How do we connect? (And how do we disconnect?)

The filmmaker Tiffany Shlain explores the ways tech is changing us, and the questions we should be asking about that

Tiffany ShlainHad a great conversation with Tiffany Shlain, the force behind many short films including the new The Science of Character and Connected. Shlain is fascinating to me because she’s one of the most “connected” people you’ll find—she created the Webby Awards, and she uses social media extensively and brilliantly to circulate and market her films—yet she also questions whether we’re at times too connected and what the ramifications of that may be.

Shlain has decided to do something about this in her own life. Every week, on Friday evenings, she and her family unplug all tech devices for a day. Shlain calls it her “tech Shabbat”—she wrote a great piece about the experience of doing this in Harvard Business Review.

“It’s completely changed my life,” Shlain told me, referring to the weekly disconnect. “I find I’ve saved certain thinking for that day—big picture thinking. While I love the kinetic thinking that happens when you’re on the Internet, I also really value having a thought and not being able to act on it. It’s great to just let that thought marinate and grow on its own.”

This relates directly to an idea I’m pursuing in A More Beautiful Question—that as we explore the really important questions, we should try to give ourselves the time and space to actually think about those questions and grapple with them for a while—without always just rushing to Google to see what “experts” and others think.

All of Shlain’s films explore big questions. She’s done short ones and longer ones, on topics ranging from how neural connections form in children’s brains to an exploration of what it means to be a member of a tribe.

Her film series “Connected”—which was a hit at Sundance and os available on iTunes—explores, of course, what it means to be connected. “It’s about my love/hate relationship with technology,” Shlain says. “I love technology, but I also want us to be a little more critical. We’re so enamored that we’re not questioning, when does this help move things forward and what is it taking away from us.”

Having seen the film, I can say it’s an amazing piece of work. Shlain has a gift for weaving together images—stock footage, lovely animation, home movie clips—in a way that, to my eye at least, makes for more far more interesting viewing than your typical talking-heads documentary. It’s a new style of filmmaking, as much about curation (pulling together and connecting all sorts of interesting bits and pieces) as narrative storytelling. In terms of the latter, Shlain tells two great stories inside the larger narrative about connectedness: One story is about her difficult pregnancy, and the other, running parallel, is about the last year in the life of her father, the remarkable doctor/author Leonard Shlain (a “master questioner” if ever there was one—I can’t explain him in a sentence or two, but suffice to say you should look him up if you’re interested in creative thinking, the connection between art and physics, innovative surgery, the mind of daVinci, and/or surprising connection between the alphabet and our Alpha male society).

You’ll hear more from Tiffany Shlain in my book, but in the meantime, check out her work here.

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about "How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of his latest book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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