When I entered the office space of Tiffany Shlain at Pier 38, which has the look of a pirate ship refurbished into a tech geek’s dreamland, she was on her iPhone, Bluetooth-in-ear. How apropos of her new documentary “Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology,” a rumination on our attachment to 21st century tools of communication.
Shlain opens the film with a confession: She is a die-hard technology junkie. We all have the itch to check our email, text messages, Twitter feed — even when we’re face-to-face with another human. It seems today that this nagging feeling is as natural as any basic need. And yes, the storyteller behind “Connected” is guilty of it, too.
Shlain is a Bay Area native and 1992 Berkeley alumna who graduated with a degree in film theory and interdisciplinary studies. In 1996, a time when the burgeoning Internet was still in its zygote stage, she started the Webby Awards, which celebrate excellence in online content.
Berkeley credentials aside, Shlain is a self-made filmmaker. In “Connected,” she cobbles together archival footage to create a jigsaw puzzle of human connectedness. During her undergraduate coursework, Shlain would re-cut found footage, often anthropology material, and she re-appropriates that technique here. “When people say that I have an unusual filmmaking style, it really comes from not having a production class at Cal,” she said, since those were not yet offered.
Before “Connected,” Shlain directed five short films, but this is her passion project. The documentary traces the history of human interdependence, from the development of primitive Paleolithic implements to written language to industrialization. Call it a short history of nearly everything.
With this origin story as background, Shlain earnestly puts her own life experiences at the fore. We see her growing up, graduating and later meeting her husband Ken Goldberg, professor of engineering and founder of the Robotics Department at UC Berkeley. We see Shlain having her first child and then enduring five miscarriages, all the while coping with the death of her father, Leonard Shlain, an eminent surgeon and writer who had radical ideas about the brain, physics, art and gender. To wit, Shlain is emotionally naked — a gutsy move for a first feature.
The thesis of “Connected” is simple, yet it exposes a truth easily overlooked in mass culture. “I wanted to look at the history of our desire to connect and all these tools we created to connect economically, globally, technologically, and what is already so inherently interdependent about our world,” Shlain explained. It’s also about “where we might be going and how we can harness the power of this for good.” Yet she has examples in her film where this kind of interdependence might not be such a good thing.
While these pronouncements might seem glib and even vague, Shlain’s personal story of confronting tragedy head-on and harnessing it for an artistic project (the “greater good,” perhaps?) is what gives the film its specificity. She situates her own narrative of loss within some cosmic questions and, in turn, re-imagines the butterfly effect, stripping it of its cliches and grounding it in reality.
The film took four years to make. “Two years in, I had a film that just explored the ideas of connectedness in history,” Shlain said. “I was watching it and my father, who was a co-writer on the film and had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and I thought, I’m making a film about connectedness and I’m not exploring emotional connection.” She struggled to weave her own story of such connection into the film’s broader, cerebral scope, but “Connected” deftly travels from heart to head and back again, preferring punchy truths to sentimentalism.
Shlain claimed that the number of written memoirs outweighs the number of memoirs on film. “I could name them all on one hand,” she said. “Tarnation” (2003) and “51 Birch Street” (2005), which dwell in deeply personal crises while also using found footage to construct a narrative, come to mind. According to her, this vacuum of memoir films is “ironic since we’re living in such an autobiographical age where everyone is learning how to express who they are through all these different mediums.”
Indeed, Shlain expresses herself in this way everyday: She has 5,000 followers on Twitter and 3,500 Facebook friends. But she makes time to unplug and reconnect with her family: Once a week, they do technology Shabbat. “Having that one day where my mind is not able to act on every thought has been really great.”
With all our disparate internetworks, Shlain believes we have lost the overview of it all, the big picture. The film is an invitation to a dialogue with aims to restore this fractured “big” picture. The big picture for Shlain is that we are all connected. “We are all children of parents. We all will (hopefully) be parents, and we all have the same environment,” she said. And while it could be argued that the Internet, no doubt a conduit for connectedness, works at the expense of genuine human interaction, she suggests that it actually offers new modes of empathy and understanding.
“You only have to look at anti-slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights. We are moving the needle forward,” Shlain said with optimism. “The Internet will be this collaborative tool where we will come together and tackle the world’s problems. When you have truly different perspectives, that’s when innovation happens.”
In a confused age of cynics and skepticism, Tiffany Shlain sees the glass half-full, and full of potential. “I ultimately believe that humans are curious, evolving, and we want to connect.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.