Roughly a year ago, I had the fortune of speaking with Tiffany Shlain about Season 1 of The Future Starts Here, a film series she created about the role tech plays in our lives and societies. I was delighted because she has gone on record saying she considers herself “a conversation-maker, not a filmmaker.” I’m still amazed she allows herself only 6 days of technology per week. Every Friday is reserved for family time! That means: No computers, smartphones, tablets – basically the rule is – No screens for 24 hours!! This pays homage to Shabbat, which begins at sundown on Fridays. Tiffany says taking a “technology Shabbat” is a significant part of her lifestyle. I can only imagine the discipline it took in the very beginning. Here’s what I asked her:
Q: Hi Tiffany. It’s awesome getting to interview you on your latest body of work you let us preview. Of the films in this series, which one do you feel might resonate the strongest with the widest range of people, regardless of demographic? Technology Shabbat is the one I feel would do that.
A: Yes, I think what resonates is owning the fact that we can make these decisions, and reclaiming that. A lot of people say “Well, I already unplug on vacation.” The thing is, vacations happen once or twice a year, and there is a difference between doing it every week versus once a year. The most recent technology Shabbat was just so great to hang out with my family, doing art projects and things. Plus I felt so relieved, it was fun. I’ve been doing technology Shabbats every week for the last 3 and a half years, so now I run toward it, and they get sweeter and better. I have schedules for them, almost – I know if there are really fun things I want to focus on, I plan for those on Saturday. In my talks I like to mention how Einstein talked about motion and how time is relative, and the speeding up of time. I meant to include that in the film too, to let people know it’s possible to take one day and make it feel like it’s 4 days long, and then to feel so relaxed afterward. When my father died… that was profound. When someone close to you dies, you just think about time, all the time, how precious that is, and you can die at any moment. I didn’t need any neuroscience to tell me it wasn’t good to be that wired and to be increasingly distracted. And I was listening to myself. I think when someone dies, you really go deep into what life’s about, what you want in life, and how you want to be. I wanted to – and needed to – stop the distractions, the onslaught of data coming at me, just one day a week, because I also love the connectedness, I really do, but I knew it wasn’t good all the time.
Q: You opened your series saying you love technology. If someone asks you to demystify the long lines and the camping gear in front of Apple Stores before a major launch, what do you tell them? Your Episode 5, Participatory Revolution, resonated with me. After watching Episode 5, now I think I have my own answer to overnight lines, and to why I chose TechMania411 as a domain name. As the film said: We’re creative beings and we want to be part of the mix! It’s also wonderful to hear that the responses to A Declaration of Interdependence exceeded your expectations. I didn’t see that film, but tying it to the 4th of July was pretty brilliant.
A: Oh! You should see it. A Declaration of Interdependence is part of another film series we’re working on called Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change. Basically we do these collaborative films; we’ve made 3 and we’re just about to premiere our fourth one this December. They’re really fun. You can go to LetItRipple.org and see a lot. They’re a completely different way of making films that I’ve ever made. As for those overnight fans in front of stores, I don’t know – I think it’s cultural – I saw something on that slow-motion feature on the new iPhone the other day and I’m like, “I want it!” And then there’s also the excitement factor of new, novel, fresh… I think you can probably say that about anything new. We like new and shiny things, and yes, they’re also creative tools that allow us to try new things. So I think there’s a ‘cult factor’ (laughter) – I mean, I was into Apple products ever since I was a kid and I’ve always been excited when something new comes out. I don’t always get it right away like the ones who camp out, but I think they’re passionately obsessed – they want to have the newest thing the second it comes out.
Q: What were some of your standout memories of doing A Declaration of Interdependence?
A: I mean, just the response, to be sitting in our film studios everyday, it was like I was directing from there! People being at their own locations shooting, and the power in building too, there was something very raw about that that came through in the footage.
Q: Was it easy to decide the order of appearance for the films?
A: We thought Technology Shabbat really showed the way I feel about technology, which is this love-hate relationship. With that film as the opener, we felt it would best set the stage for this series, in that I love technology, but I also worry about what it’s doing to us, and we need to be more mindful. And then the other films go in unexpected directions.
Q: As we move closer to the midpoint of this decade, have you experienced or heard of anything your instinct tells you might become the truly next big thing?
A: Yes, my 10-year-old daughter is coding in a visual coding language called Tynker. I think that’s going to open up a huge number of people coding. And it’s visual! That’s very exciting to me.
Tiffany Shlain lectures worldwide on filmmaking, the Internet’s influence on society, and what the future may bring in our ever-changing world. Invitations include Harvard, NASA, Twitter, The Economist Big Ideas conferences, Fortune 500 companies, The Ideas Festival, MIT, and TED events including TEDWomen, among others.
A sought-after keynote speaker known for inspiring presentations, Tiffany received a standing ovation from 11,000 people after she delivered the keynote address for UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony in May 2010. She has had four films premiere at Sundance, including her acclaimed feature documentary, Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology, which The New York Times proclaims as “Incredibly engaging… Examining Everything From the Big Bang to Twitter.” The US State Department selected Connected one of the films to represent America at embassies around the world for their 2012 American Film Showcase. Connected had an 11-city theatrical run, its TV broadcast premiere on PBS KQED, and is available on iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and all digital platforms.
- Honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century”
- Founder of The Webby Awards
- Coo-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences
- Singled out by The New York Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the Sundance Institute for her work using documentaries and internet distribution to engage audiences
- Her films have won over 48 awards and distinctions including a 2012 Disruptive Innovation Award from The Tribeca Film Festival, and are known for their irreverent and profound unraveling of complex subjects like identity, technology, and science.