Noetic Now, Issue Fourteen, September 2011
by Tiffany Shlain
Fifteen years ago I founded the Webby Awards. I was fascinated by how the Internet was connecting people all over the world in new and unexpected ways. I have also been struck by the many conversations about the problems of our day that view them as separate challenges—whether the environment, women’s rights, poverty, or social justice. It has become increasingly apparent to me that when you perceive everything as connected, it radically shapes your perspective.
The concept of interdependence isn’t new; it’s been around since the dawn of humanity. For two-hundred-thousand years, we’ve been connecting through networks both natural and technological. Interdependence has long been a tenet of Eastern philosophy and indigenous cosmologies. But the recent addition of the Internet has added a new layer, which connects us in a fresh way, giving the world a new type of central nervous system. Something happens in one place, and we can see it, feel it, and do something about it almost instantaneously.
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Technology is clearly changing us, especially the way we connect with our friends, families, and the world around us. It has this huge potential. But technology has also led to some of the biggest problems of our day. It’s accelerating our connectedness in ways we can’t even predict or be completely aware of. Take the honeybees and their well-documented disappearance. Albert Einstein predicted that if honeybees were to disappear, humanity would be gone in four years. Several theories explain why the honeybees are disappearing—toxic chemicals being the most likely cause—but the impacts of an entirely new grid of human-induced electromagnetic energy has also been proposed as the culprit. New books such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together highlight studies that show how our behaviors and brains are negatively affected by a 24/7 digitally connected world. The sociopolitical warnings in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble and Evgeny Mozrozov’s The Net Delusion are another concern.
My father, Leonard Shlain, loved to quote Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” From the beginning of time, every new technological advancement has brought with it a complex mix of positive and negative repercussions as well as unintended consequences. I set out to make a film that addresses the potential of our twenty-first-century technologies and the importance of harnessing their powers. I also wanted to examine what can happen when these new technologies take over and sometimes overwhelm our personal lives. What does it mean to be connected in the twenty-first century? How can we use the power of all these connections to turn things around for the better? I titled the film Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death, and Technology, and I asked my father to cowrite the project with me.
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Overlooking the Personal
My dad was a surgeon but also a pioneer in writing about the connections between science, consciousness, the human brain, art, and civilization. His best-selling books include The Alphabet Versus the Goddess; Sex, Time, and Power; and Art and Physics. He was an incredible visionary who had a wonderful knowledge of history, and I felt he would make an enormous contribution to the film. He was one of the people who taught me to look for connections in the first place. He searched for patterns that gave insight into why we do what we do.
His first book, Art and Physics, drew parallels between breakthroughs in art and breakthroughs in science. He found examples of this throughout history—such as the way Cubism challenged viewers’ notions about space and time right before Einstein published his theory about space and time and the way the artist Seurat started to paint with tiny dots around the same time that scientists were theorizing the existence of molecules. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, he presented evidence that showed whenever the alphabet and literacy were introduced into a society, they overstimulated the analytic left hemisphere of the brain and shifted the balance of power between men and women to favor patriarchal models. He traced this pattern throughout the centuries, finding links between the onset of literacy and the oppression of women throughout the world.
For years he and I talked about making a film together, so when I started researching all these connections and how we could use them to help solve our problems, it was natural to ask him to be on the team. We were researching and writing and sharing drafts, and then one day, when I called to talk to him about the movie, he didn’t pick up. It turns out he had been rushed to the hospital after suffering a stroke. He was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer and given nine months to live.
All of a sudden, I was asking lots of new questions. I quickly realized that here I was, writing about all these interrelationships, and the one great connection I had overlooked was the emotional one. That’s when I began the difficult process of rewriting the film to include my personal story of connection, which I wove into the bigger story of connection throughout history and where I think we are heading.
Technology’s Seduction—and Potential
When I was twenty-one, I attempted my first feature film, Zoli’s Brain. I used magic surrealism to tell a story about the brain. It was my first big failure and, as I look back, one of the most important experiences of my life. It clearly reflected my interest in the brain. Now, almost twenty years later, there’s so much we still don’t know about the human brain. It’s one of the most complex biological systems on earth, consisting of 100 billion neurons and processing 70,000 thoughts a day. We do know that the brain is designed to seek connection with others.
I am especially interested in the relationship between our brains and the addictive force of the new technologies. I found clues about this relationship in my reading about the hormone oxytocin, which the brain releases when humans connect with each other. Oxytocin decreases fear and anxiety; creates empathy, trust, and cooperation; and reinforces our urge to connect. The human brain is also designed to seek pleasure because of a hormone called dopamine. Researchers now know that the brain releases dopamine when new information is received. So every click, search, text, or Tweet has the potential to stimulate the same hormonal rush as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. But an interesting thing happens with dopamine—we never feel fully satiated. It’s called an infinite dopamine loop, which leaves us constantly wanting more. The combined release of oxytocin and dopamine when we are plugged into cyberspace helps explain humans’ insatiable hunger for knowledge, approval, and being constantly connected. [See David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.] It also explains my sneaking off to the bathroom to e-mail and Tweet when I’m having lunch with a friend!
Technology is vast and has so much potential, but it’s also a curse. Our attention is pulled in so many directions that connecting widely can sometimes cost us the opportunity to connect deeply. So how do we prioritize our attention—know when to plug in mindfully and when to unplug—because we can’t escape these technologies? [See Matthew Gilbert’s article “A Twittering of Consciousness.”]
I’ve started practicing what I call “technology Shabbats” with my family. Every Friday at sundown, our whole family disconnects until Saturday night. No cell phones, no Internet, no television, no iPads, no multitasking. We disconnect completely—or should I say we connect completely with ourselves and one another. I am learning that turning off technology is just as powerful as turning it on, and that our society needs both. Technology can be so enticing and overwhelming, but we also need to remember how important it is both to be fully present with the people we love and to be alone and present to ourselves. The potential of technology, globally and personally, is exponential, but we also need to know where the off switch is.
During the poignant time of making my film, I was reading my father’s new manuscript on Leonardo da Vinci. He proposes that in every species an occasional genetic mutation occurs that offers a unique glimpse into where the species might be headed. He believed da Vinci himself offered that glimpse, showing us what human beings can achieve when they synthesize the left and the right hemispheres of the brain. I loved this idea. All of a sudden, the answer to how we might use our increasing connectedness to tackle our problems became clearer. Five hundred years after da Vinci, the Internet might be giving us a glimpse into the future of our species.
Even in its infancy, the Internet is helping each of us to synthesize the two hemispheres of our brain. Clicking through the explosion of textual information activates the left hemisphere, while linking from page to page and video to video stimulates the right hemisphere. I believe that the Internet is literally changing the way we think, moving us through a constantly evolving landscape of words and images at the touch of a keystroke, which synthesizes the two hemispheres of our brain. If this rewiring is happening on an individual level to each person who uses the web, imagine the cumulative global effect of this synthesis. Today there are close to 2 billion people online. What would the world look like if everyone on the planet could be online? It’s not that far away. There are already 5 billion cell phones on the planet!
The Era of Interdependence
It’s time to shift our perspective. In many ways, we as a species are mirroring the way we each develop as individual humans. We come into the world completely dependent on our parents. As we grow up, we evolve into independent adults; we live on our own, get our own jobs, and provide for our families. But this independence brings us to a new realization of how connected we are to family, friends, and community. I think that as a species we are evolving to understand our interdependence. Perhaps all these new tools we’re creating for collaborating through the Internet are leading us to this understanding, or perhaps the understanding is driving us to create these tools. Regardless of what’s propelling it, thinking and living interdependently will actually change our consciousness and help us create real transformation worldwide.
To demonstrate this interdependence, I’ve created a new project—Let it Ripple—that picks up where Connected leaves off. This will be a series of six short films linked together by the overall theme of connectedness. The first film, A Declaration of Interdependence, is based on the United States’ Declaration of Independence. My colleagues and I posted and Tweeted our new declaration on July 4, inviting people across the world to submit videos of themselves—whether from their cell phones, laptops, or whatever was handy—in which they read the declaration in their native language. We also asked graphic designers and artists to interpret the words creatively and to submit their artwork. The submissions are blowing me away. It’s interdependence in action. The film will be made up entirely of these submissions, edited down to a three-minute clip and tied together by our animator, Stefan Nadelman, and music by one of my favorite sound artists, Moby. A Declaration of Interdependence will premiere on September 12—Interdependence Day—at a special event near Ground Zero in New York. We are also distributing this film for free, allowing organizations and nonprofits to put their own call-to-action at the end of it.
In sharing these messages of connectedness and interdependence, I believe there will be a positive ripple effect—sparks that will help turn what we’re talking about into action. It’s all about connection—connecting ideas, data, and cultures from millions of brains into a global thinking structure with infinite possibilities. Every text, hyperlink, and Tweet is like a neural synapse firing out to everyone we’re connected to. And with each connection, we get a surge of oxytocin, as if the Internet were creating a global network for oxytocin to flow. It will make us more empathetic, inclined to share, collaborate, and connect even more. The Internet is rewiring our brains to think interdependently, changing the way we connect to the world, online and offline.
I remember what my mother taught me when she was studying psychology—emotional connection drives everything we do. So if we can just channel that emotional connection, we will be compelled to work together to solve the problems we face and take humanity to the next level. We’re at the beginning of a participatory revolution, in which people’s ideas are free to interact, reproduce, and cross-pollinate instantaneously, creating new hybrid ideas that combine perspectives from all over the world.
As we become more connected, we’ll be able to see the cause and effect of our actions in real time—what we buy, donate, eat, and throw away. We’re just starting to unlock and share information about the trillions of things that we’ve made in this world. Once we understand the supply chains and see the links in our actions, we’ll be more thoughtful and conscious of our behavior. I believe in our innate ability to change for the better. Look at the end of slavery and apartheid, the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and other political and social transformative movements in the last few hundred years, and you can see that we are indeed evolving. Two things make me optimistic: human beings are curious, and we have a deep desire to connect.
Connected will open this fall in major cities nationwide beginning mid-September in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, go to http://connectedthefilm.com, Connected the Film on Facebook, or @tiffanyshlain on Twitter.