How many friends do you have on Facebook? Do you really know all those “friends?” Whom do you follow on Twitter? How often do you check your email? We live in a connected world. The rapid communication of new technology has played a role in world events, as in Arab Spring. It also takes up a great deal of time, often frivolously. Tiffany Shlain offers us a look at technology and its place in our lives in Connected.
This is not just an overview of the current state of technology. Shlain actually wants us to see that our ever-growing connectedness holds the potential for a new interdependence. To understand how she comes to that conclusion, we must look at her father and the ways he has influenced her. Leonard Shlain was a brain surgeon. He also wrote books in which he noted a synchronicity between arts and science. This is the beginning of thinking about connectedness—how very different disciplines may reflect similar understandings. As a brain surgeon, he noted the different ways the right and left hemispheres of the brain function. It could be that genius is found by using both sides of the brain.
That relationship with her father also has a lot to do with how she sees the world. Her father authored books that saw interesting synchronicities between arts and physics and a relationship between the development of written language and paternalism. That ability to see disparate topics as being connected is part of Shlain’s approach to this film. At one point we see some of her notes that have arrows pointing in every direction making a web of connections.
But the film also takes on a very personal and emotional side. About the time Shlain began her film, her father was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer and given a prognosis of nine months. At the same time, Shlain discovered she was pregnant, and it would be a high risk pregnancy. A good part of the film follows these events as she relates the ideas of connectedness.
That emotional part of the film ties into the right/left brain issues. Whereas much of the film is fact-based and feeding the left brain, the emotional component stimulates the right brain. Her style of filmmaking also causes us to use both sides of our brain. Much of the film is made up by a variety of film clips that may not seem related, but the totality of their images (right brain) underscore the ideas that the words (left brain) are proposing.
One of the interesting ideas proposed comes from the book her father was working on during his cancer treatment. That book, Leonardo’s Brain, made the case that Leonardo da Vinci’s genius is tied to his ability to use both hemispheres of his brain. This leads her to consider the ways that the Internet also feeds both sides of our brains. Indeed, she sees the Internet as “a new type of central nervous system” for the world. And she sees the potential with so many brains linked together through the Internet that there is a possibility of great things.
She doesn’t see the Internet as a panacea, however. She notes that “Our attention is pulled in so many directions that connecting widely can sometimes be at the cost of connecting deeply.” She also understands that it can be important to be unconnected and has instituted a “technology Sabbath” each week.
This is a very optimistic view of the potential of the growing connectedness the world is experiencing. I hope she’s right, but I’m cynical enough to think that people are very good at finding ways to take a good thing and use it in evil ways.