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Documentary explores connection in the Internet age

The San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival kicks off this Saturday, and one of the films you can see this year is one you can probably relate to. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain was inspired to make the documentary film Connected after catching herself faking a bathroom break so she could check her email.

Connected brings to light our dependence on technology in the Internet age, and our interdependence on each other. KALW contributor Kevin Robinson sat down with Tiffany Shlain to get a peek into her film.

(Get in touch with Tiffany Shlain @tiffanyshlain and learn more about Kevin Robinson's Medium Rare media journalism by clicking here. Find tickets for the screening of Connected at the SFIWFF, Saturday, April 14 at 7:30pm, by clicking here.)

TIFFANY SHLAIN: Connected started out as my interest in looking at the history of our connectedness from the beginning of civilization to today and into the future. That was the original premise. I asked my father, who is a Bay Area author, Leonard Shlain, to co-write it with me and my co-writers because he wrote a lot about the connections between art and science and the connections between things.

In the middle of production – the film took four years to make – about two years in, I sat in the editing room and I was watching this movie about “connectedness.” And I realized I was not feeling emotionally connected to the material. It was a very interesting subject, but it wasn’t emotionally grabbing me. In that particular period of time, I was having a very intense period in my life where my father, who was one of my best friends, was diagnosed with brain cancer the same week I found out I was pregnant. I was going through all these emotional issues with connectedness and disconnection, so it really hit me that I needed to bring my own sense of connectedness into this story. This film really goes back and forth, it’s really half and half a story about our civilization’s history with connectedness, and my own story of connectedness. It explores the issue from both a personal and a global perspective.

KEVIN ROBINSON: You bring up a couple points, because when I read the synopsis, when I watched the film, I thought it was going to be more about the new technology that people use to connect and not connect with: Facebook; Twitter; email; IM; all that stuff… The 144-character-type thing. What can you say about that? Does that bring us together?

SHLAIN: I think one of the reasons why I felt like I had to get in the film and really get to the core of connectedness is that Twitter and Facebook, they’re all tapping into our desire, as a human species, to connect. They’ve even done, scientists have done research showing that when you get a Tweet or a re-Tweet or a cell phone call, you’re getting a little hit of a hormone called Oxytocin, which is the connection hormone. It makes you feel warm, and fuzzy, and empathetic, and want to share and love and trust. So, all of these social media tools are tapping into something fundamental about being human. Now, do I think we do it too much? Yes. Since I made the movie, do I unplug one day a week completely for what my family calls our ‘technology Shabbats’? Yes. So, I’m extremely excited about the potential of all this connectedness globally and what we can do collaboratively, but I also worry that we’re on it too much and were missing some important, real, live interactions. And when you have someone very close to you in your life dying as I did, you really start to think about time and how you spend your time and what is authentic connection.

So the film really explores the good, the bad, and the hope of all of this technology. Any technological invention we could talk about, I could tell you three great things about it and I could tell you three really bad things about it. From the airplane to the cell phone to the printing press, anytime something has revolutionized the way that we travel, the way that we learn, there’s a lot of good and then there are things we need to be really conscious of. There’s a quote I used throughout the film, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” by Sophocles. We explore the kind of curse and the positive of all of these things throughout the film.

ROBINSON: What would it be like if everyone on the planet was online? You mention that in the film. What would that be like?

SHLAIN: I think about that a lot because we’re not that far away from it. There are two billion people online. When I started the Webby Awards, there were sixteen million people online. So just in my life, just to watch this explosion of connectivity... and I’m part of an organization that’s trying to get everyone online, called A Human Right. It’s been proven throughout history that innovation happens when the most diverse perspectives come together. Usually innovation happens in the city. Matt Ridley wrote a great book about this called The Rational Optimist, that people are so clustered together and bumping into one another that good ideas come. So I think when you’re going to get so many people from around the world – from Europe, from Africa, from China, from America – trying to tackle the biggest problems of our day from all their different perspectives, I think we’re going to see collaboration and innovation that we’ve never seen before.

Of course, the worry is also that we’re going to be online too much. And so my film also explores... I don’t want people to lose their own culture, and their own being present with their children, and people they love by being online all the time. One of my favorite parts when we screen the film is the discussion afterwards. The conversations are heated and they’re interesting and they always go different places. In different countries where we’ve shown the film, it’s a different discussion, depending on how online they are and how they use their cell phones. So we hope with this film that this conversation – people talk about the issues that it raises. The good of everyone being online, the bad, and what people need to be mindful of in the hope of it.

ROBINSON: Let’s talk about the gender roles. I thought that was pretty interesting. You mention the male-female dynamic in communications and technology. We have a clip right on that point, so let’s take a listen to that and let’s talk about that afterwards.

CLIP (narrated by Peter Coyote): In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain points to how literacy changed the way humans think. When the alphabet was introduced into society, it over stimulated the analytic left hemisphere of the brain. He builds on the theory that the left hemisphere, which is used in reading and writing, is associated with masculine traits. And that the right hemisphere, used to see images and patterns, is more feminine. So Shlain suggests that the advent of literacy shifted the balance of power between men and women. While in most ancient societies, men worshipped goddesses – whenever literacy was introduced into society, a new patriarchal outlook emerged.

ROBINSON: That was a clip from the film Connected. I thought that was pretty interesting, that whole thing, with Peter Coyote, by the way, narrating that.

SHLAIN: Well, it’s interesting. The film is half narrated by me, the feminine, right-hemisphere part of the film, and then the kind of omnipotent, factual part is by Peter Coyote, the male and left hemisphere. We kind of go back and forth. And towards the third act, we start messing with that idea. But my father, who was a best-selling author, wrote this book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and that was his whole theory: literacy, which is very linear, very left-hemisphere, actually kind of re-wired people’s brains and culture and made it a very dominant male society. Then towards the end of the book, he talks about how when images became more prevalent, with photographs, film, and television, and now with the Internet, which is very visually based, that that’s more right-hemispheric and women are rising in power again, which is the case.

I believe that and I also believe that the Internet is further re-wiring our brains. There is absolutely no doubt: we are completely changing the way we receive information, the way we transfer information, it’s both image and text; and more than that, it’s causing us to think interdependently because we have this new way of seeing the world that’s so connected-based. So actually that gives me hope. I know a lot of people are so worried about their kids, “Oh my God, they’re not reading anymore!” Actually kids are writing more than they ever have before. And we’re actually reading a lot more. We’re just reading differently, through tweets and Facebook. Personally, I’m a big person on Twitter. And I feel like I’m exposed to more ideas that I would not have been, than I ever have in my life.

ROBINSON: Do you think the advent of technology benefits men or women?

SHLAIN: Well, I think technology in a lot of ways really plays to women’s strengths. All this Oxytocin, which is the sharing hormone, the love hormone, which we’re all experiencing every time we get an email, a tweet, or a cell phone call – that makes you empathetic. It makes you want to share and collaborate. These are all strategies of women. So,  sometimes I think, it’s not just the World Wide Web – it’s the Women Wide Web. This is going to be a wonderful medium for women to really thrive. And that’s not at the discount of men. I think that we’re going to be collaborating more between men and women, and I think both men and women bring different value sets to the table and I think everyone is really on a spectrum of masculine and feminine, so I see the Internet as a great way for more different types of leadership and collaboration to happen.