Neurons to Networks: A Talk with Tiffany Shlain
Groundbreaking filmmaker and internet pioneer Tiffany Shlain recently released a short film and TED book, "Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks." The ten-minute film explores the parallels between the development of a child's brain and the development of the global brain of the internet. Brain Power poses the questions: What can new research into the ways a child's brain develops teach us about the ways we are developing the internet? And what can we do to be mindful of the ways that we are developing both?
Tiffany Shlain's acclaimed documentary feature, "Connected: An Autobiography about Love, Death and Technology" was released this month on iTunes and has hit #8 in best-selling documentaries.
Nese Devenot: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Reality Sandwich. In addition to your recent work, you created the Webby Awards in 1996 to recognize the best that the internet has to offer. What was it like to start a project like that and to see how it's taken off?
Tiffany Shlain: It was very exciting. I mean, I was 26 at the time and not many people knew what the web was, and I just felt like it was going to completely change the world. I was so excited to tell everyone about it and to honor its pioneers and help push it forward. So I devoted nearly a decade of my life to founding the Webby Awards and establishing it.
But I also really wanted to get back to filmmaking and integrate it with the power of everything I saw with the web, so about five years ago I started a film studio called the Moxie Institute. We made films a lot about technology, and we're really interested in pushing the envelope of how we can use technology and all of the participation available on the web to make a new kind of film and help make the world better.
So on that note, could you explain what you refer to as cloud filmmaking and the "participatory revolution," and how you first got into the idea of crowdsourcing?
Sure. We wrote a cloud filmmaking manifesto that describes what we're doing. I had a film that premiered at Sundance last year and it was in theaters last fall. It's called "Connected: An Autobiogography about Love, Death and Technology," and it's a feature documentary. Interwoven in the film is a very personal story of my own experiences with connectedness alongside a larger story of the history of connectedness from the Big Bang all the way to today and Twitter and where I think we're going. What's the good, what's the bad, and what's the potential of all this connectedness?
One of the last things of the film, in the part on potential, asks what can we do with this many people online? We've already got two billion people online; what will the world look like when everyone's online? So the last line of that feature doc is that for centuries we've been declaring independence; perhaps it's time to declare our interdependence.
So my filmmaking team and I were like, let's try an experiment: Let's try to make a film with people from all over the world - everyone with their cell phones and their ability to film themselves. We wrote a one-minute script called "A Declaration of Interdependence," and we posted it on the internet as an experiment, to see what would happen. And we were just blown away. We got entries of people reading the declaration from all over the world. We edited them together, and Moby offered to give music to it. We posted it the day after ten-year anniversary of September 11th, called Interdependence Day. We invited people to help us translate it, and in six weeks people translated it into 65 languages.
Then the last part of what we call cloud filmmaking is - and we got a grant to do this - we offered to make free customized versions of the film for any non-profit in the world working to make the world better. It's almost like we made a white label film, and at the very end we changed the call to action for non-profits to put in their logo and their URL. It looks like it's their movie, with Moby doing the music and all these participants. It's so exciting to see how much this experiment worked. We were able to make 100 of these free movies in the first year.
To push those experiments further, we made a second film called "Engage" about getting people engaged in society. We had 200 non-profits ask for a version of the film, and we made it for them. "Brain Power" is actually the third film in the series, and we asked many more things from the world community to participate in. We kind of integrated the way we make cloud films into the film itself. And then the TED conference asked me to do a book, so then we expanded all of the ideas from the film into a book. With each of these films, we're trying to push the envelope further and further for how to engage more people, how to help more organizations, and how to show more what we're doing.
Have you been surprised by the range of organizations that have reached out to you to have a customized film made?
Oh, absolutely. From the small non-profit in Africa providing solar lights to students to the American Heart Association and the United Nations. I mean, it's such a worldwide record because the film has been translated into so many languages. We get requests from so many different places and a lot of regional non-profits that are using it to show at their big fundraising event or their big engagement event. So many non-profits do such important work but don't have films to match the power of their work.
One more question about cloud filmmaking. I read in your newsletter that you're facilitating a cloud filmmaking hackathon in San Francisco. Can you tell us a little more about that?
We're going to bring together filmmakers and programmers and coders and thinkers from a wide variety of areas and let them know what we're working on with these cloud films. They say that most innovation comes when you bring people from different perspectives together. We're going to bring a whole bunch of people and we're going to come up with new ways to push these cloud films further, and then we're actually going to build it on the spot.
Awesome. And you mention the TED book, so I wanted to ask - your films are accompanied by in-depth discussion kits featuring books, conversation cards, websites, mobile apps, and other tools to - as you say - "stretch ideas and start a conversation." And then of course "Brain Power" is accompanied by that experimental TED book that follows the script of the film, with excerpts linked to research, talks, and other films to further empower ideas. What drove you toward this multidimensional, multimedia format?
Well, I think you can see from my whole career, I'm mostly interested with ideas, and how ideas get people to feel, to think, to laugh, to rethink. And all of these different approaches are just different ways to do that, whether it was the Webby Awards - which was a medium for me for almost a decade - or my films and Twitter and Facebook and then this TED book. They're all ways for me to explore ideas and share them with people.
A recurring idea in both "Connected" and "Brain Power" is that technology is actively reshaping the connections in our brains. More than merely information sources, your films inspire action and awareness. What are you hoping will come of the ripples of these projects out in the world?
Well we want to help non-profits, and in just over a year of us making these cloud films we have been able to help 450 non-profits all over the world. That is so exciting for us. We're interested first and foremost in how to help all these non-profits do more of what they're doing. We're also really interested in exploring new forms of collaborative creativity and participation. The film series itself is called "Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change," and it's putting a lot of the ideas from "Connected" into action. So a lot of this weaves right back into my feature film, which is still playing all over the world right now. It's just about to go digitally and on television, which is going to be exciting.
We're all moving so quickly and technology is changing so many of the ways we live. But can we pause for a moment and think about what's the good, what's the bad, and what's the potential? All of my films also explore what we should be worried about, what we should be thinking about, what we should be hoping for, and how we can push ourselves.
And they have a lot of humor in them, too. We just released a funny parody film called "Facing the Future," asking what would happen if everyone was friends on Facebook. We're always kind of toying and playing and exploring these bigger ideas that we're living in today.
For people who are interested in your projects, what's the best way to stay connected?
Well, I'm on Twitter: @tiffanyshlain. And then the Moxie Institute, which has all of our films. We have a really active Facebook page. We're always posting stuff, and we have a really beautiful community on there. Very engaged. And then my own speaking and films can be found at tiffanyshlain.com.
Perfect. Is there anything else you'd like to share with the community?
No. I love Reality Sandwich!
"Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLp-edwiGUU
"A Declaration of Interdependence": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzZ1Gl5UfE0
"Facing the Future": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKcKG0jshTE
"Connected the film Trailer": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUBjnk_9n8Y
Tiffany Shlain's Webiste: http://tiffanyshlain.com/
The Moxie Institute's Website: http://moxieinstitute.org/
The Moxie Institute on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MoxieInstitute
Transcription by David Wilder