on society. "The way we think is totally changing—we're interfacing with so many ideas."
Her latest documentary Connected—which screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is making its way internationally around art houses this fall (including New York until tomorrow)—addresses how increased technological connectivity effects environment, population growth, the economy, relationships, and how we think and process information. The exposure and interactivity of the estimated two billion users is making people think interdependently, opening them up to new ideas and understanding.
She then intertwines that exploration of global modernization with the work of her late father, Leonard Shlain, a laparoscopic surgeon and best-selling author of Art and Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Expanding upon his theory that the advent of the alphabet moved human evolution from a right-brained (conceptual, matriarchal) population, to a left-brained (linear, patriarchal) one, she suggests that technology—particularly social media—demands the equal usage of both sides of the brain, slowly paving the way for more innovative problem-solving, as well as greater gender and social equality.
Shlain cites as examples of this idea the recent story of gamers helping solve the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme, as well as her ability to be both a female director and mother who can work from home. "That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," she says. But it's also having an adverse effect: deteriorating in-person socializing, etiquette (such as texting and checking emails during meals), and privacy.
"Our goal with this film is to launch a global conversation about connectivity, its pros and cons, and how technology can be used to create a better world," says Shlain, who next speaks at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on Nov. 10. "I think people are ready to talk about this. There's a great quote about technology that it's neither good nor bad, but neutral. We need to mindfully and consciously use social media tools, and also know when to be present."
Connected drives that issue home using two life-altering events in Shlain's own life—her simultaneous grappling of a difficult pregnancy and her father's premature death from brain cancer. But the autobiographical element was a later addition to the film. Shlain—who co-write the film with her husband, Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley—had spent two years initially focusing on the history of communication and technology, where society was heading with it, and the ways we were connected.
"After seeing a rough cut, I was struck by the fact that, while it was interesting, I was not connecting emotionally to the material," she says. "That same week, I found out I was pregnant after five years of trying, and my dad had nine months to live. I realized that I needed to understand and explain my own sense of connectedness in the world and to the people around me."
And so, after another two years, Connected morphed into its current form—a tapestry of specially filmed and archival footage, home movies, and animation that juxtaposes mankind's increased shared experience against her own place in the world. Jumping between overarching historical context (narrated by Peter Coyote) and autobiographical transformation (narrated by Shlain), Shlain explores how increased connectivity via the Internet and social media has both improved and impeded our lives, and the planet as a whole. She asks how we can use connectivity to its advantage in solving problems related to the environment, consumption, population growth, human rights, the global economy, and interpersonal relationships.
"It feels like we're at the beginning," she says. "Collaborative tools are going to help us come together in new ways, with people participating. There's a book called The Rational Optimist, that talks about how, throughout history, most innovation has taken place in cities, where people with different perspectives live close together. Similarly, the Internet has provided a framework for people around the world to share ideas in new ways."
[Images courtesy of Tiffany Shlain and Drew Altizer Photography]