February 2019

Pulling the Plug

Award-Winning Filmmaker, Tiffany Shlain Proclaims the Benefits of Disconnecting in Order to Remain Connected

By Lynn Wexler

#TGIF. It means we’re so glad it’s Friday. #SATURDAYSLOWDOWN. It means we want Saturday’s tranquility to linger. #TRANSLATION, It means we need a break from 24/7 tech amplification.

Award-winning filmmaker, speaker, author, and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain is living the antidote to what she says is a society increasingly ensnared by the relentless lure of screen technology.

“Nine years ago, my husband, two children, and I participated in the first National Day of Unplugging (NDU), where we turned off screens on a Friday night for 24 hours. The experience was so profound that we decided to make it a weekly ritual. We call it Technology Shabbat and it’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done as a family,” affirms Shlain.

NDU is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, an annual adaptation of the Jewish ritual that sets aside one day per week to pray, gather, unwind, reflect, and connect with loved ones without acquiescing to the demands and distractions of the work week.

The 24-hour tech respite that Shlain speaks about highlights the value of digital detox in order to connect to what’s meaningful in real time.

Shlain, who is Jewish, loves and respects all the ways in which Jews observe the laws of Shabbat. “For me, though, it’s not religious. Shabbat is a beautiful gift from the Jewish religion that can benefit all people,” she says.

“The first time we tried it, a few things happened that I didn’t expect,” Shlain continues. “We found that time truly slows down…like we got four Saturdays in one. When we went back online Saturday night, we appreciated technology in a whole new light.” The more they did it, the more powerful the experience; the more productive the work week.

Which isn’t to say that Shlain isn’t a fan of technology and its far-reaching ability, She is. She’s built an award-winning career based upon global connections made possible through the internet. Twenty-two years ago, she founded the Webby Awards to recognize producers of global connection through content and programming.

The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences – also founded by Shlain – judges and presents the award to the winning recipient each year.

Shlain, however, acknowledges that the benefits of technology have also produced diminishing returns – its constant availability leaves no time for self-reflection or deep thinking.

She explores this dilemma in many of her films and addresses the issue in her new book, The 24/6 Life, available this fall from Simon and Schuster, which advises readers on how to reclaim their time from the grip of screens to create a better balance in their lives.

Connection, nonetheless, remains the predominant theme throughout Shlain’s body of work. Technology alone provides the platform for the “participatory revolution” she says has taken place, where people’s ideas can cross-pollinate and reproduce on a global scale, taking humanity to the next place through an emerging global brain.

“Our brains are designed to seek connection,” she says. “Innovation happens when people from different perspectives connect and share. Technology and the world wide web make this possible.”

Shlain’s films are intended to provoke the viewer to consider where humanity is headed in this increasingly connected world. “I view myself as a conversation-maker rather than a filmmaker,” she says.

Newsweek calls Shlain one of the “women shaping the 21st century.” Her work has garnered over 80 awards and distinctions, including being named on NPR’s list of  Best Commencement Speeches.

She has premiered four films at Sundance, including her acclaimed feature documentary Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology. The U.S. State Department selected four of her films, including Connected, to represent the U.S. at embassies around the world for their American Film Showcase. Her AOL Original series, The Future Starts Here, was nominated for an Emmy and has over ٤٠ million views to date.

Shlain is a world-renowned speaker and has been featured at Google, Harvard, NASA, The Economist Ideas conference, and was the closing speaker for TEDWomen and TEDMED.

TED Conferences published her first book, Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, and she writes a monthly online newsletter about ideas and culture called Breakfast @ Tiffany’s.

Shlain runs the Let It Ripple film studio in San Francisco, where she makes films and creates global internet days around topics that shape our lives. The annual global initiative, Character Day, features films, speakers, and discussions on the components of character – courage, empathy, wisdom, social intelligence.

Her film series, 50/50: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Women + Power, premiered live at TEDWomen and at 275 TEDxes globally. It was the centerpiece film for the first annual 50/50 Day, which had over 11,000 screenings around the globe, all linked together in an online discussion about what it’s going to take to get to a more gender-balanced world.  

Shlain has achieved a lot by any measure of success. Determination, vision, and courage seem to be hallmarks that drive her to affect and evolve change.

“It’s only possible because I believe in humanity; and I believe we’re evolving. Two steps forward, one step back, but always in a positive direction. It’s important to highlight the good so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as opposed to the alternative,” she says.

The goal of the films that she and her team produce is to trigger important conversations for the times we’re living in. “It’s rewarding to make films that are used by professors, teachers, and organizations around the world to educate and engage people on the complicated topics challenging the 21st century brain.”

“Basic academics are, of course, important, but it’s just as important to teach critical thinking, collaboration, learning from failure, improvising, and addressing the ecosystem of education,” she adds.

Shlain feels fortunate to have had parents who encouraged her to be all she can be. She was inspired by a mother who returned to school to get her Ph.D. and a father who told her to think big; If she wasn’t living on the creative cutting edge, she was taking up space.

She also practices the belief that naming your hopes and dreams and declaring them out loud is a way of manifesting them into reality.

“If you have an idea, and you believe in yourself, surround yourself with others who support and encourage you to go for it. Go for it as if you know it’s already done. Pursue it with clarity and focus and commitment, and see what unfolds,” she says.

Shlain grew up with a quote by 17th century German writer Goethe on her desk that she’s viewed each day since she was a little girl. It sums up her understanding of how to commit to being effective in the world: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

But dreams back then weren’t distracted by gadgets that buzz and ping relentlessly from a glaring screen that beckons our attention 24/7, impacting our peace of mind, body, and soul.

Which is precisely why Shlain and her family are committed to unplugging once a week, beginning on Friday night, for twenty-four hours. Her love of technology is why she values time away from it.

“Tech Shabbat,” she says, “…turning off every screen in sight - phones, laptops, TVs, and yes, even Apple watches – allows me to space out and explore my imagination. It puts my mind into a different mode of thinking. It’s supple and allows me to reinvigorate creativity and be inspired all over again.”

“It’s what Rabbi and Jewish theologian Avraham Heschel calls a sanctuary in time. Like technology, unplugging is truly lifechanging.”

Shlain will be the guest speaker at the JCC of Southern Nevada’s Women’s Retreat on Sunday, March 19, 2019 at Desert Torah Academy. Entitled Seek, Nourish, Ignite, interested parties can call 702- 794-0090 for tickets and additional information.


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