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?
Very differently. The big concern when the written word was invented was that people would lose their memory, and we certainly have lost a lot of oral tradition and culture, but we’ve gained so much with the written word. I believe we are in a transition period [to] a new way of understanding and sharing information. Our brains can only grow so big, so we hooked up into the computer.
One of my favorite stories about Einstein is that he was being interviewed, and at the end the reporter said, “If I have any follow-up questions, can I call you?” And Einstein went over to the bookcase and looked up his phone number [in a phone book] and gave it to the reporter. And the reporter said, “You’re the smartest man in the 20th century -- how do you not know your own phone number?” And he said, “Vy fill my mind with such useless information if I know vere I can find it?” Was that why he was able to come up with the theory of relativity -- he wasn’t filling his mind with useless information?
So our children come up with new ideas we can’t even imagine because they’re not trying to hold onto all this information. When I was in school, the person who memorized the most facts was the smartest person in the class. Now it’s going to be all about re-contextualizing ideas and recombining ideas.
You illustrate evolution in your film with “The Rise of Man” series of drawings, but yours ends with man sitting at a computer! What’s the next stage?
The next stage is that we’re combining each other’s minds. The potential of global brainpower -- if we can only not have global ADD also!
Throughout history, the most innovation occurs in cities because more people from different perspectives bump up against each other and new ideas come out. So suddenly [there is] this global framework for global perspectives around our problems.
Right now we’re very much in the social stage of the Web. The next phase, which we’re just starting, is the collaborative phase. Gather around problems and share insights.
At the University of Washington, scientists had been trying to figure out the way [an enzyme that allowed AIDS to reproduce] folded, and they couldn’t solve it. They put it on the Internet and made it into a game and these gamers from all over the world solved it in [three weeks]. Imagine if you had the brainpower of the world.
What is exciting about humanity has always been our ability to collaborate, and suddenly we have this new way to do it.
You did a video send-up of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”:
“I see the best minds of my
generation distracted by
texting, emailing, tweeting,
dragging their cursors
through Google links
at dawn ” Why?
“Connected” was taking very long to make and [for a] national day of unplugging, they asked me to do a poem to begin the event. My husband and I whipped it out. After spending 41/2 years on the feature, it was very fun to blast that [video] out.
You had Apple’s Lisa computer before most people knew what a computer was. It makes me think how big a role women play in the tech world.
Oh yeah -- women are all about the Web. The Web is all about relationships, and women are all about relationships. They own it! It is playing to our strengths.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.