Neurons to Networks: An Interview with Interconnected Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain

Back in 1987, when most teenagers weren’t thinking about the internet and the massive changes it would bring about just a few years later, Tiffany Shlain co-authored a proposal called “The United Nations Intelligence Communication Software.” It was about how “computers are going to help solve world peace,” she states. “It was very optimistic, young, and naive. But it came from a hopeful place.” Just age 17 at the time, she was already thinking about the impact computers and digital communication would have on the billions of people inhabiting the planet.

Shlain is of Russian descent. Her grandfather emigrated from the Soviet Union, but he never wanted to talk about the country. It remained a mystery until she was invited to be a student ambassador to the USSR as part of the People to People program in 1988 — in part thanks to the one-page U.N. proposal she co-authored a year prior. “I think that’s when I began thinking that computers were a bridge for the world,” she discloses. “I was blown away by the potential of connecting!”

She went on to study organizational change at Harvard Business School and in 1992 earned a B.A. in film theory and interdisciplinary studies from the University of California, Berkeley. One of her first jobs was designing a website for The Web Magazine. Although the magazine owned the Webby Awards trademark, there was no budget to do anything with it. “I was like, ‘I know how to create things from scratch; I’m an independent filmmaker!’ And I was so obsessed with the web, it was like the perfect channel for me!,” she gushes.

In 1996, Shlain indeed founded the Webby Awards. She also implemented a five-word acceptance-speech policy to make the Webbys different from other award shows, which created a kind of competition among the winners. Additionally, she was tasked with starting a new judging academy, so in 1998 she established the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. “You have to understand that, back then, many people didn’t comprehend what the web was. I was making the name as big as I thought the web was going to be, and that pretty much encompasses everything.”

Shlain explains that she got involved with the Webby Awards because of The Web Magazine. Eventually, though, she wanted to settle down and have children with her husband, the artist and University of California, Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg. By this point, the internet was booming. Films could be shown online, and a new era full of filmmaking possibilities was ushered in. So, she left her 10-year stint with the awards and founded the Moxie Institute in 2006, “a cutting-edge film studio for the 21st century.” The emergence of cloud technology made it easier for Shlain and her team to reach, engage, and collaborate with others across the globe.

Her collaborative cloud film, “The Science of Character,” premiered on March 20, 2014. According to her website, it “explores new research on character development and our ability to shape who we are.” It will feature the latest neurological research available on the subject and will include artwork plus cloud films submitted from around the world. This is not her first film venture into scientific concepts; she is also the author of “Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks” and its accompanying 10-minute film.

She’s always had an interest in the brain. Her father, Leonard Shlain, was a popular surgeon, author, and inventor. “When I was in third grade,” she recalls, “my father brought a brain into class for career day — it was in formaldehyde!” And her mother was a psychologist who was always talking about the brain’s emotional aspects. So it was only natural for Shlain to develop the interest as well. Most of her films are documented journeys of her trying to understand new concepts, many of which tend to be scientific in nature.

“So, you have the Webby Awards, the Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and then all of my filmmaking work,” she says. “I kind of believe that everything points you into the direction of your next project. Like, you could never do your new project without having done the other things.” When she was working on “Brain Power,” Shlain had access to research that examined a child’s brain from birth till the age of 5. She couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the developing brain of a child and the trajectory of the web’s maturation.

For her, “It was like this big bulb lit up!” Various scientists and sociologists alike have compared the web to a global brain. There are more than 7 billion people in the world, with only 2 billion of them currently online. Shlain equates this to a toddler’s brain, where the synaptic connections are just starting to form. Think of it like this: “Each time we send an email to someone new on the other side of the world, we create a new synapse,” she explains. “Much like we need to be careful about how we develop a child’s brain, we have to be mindful about how we develop the web.”

She hopes that when everyone finally connects online, an absolutely incredible exchange of ideas will occur, and we will finally have a better understanding of one another. She is careful to point out, however, that change can be good and bad. “If we put intelligent stuff out in the world, and ask important questions and make people laugh and engage them, hopefully we can change things in a positive direction,” she muses.

At present, Tiffany Shlain is among Newsweek’s “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” She has been invited to advise former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the role of the internet in society. With more than 50 film awards under her belt — many for films that have been shown in embassies around the world — Shlain has been invited to speak at Harvard, TED Talks, MIT, and
many other places of note. “As an artist, I love advantaging the science. It goes back to this place where I like taking complicated ideas and trying to film them, and making them acceptable and engaging and compelling.”

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