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Documentary Review—Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death, and Technology, directed by Tiffany Shlain

by Jennifer Neibert

February 20, 2013


by Jennifer Neibert

February 20, 2013

“Today, the human species is at a crossroads. There are more humans on the planet than ever before —and they are more connected than ever before. If we can harness the potential of all our minds, we can beat the odds. We have to. The world is only going to become more and more interdependent. Our survival depends on us connecting to one another; but connecting broadly is meaningless unless we connect deeply.”

Director Tiffany Shlain opens her documentary Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death, and Technology with a quote from naturalist and conservationist John Muir: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else.” Considered on its own, that quote is deeply powerful, full of meaning, emotion, and significance. Following the quote, three words appear on-screen : “#connected #interdependence #quote.”

Less than a decade ago, those words might have had a different meaning in the context of the quote. But presented with the ubiquitous Twitter hashtags, Muir’s words are given new life when we’re reminded we live in a world where you can connect with someone on the other side of the globe nearly as easily as you can connect with a neighbor on your own block.

Figure 1: Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain asks, “What does it mean to be connected in the 21st century?”

The connections surrounding us today have expanded to the point that Shlain talks about the “central nervous system” of our world. And we know this to be true—when something happens in one place on the globe, we can see it, feel it, and do something about it almost instantaneously.

As learning professionals, we know the power of technology that links our learners, connecting them with content, instructors, and one another. But we also know the darker side of technology and the problems of an overpopulated planet facing food insecurity, war, and global warming.

For some of us, technology even borders on addictive behavior—to the point we remain connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even Shlain admits to succumbing to the pressures of connections and technology, recounting a time she faked a visit to the restroom to get her technology fix, but is left asking herself, “What have I become?”

When faced head-on with the frailty of human life, Shlain is forced to step back and re-evaluate her own connections. Within days of one another, she receives news that her father, a general surgeon with special interest in the brain, is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer, and that she is pregnant. Yet in her late 30s, and having had five previous miscarriages, she knows this will be a high-risk pregnancy. With Connected, Tiffany Shlain forces us all to step back and explore what we have become and how we can leverage the power of our connections to, hopefully, turn things around in our world for the better.

Connected: A synopsis of curiosity

Through imaginative animations, imagery, and archival and home movie clips, Connected takes us on a journey from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago that created the universe, to the beginning of life on our planet, to the rise and eventual extinction of dinosaurs, and finally to the evolution of those adaptable mammals known as humans—complete, of course, with our incredibly effective opposable thumbs and unusually large brains. The film does, at times, ramble through seemingly disjointed topics, but the connection of them all are the questions Shlain ponders in each section throughout her unique autoblogography:

  • A brief history … of history: As a species, humans have accumulated an incredible amount of knowledge … but why do we have such a hard time seeing the bigger picture?
  •  A vision of division: How much faster can the pace of change go before we can’t keep up? And how did things start moving so quickly in the first place?
  • The evolution of revolution: As Shlain’s father, Leonard Shlain, once said, “One of the greatest paradoxes of humans is that we’re simultaneously the most compassionate and the most cruel of any species.” How can we tap into our connectedness to overcome our self-destructive impulses?  
  • Actions and chain reactions: As we become more connected, every decision we make impacts everything around us and, over time, that impact becomes stronger and faster. With connection comes greater responsibility—are we as a species ready to take that on?
  • Consuming and assuming: How can the human species use connectedness to our advantage to take the next leap in human evolution? How is our ever-increasing connectedness changing the ways our brains function?

Figure 2: Even though the great redwoods appear to be individual trees, they have one connected root structure.

  • Thinking ahead … a head: The human brain is one of the most complex systems on Earth. If humans could see the cause and effect of our actions in real time, would it change our behaviors? Would we be more thoughtful and conscious?
  • Let it ripple: Perhaps most importantly, can we all strive to embrace the life lessons Leonard Shlain passed on to his daughter?
    • Live life to the fullest
    • Be compassionate to others
    • Plant gardens
    • Always laugh at yourself
    • Be curious
    • Make a difference
    • Be present
    • Always remember you are loved

Figure 3:
Connected: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up way too much space.” Is it time to declare our interdependence?

Get involved

The Connected Educator’s Edition is available as a tool to support use of the film in an academic setting. In addition to the 80-minute film, the Educator’s Edition contains two bonus films, a curriculum guide, a companion book, conversation cards, and more. Connected is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Google play, and from the Moxie Institute. You can also connect with Connected on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and Pinterest.

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