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Filmmaker is at the intersection of technology, art and character

By Julie Randles
October 1, 2016
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Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who Newsweek magazine spotlighted as one of the women shaping the 21st century. But the real story behind Shlain’s success is how she’s using film and technology to do just that.

Shlain is the founder of the Webby Awards and a co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. She runs a film studio/lab called The Moxie Institute and the nonprofit Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change that makes free films for schools and creates global events to catalyze conversations around important topics.

She has directed and co-written 28 films, some with accompanying books, including “The Science of Character,” “Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks,” and the feature-length documentary “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death & Technology.”

Raised by a surgeon and a psychologist, even as a child Shlain sought to influence the future, as exemplified by a quote she kept on her desk: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” Shlain is a woman who believes in the empowering force of the internet for her gender and champions the idea that technology will “give them the tools to do whatever they want to do, whatever they dream of doing,” as she told The Untitled Magazine.

But here’s where the left turn in her story comes: Shlain has begun to unplug. For the past seven years, she and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and her two children have taken “technology shabbats” for a 24-hour period each Friday.

She shuts down all technology for this window in an attempt to spark her creativity and produce strong family bonds.

Instead, the family and friends sit down to a big feast, where they gather around the table after and ask everyone four questions: What are you grateful for? What was one thing that happened in the last week you want to let go of? What was one thing you learned in the past week? What is one thing happening next week that you are looking forward to?

It’s her way of paying tribute to her own roots, when her mother called young Tiffany “Miss Enthusi-usi-usi-asm.”

“Today, I would say I am still very enthusiastic but with a handful of perspective and self-control and a lot of gratitude,” Shlain recently told a reporter.

Her mindset spawned the annual Character Day (held September 22) in more than 20,000 organizations, including classrooms – a free annual day and global initiative where folks screen films on the science of character development, aka resilience, grit, empathy, courage and kindness.

Here’s how Shlain sees the intersection of technology, film and character building:

What is the best lesson you’ve ever received in a classroom setting?

In seventh grade, I learned how to outline information in social studies class. I will never forget it because I’ve used it so much – the whole idea of how to organize information using a hierarchy of ideas.

You’ve noted that women have pioneered many of today’s technologies. Who are some of your heroines from applied science and technology?

There are several that come to mind. Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winner. Maya Deren, the mother of independent cinema. And Hedy Lamarr who came up with the technology for all of the wireless devices we use today.

How do you want your films for schools to impact learning and teaching?

I’ve made 28 films and there have been about eight that are focused for educational environments. I hope to get students and teachers to ask the big questions about meaning and purpose, including who are you and who do you want to be in the world?

And I think film, supported by online and other accompanying materials, is a great way to do that.

Your Character Day movement highlights humans’ core positive qualities, including virtues like wisdom, courage, justice and humanity, as well as strengths like humility, gratitude, honesty, social intelligence, self-control and humor. Tell us about the movement and how a project like this can impact the sometimes divisive and combative social media discourse that is common today.

Character Day is a way of using film to launch a global conversation about the importance of developing character strengths. It also taps into digital citizenship and the idea that we’re all moving so quickly and not thinking as much about how our sense of character applies to the online world.

Character Day is one day to stop and think about how your character is translated online and how to live a life of meaning and purpose. To think about who we are and who we want to be.

These are old questions, and yet we have so many tools today that influence our character, some that are not always used well. We have research from neuroscience that now backs up how to develop these aspects of yourself, and we think it’s a positive step forward. Bettering yourself so you can contribute best to society.

Just last month during Character Day 2016, we had over 20,000 screenings in schools and organizations all over the world. They screened one of our films on character development, used our discussion materials and then engaged in a global conversation using Google Hangouts.

It was an experiment that started three years ago and really blossomed, and it’s all based on getting people the world over to join a conversation about character strengths like resilience, grit, empathy, courage and kindness.

What’s interesting is that Character Day is so in line with the 2016 iste Standards for Students. When we go through the 24 character strengths and identify what are your strengths and what you want to work on, it’s a very custom view of the world. We ask, what are the five you are really strong in and what are the five you want to work on? It’s a very catered experience.

You created an Emmy-nominated series that explores how science and technology influence creativity. What did you learn about technology’s influence on creativity in the course of this project?   

Well, first, there are so many collaborative tools today that weren’t available before. I studied film when it was still celluloid and a camera and it was so expensive. Now, I write with four people using Google Docs and make films in a new way in the cloud.
Recently, my kids spent an hour or so making a music video on a tablet and it was great. So there’s the benefit of technology as far as expression; it offers so many more venues for self expression and tools to create unique artifacts.

I made a film called “The Participatory Revolution” about that sense that everyone wants to feel a part of something, everyone wants to make something.

I think an invention that doesn’t get talked about enough is that button on a smartphone that turns the camera around so you can film yourself. That little button is so powerful. I often do a call for entries in my films where I ask people questions online and they send their videos back to me. Everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves. Humans love to participate. It’s a beautiful thing.

For the past seven years, you and your family have taken technology shabbats where you unplug each week for 24 hours. What are some of the insights or lessons you’ve learned from your tech shabbats? How do your children respond?

It’s changed my life, and these breaks keep getting better and better. The screens in our house go down on Friday before shabbat and it’s my happy place. It’s brought an amazing sense of peace to my life. Then, Saturday night, everyone is ready to go back online. We re-appreciate technology all over again.

As far as lessons, I’ve learned that it’s really good to daydream. When I was doing research for a film called “The Case for Dreaming,” I found that creativity comes from the unusual linking of things done when your mind is not focused on something. It’s called the default mode network. I tend to daydream on my shabbat (since I don’t have a screen to distract that important activity) and I’m always more creative the next day.

It has also really become a family day when we get involved in nature. I have a teenager who is a big reader and she loves to read and write on Saturdays. She recently wrote a spoken-word piece about how powerful these weekly technology shabbats are. Like any teenager, she loves Instagram and Twitter, but she also likes the day off when she doesn’t have to be “on” and think about everyone else.

Your films and other work often wrestle with the good, the bad and the potential of technology. Can you share a couple of examples from each category? What’s good about technology? What’s bad? And what is its potential?

The good is that it can connect you with ideas you would never otherwise be exposed to and to people from all over the world with whom to collaborate.

The bad is that people are looking at their screens too much and are not spending enough time making eye contact. We can’t forget that humans need eye contact and they need authentic connection to others.

As far as potential, when I started the Webby Awards, there were only 16 million people online. Now we’re at half the planet online – which is an amazing growth cycle in 20 years. I think it’s really only going to be five to 10 more years until everyone is online. Just imagine the potential when all of those different perspectives are interacting.

There’s a writer named Matt Ridley who points out that throughout history, innovation happened most in big cities because you had the greatest number of people from different places living in close quarters trying to solve problems. I think when you have the whole planet online and all of those different perspectives from every continent tackling some of our biggest problems, we’re going to see innovation we can’t even imagine.

I made a film and a TED Book about early brain development in children called “Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks.” Neuroscientists explained that the whole goal of the first five years is to connect all the parts of the brain, and that a child will have their first insight at age 5 and that’s the moment when all of the different parts of the brain are connected.

I like to compare early childhood brain development to the growth of the internet because we’re in a similar period, an early stage of getting everyone connected. So the moment when people are connected from every part of the planet will be very powerful. At that point, what we’re going to see is a scale of innovation we can’t even imagine.

You’ve written that a child’s brain and the internet are both highly creative, experimental, innovative states of rapid development that are waiting to make connections. How can we help shape both of these “networks” to create a better future?   

Be mindful of the connections you are making. Every email you write, website you visit and post you comment on, you’re making a new link. You are either strengthening in a positive way or in a negative way.

In your film “The Adaptable Mind,” you explored the skills we’ll all need to succeed in the 21st century. What are those skills?

The skills are creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, empathy and taking initiative.

The film team looked at a lot of research to find the commonalities and to identify the crossover skills we felt would be most needed in the 21st century, and these are the skills that we determined were most important.

The best part about what we uncovered is that with all the fear about robots and machines taking over humanity, the skills we truly need to flourish in the 21st century are all the skills that make us human.