Op-Ed

Patt Morrison Asks: Tiffany Shlain, wired in

A conversation with filmmaker and tech innovator Tiffany Shlain on how the Internet continues to change the way we connect, explore and discover -- and the importance of unplugging.

Like one of those faster-than-light particles that's gone before you can see it, filmmaker and tech innovator Tiffany Shlain zips from the virtual to the real and back again. The Bay Area native whom Newsweek named one of the women shaping the 21st century has been into technology since she and Silicon Valley were both kids. Fifteen years ago, she founded the Webby Awards; well before Twitter, no acceptance speech could be longer than five words. She delivered more than that last year in a commencement speech at her alma mater UC Berkeley, exhorting students to embrace the quality that she claims as her own guiding light: "moxie" -- a long-ago patent medicine turned soft drink whose name has become synonymous with the human recipe for being "bold ... and a little outrageous."

Many people will be reading this in print; others will be reading it online -- but you won't, at least not today.

I do these technology Shabbats; they've been really life-changing. Friday night, we unplug all of our technology. All the screens go off for 24 hours, and we're present with each other. I'll tell you, it's very profound for me to do it, and every week I feel like I get to reset my mind and be completely present with people. It's really wonderful. I definitely feel like disconnecting is going to be more and more valued. For me, it's the unplugging that's a very big boundary. And I [have] a land line. I tell my family, if it's urgent, call me on the land line, which they think is very funny. It's Shabbat for the 21st century.

Does it change the way you behave with technology the other six days?

On Saturday night I can't wait to go back on; I kind of re-appreciate the power of technology.

Your father, who was a surgeon and a writer, died in 2009. His advice, delivered on a video shown at his funeral, was "be present." People seem so immersed in the technological world that they often don't seem to be present in the real one.

That's one of the big goals with "Connected" [her feature-length documentary subtitled "An Autobiography About Love, Death and Technology"]. People are ready to talk about it, and we're launching a global conversation about what does it mean to be connected in the 21st century. We've had screenings in China and Spain and all over the U.S.; everyone's been so swallowed up in these tools, and I think everyone's realizing, "Oh my God, it's changing my behavior." What's the good of it, what's the bad of it? And the part everyone feels they need to be more conscious of is just being plugged in all the time.

You have seen people who do just that -- ignore the person across the table from them to be in electronic contact with someone else miles away.

I start off the movie that way. I never thought I would be that person, [but] I sneaked off to the bathroom [to text]. I think we're changing behavior too much in our personal levels.

I'm connected to people in beautiful ways through technology -- like my mother-in-law. I'm constantly sending her videos of [her grandchildren's] cute little moments she misses in Pennsylvania. I can stay more connected with my family; I'm up to date with my friends, and that's very powerful.

Any technology -- I could tell you three really great things about it and three really bad things about it. I think we just need to be having a conversation [about the] fact that everyone's moving so quickly.

It's nothing I'm proud of, but there was an eight-year period that I smoked. Now I look back and think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I smoked in that situation -- when I woke up, or on a plane. That's so horrible." I wonder whether we're going to look back on this period and say the same thing about the way we're using technology.

When people text during a funeral, they have a problem. Why do they have to be told that that's wrong?

I think there's a generational issue going on. No matter how much we're connecting in these new ways, nothing is going to replace the importance of a deep relationship. It requires attention and presence. That's not going to change.

You have two daughters, but the Webby Awards are your eldest "child."

I created the Webby Awards and spent a decade running [them]; now I've gone back to films full time. There's this film we released last month called "The Declaration of Interdependence," and the film was completely crowd-sourced. We posted a script on the Internet, had people read it from all over the world, and it's turned into a four-minute movie.

Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, believed that the great promise of television had been squandered -- as if, he said, "Gutenberg's great invention had been directed at printing only comic books." Some people regard the Internet in the same light: For every Arab Spring there are a thousand ridiculous conspiracy theories and a million kitten videos.

Some things fuel the growth of other things. Look at the whole dot-com bust of the ''90s -- that really paved the way for all the stuff that's happening now; [it] paved the way to wire up this world.

Your kids will have no awareness of a world before this kind of technology. How differently do they think about things?

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