NEW YORK (JTA) — Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is certainly no Luddite. She co-founded the Webby Awards in 1996 to showcase excellence on the then-fledgling Internet. Yet 15 years later she, like many of us, is ambivalent about the technology that allows people to connect to the web 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At the start of her first feature length documentary, “Connected,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently being screened across the country, Shlain recounts an incident in which she faked needing to go to the bathroom while sharing an enjoyable meal with a good friend she hadn’t seen in awhile in order to check her e-mail.
As she gives in to her technological addiction, Shlain shamefully wonders, “What have I become?”
It was this question that prompted her to start work on the film.
If Shlain’s previous documentary, “The Tribe,” explored what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century through the prism of the Barbie doll (which was created by a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler), then “Connected” essentially asks the same question but in much broader terms: What does it mean to be a connected, interdependent human in the 21st century?
To try to answer this question (and several others), Shlain doesn’t interview a host of experts in a Charlie Rose-style roundtable. Rather, she introduces us to her father, the surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, during the final years of his life. The elder Shlain died of brain cancer in 2009 right before the birth of Tiffany’s second daughter, whose difficult conception also is chronicled in the film.
Yet when Shlain first started making “Connected,” she did not intend for it to be about her life and family.
“It took four years to make,” she explains, “and for the first two it was not a personal film. It was [simply] exploring connectedness. And then my dad got sick.”
Faced with the prospect of losing one of her most important “connections,” she incorporated her father — via filmed interviews, home movies and his research — into the movie.
The elder Shlain had written about the connections between seemingly disparate ideas, such as art and science, and was at work on another such book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” when he was diagnosed. In his view Leonardo da Vinci, who mastered the arts and sciences, represented the ideal in terms of left-right brain utilizations. And in her film, Shlain posits that da Vinci, having a facility with both, in a sense is a very early forerunner of the Internet, which has synthesized the use of texts and images.
Practically speaking, Shlain adds in an interview, this fusion has allowed women like her to excel in previously male-dominated careers, such as filmmaking, while raising families.
“The Internet is empowering working mothers so much,” Shlain says. “It was the tool that the feminist movement always needed.”
Yet at the same time, the ubiquity of texting, Internet and e-mail seems to have driven everyone slightly batty. If you can always access your work e-mail, you can always be working, at least in theory.
“In our lives today, there is such a blur between what is work and what is pleasure,” Shlain says.
For instance, she used to look forward to plane trips because she couldn’t get online; she would nap or read a book. Now Shlain finds herself being annoyed when WiFi isn’t available on her flight.
As a correction for an overdependence on technology, Shlain and her family decided to start observing a “technology Shabbat” inspired, in part, by Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging.
“When you have someone really close to you die, you think a lot about time and life, and how short it is. I wanted to have a day when I was totally present,” she says.
“I think the problem,” Shlain continues, “is that people think that one thing replaces the other, but nothing replaces deep relationships.”
And no matter how advanced our devices have become, she adds, those still need to be nurtured in the ways they’ve always been — through time spent together, talking and laughing, and simply being with one another.
The popularity of Reboot’s “technology Shabbat” underscores the degree to which others besides Shlain have been thinking about how the intrusion of the Internet has impacted our time usage and relationships.
“The great thing is that the movie is coming out when everybody wants to talk about it,” Shlain says. “At this point, everyone has realized that their lives have changed so much.”
Despite some negative outcomes, Shlain ultimately believes that all of this connectivity is a good thing.
“I think we are going to be alive when we see every person on the planet connected. It will be powerful,” the filmmaker says.
She cites a recent breakthrough in AIDS research in which online gamers decoded a protein in three weeks that had stumped researchers for more than 15 years. Shlain envisions that many more problems can be solved by using the power of the Internet to come together.
But even in the short term, Shlain already is feeling the positive impact of the web and her film about it.
“I feel so connected at the screenings,” she says. “When the film ends, I’m in an audience with 400 people. Everyone ends up sharing more because I did."