Tiffany Shlain
Growing Up the Internet

When Tiffany Shlain thinks of her favorite quote from naturalist John Muir, she thinks of the internet: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else.” As a filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards — the “Oscars of the internet” — she is committed to reframing technology as an expression of the best of what humanity is capable, with all the complexity that entails. With her young family, she has helped popularize the practice of the “tech shabbat” — 24 unplugged hours each week. Her perspective on our technology-enhanced lives is ultimately a purposeful and enriching one: the internet is our global brain, towards which we can apply all the wisdom we are gaining about the brains in our heads and the character in our lives.

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is the founder of the Webby Awards and a co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. 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.


March 31, 2016

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Tiffany Shlain thinks of the internet when she thinks of her favorite quote of the naturalist John Muir, that “when you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else.” She is an internet pioneer and a filmmaker committed to reframing technology as an expression of the best of what humanity is capable, with all the complexity that entails. She founded the Webby Awards — the “Oscars of the Internet” — which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And for over six years she and her young family have held to a technology sabbath or “shabbat” — 24 unplugged hours each week. Her perspective on our technology-enhanced lives is ultimately a purposeful and enriching one — the internet is our global brain, towards which we can apply all the wisdom we are gaining about the brains in our heads and the character in our lives.

MS. TIFFANY SHLAIN: There’s a point in the development of a child’s brain where all the different parts of the brain are connected that they can have their first insight. And extrapolating that out to the internet, the moment that we can truly get everyone on the internet connected, imagine the insight that will be able to happen when we have that many different perspectives coming together in one network. And I think the challenge is going to be to create enough collaborative tools to make that happen. But that makes me incredibly hopeful.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Tiffany Shlain grew up in California. Her many films include the feature-length Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death, and Technology. This touched on the life and ideas of her late father, the renowned surgeon, inventor, and author Leonard Shlain.

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder how you would start to talk about what you would call the spiritual background of your childhood, however you would define that language now, looking back.

MS. SHLAIN: Hm. It’s definitely changed how I would describe it, but I think — I grew up as a cultural California Jew with two parents from the Midwest — they’re both from Detroit. And we were culturally Jewish, but I wouldn’t say religious, and I understand — my grandfather escaped when he was 16 from Odessa, Ukraine, and was put in the back of a hay truck. And he never wanted to talk about it. And as a young adult, I learned that his whole family died in the Holocaust.


MS. SHLAIN: And I think that that probably colored my father’s experience in his home. I’d say both my parents were on the agnostic side of things. But it was a very intellectually curious home, a lot of questioning. I would say we probably felt the most spiritual when we’d go river rafting, which we did quite often.

MS. TIPPETT: I think it was in your Connection film that you talked about — you grew up with your father, who was your version of Einstein. You called him “Dad.”

MS. SHLAIN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: But I’m really intrigued by how it seems your father was always making these fascinating connections between breakthroughs in art and breakthroughs in science, and that space. And that’s also something — you’ve kind of moved into that lineage, as well.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. I think a lot of my — the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. He wrote this this book, Art and Physics, which looked at the parallel visions in these two worlds, and how artists and scientists are often talking about the same ideas, but one’s with images, and one’s with equations.

And then ended up — actually, the way I met my husband, who is an artist and a scientist, is he went to hear my dad speak, and we fell in love that night. And a lot of our — we collaborate on a lot of stuff, projects, together, and exploring art and science is a strong connection. And then my mother, when I was growing up, was getting her Ph.D. in psychology, and her explorations of the inner world and emotions and how much that drives what we do, that’s been a big part, too, with the character work.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Did you know that Einstein said that a sense of wonder and a reverence for mystery, that this is something that is at the core of the best of science and religion and the arts?

MS. SHLAIN: Ah, I love that. Actually, Einstein, who my father wrote about a lot, he was a part of a lot of my bedtime stories from my dad. But I wrestle a lot with questions around religion and the word “God,” and I really have wrestled with that, because it does shut me down. Even though I — if I don’t use that word, I’m more comfortable.

But I remember hearing — I read this great chapter — I think it was Walter Isaacson wrote it in like a profile book of all the rabbis and theologians questioning Einstein, whether he believed in God, and he finally said, I have a humility for the complexity that I don’t understand, and an awe. I’m not saying it exactly how he said it, but that spoke — that has always spoken to me the most. I mean, that — when I read that, I just felt this amazing sense of connection, and relief, and an articulation of my own sense of my place in the world, and a reverence for this larger complexity.

MS. TIPPETT: Something I so admire and really want to kind of delve into, which I see as the big — part of a big vision behind everything that you do, which is, you are really making a connection between the fact that our brains are designed for connection, and the internet is an extension of our brains, that it was made to connect data, but now it connects us. And seeing this digital world that we often define as something separate from us, and even something that’s tyrannical, that’s taking over our lives.

I love the analogy that you draw with the brain, with our brains, and with human connection. And I think it seems kind of obvious to you — and it’s one of those things that seems obvious when you say it, but it’s really not the narrative that we have…

MS. SHLAIN: I know.

MS. TIPPETT: …running through our culture.

MS. SHLAIN: It’s amazing. We seem to talk about technology as if it’s other than us when we’ve created it. It’s a reframing. It is an extension of our abilities. It’s an amplification of our desire to connect, of our desire to do more — so, it is us. And we are good, bad, and everything in between.

So you can talk about technology as a force for bad, but you can also talk about it as a force for good. Or you could just talk about it as an extension of us. And if we’re mindful about the way we use technology, we can shape it. And it’s not something that’s overtaking us. I think a lot of people talk about, “Oh, I’m so overwhelmed with technology.” Well, you can turn it off, also, and that’s been a really profound thing for me.

I was very immersed in technology. My husband’s a professor of robotics, and my father wrote a lot about the brain, and he was a surgeon and operated on it. And he did get brain cancer, which was very difficult. And I’m sure anyone who has had someone really close to them dying — when I would go over to see him for — sometimes it was just one good hour a day, we would turn off our phones and just be incredibly present with my dad. And when he died, I just — I said, “Ken, I — can we as a family” — and we have children — “can we turn off the screens for Shabbat?” And we call them our “technology shabbats.” And I cannot tell you — we’re now just starting our seventh year of doing it. And it has been the most profound thing. It’s incredible — going back to what you originally asked, it’s incredibly empowering to also know that I needed to turn it off and that I could, and we made this family commitment to do it.


MS. SHLAIN: And I find that having just that day without any screens, without any technology, is such a beautiful rebalancing. And I think more deeply. I’m more reflective. I think about the bigger picture. And then — and also it’s a wonderful day with my family. And then on Saturday night, this kind of dual effect, which I didn’t expect at all, is that I kind of reappreciate technology all over again, because I’m very excited to, like — oh, I have a thought that I want to look up, and I look it up!

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, you echo something that’s come up in many of my conversations across the years, including with Sherry Turkle, who I think is a friend of yours…

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, she’s a friend.

MS. TIPPETT: …that the internet is in its infancy, and it’s up to us to grow it up. That we’re the adults in the room, whether we feel like that or not.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. We need to have agency, and that’s a framing of what it is to us. It’s an extension of us. It’s not this other thing that somebody’s doing to us.

MS. TIPPETT: And then you’re — it seems to me that — you’re also saying that the internet and this technology makes connection possible. It’s an engine of connection, and that…

MS. SHLAIN: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …growing it up, and shaping it to human purposes for the world we want to live in and we want to raise our children in means delving into it in that spirit, and also, at the same time, knowing when to unplug. Right?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, and being mindful — actually, the word “mindful” — I have to tell you the new word that I love to ground the word “mindful,” which is so used everywhere now. OK, here it is …

MS. TIPPETT: It is. It’s one of those overused words.

MS. SHLAIN: I know. It’s so overused it’s lost its meaning. So here’s the word that grounds it is “metacognition,” which is “meta” — thinking about thinking. It’s the same thing, but it’s so much more — it grounds it in science, which is exciting to me, and it has kind of teeth to it. [laughs] It kind of secures itself to the ground.

MS. TIPPETT: It is a word you have to think about.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. “Metacognition.”

MS. TIPPETT: You point out — is this true? — that there are more connections still — neural connections in any single human brain than the entire internet possesses now?

MS. SHLAIN: A child’s brain.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t that incredible?

MS. SHLAIN: It’s incredible. I was doing this film about — called “Brain Power,”, which looked at the best way to nurture a child’s brain. And birth to five is the biggest growth period of a child’s brain. And we were trying to show how incredibly important it is to support a brain in those years. Yeah, it’s an awesome fact. And, again, that’s another word. “Awesome.” If you think about the word “awesome,” “full of awe,” that’s a very big word.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, you’re so right.

MS. SHLAIN: But it has become [laughs] — it’s become — but that is truly an awesome — can we use that word in the right way? It’s an awesome fact. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] No, I like it. Well, and here’s another one. A little bit less overused, but you even single out this word “ubuntu” which is a South African word, and this beautiful philosophical principle and way of being that was there as apartheid ended. And it means “I am, because you are.” And I’ve seen that watered down spiritually, I think, but you say that that principle, in fact, is a perfect way to think about how the human brain develops.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. I think, being a parent, there’s nothing more incredible than experiencing that first-hand with watching your children respond and grow to you, and guiding, and modeling, and all of these things, too. I think a lot about the modeling, even with my work around character and gratitude and all of these things that you hope to instill, and, yeah, it’s interesting.

We recently made this film that explored Mussar and being a Mensch. And Mussar is the Jewish lens of the science of character education, which was very exciting for me to learn as a Jew. I had never known about it before. And so there’s this Jewish practice of a hundred blessings a day. You bless everything. But people that truly do this, they’re blessing when they go to the bathroom. They’re blessing a sunrise, a rainbow. And I just love the specificity of blessing every moment.

And our children just — I think them seeing us really try to — and we don’t actually just say we’re blessing this moment, we’re acknowledging an incredible moment. And it’s wonderful to see them really start to do that now.

[music: “Get Green Soothe” by Auditory Canvas]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with the internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. She sees a parallel between her purposeful perspective on the internet and the development of the relatively new field, pioneered by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, of positive psychology — focused less on pathology and more on the development of human wholeness and character. Her production company, The Moxie Institute Film Studio and Lab, has created an annual Character Day with events around the world. Her film “The Science of Character” develops a periodic table of 24 character strengths positive psychology has identified, such as curiosity, perseverance, gratitude, and humor.

MS. TIPPETT: So the intellectual, creative side of you is thinking about growing up the internet to its greatest potential, and…


MS. TIPPETT: …in fact, its character. And its potential for incredible connection. But you’ve been working with that idea as you are becoming a mother, and as you’re thinking about healthy child development techniques, and in fact, it’s a perfect analogy. But, again, it’s not the way we tend to think about our…

MS. SHLAIN: Well, actually…

MS. TIPPETT: …lives with technology.

MS. SHLAIN: …I love what you just said about character in terms of the internet evolving, that we proactively can evolve the internet and infuse it with character strengths. That is really a framework to think about a healthy evolution of the internet, instead of throwing your hands up and saying this thing is out of our control, and it’s doing all these things. We — just as we’re raising a child, we need to shepherd this to its maturity, and infuse it with our own sense of character.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You talk about how a child’s brain and our brains are always pruning as we get older, and that what we pay attention to gets stronger, and what you pay attention to less gets pruned out.


MS. TIPPETT: And I think you’ve also suggested that, like the human brain, those of us who are adults now have lived through this thing, this phenomenon, landing in the middle of our lives, and in the middle of society, and really turning everything inside out in ways that are still playing out. But you’ve said there’s this possibility that once it has just proliferated, that it might begin to prune. But again, as you’re saying, it’s up to us what direction that takes.

MS. SHLAIN: Absolutely. I think that’s incredibly empowering, too, if you think of it that way. And it’s exciting, if you think, wow, we’re at this point in human evolution and our civilization where you have this tool that’s creating a nervous system for the whole world, and we can shape it. And we can prune it. And we can strengthen things that are important, and weaken things that are not as important — or not good for society.

There’s so much — going back to the character, there’s so much science, neuroscience and social science, that’s backing up what we believed to be true. And what was so exciting to me about learning about Seligman and Peterson’s work, that they looked at character, virtues, and strengths all throughout cultures in history.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, their whole idea…

MS. SHLAIN: They broke it down.

MS. TIPPETT: …of positive psychology, yeah.

MS. SHLAIN: Positive psychology, yes. And they broke it down and they made it accessible and tangible. And I think that, with the internet and with technology, if people find ways to break it down and make it accessible — even for me, whether it was the technology shabbat and having some way to engage with it that felt more comfortable to me. I think that’s really important.

MS. TIPPETT: I think what’s also accessible and empowering about that is your emphasis that it doesn’t say that you have to possess all of those wonderful qualities, but that we do have some strengths, and that focusing on the strengths you have and practicing the strengths you have is also your contribution.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, and focusing on the strengths of others. The people around you have strengths, to recognize them, it actually makes them stronger for them, too. And then also when I learned about the kind of Jewish version of these ideas, which is called Mussar — the way that they talk about it is that we all have just different levels of these strengths. And you can work on them, to build one up, or take it down. And actually, being in different situations, you need to learn how to dial something up and dial something down. Everyone has strengths that you would never say are good, like something like envy.

If envy motivates you to actually, maybe, get a new job, or do something, that could possibly have — it could be useful in some situations. And things like humility, that you can dial up or down humility in different situations, and it’s all about understanding how much space you should take up. Which, I think it was a little bit of a shift for me in the thinking after I learned the positive psychology movement, which I found really interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: And what was the shift for you?

MS. SHLAIN: Well, even something like humility, which I think is a beautiful attribute, and then I thought about being a woman, and a woman director, and…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it can be …

MS. SHLAIN: …there are times where …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It’s tricky. Humility can be tricky.

MS. SHLAIN: Well, on the one hand, OK, my — if your instinct is to be humble, but then there’s another part of me that’s a complete feminist, and I know that we need to keep pushing it forward. And a lot of times if women don’t say what they’ve done, it won’t get said, and it’s not in the history books. So there’s another part of me that’s like, well, I need to make sure that what a woman has done is known. [laughs] So it’s — I’m inner wrestling with me. But it’s a little — you know what I mean?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but then I think — I also think that’s then — then it comes down to how — because humility’s another one of those ruined words.

MS. SHLAIN: I know.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? It’s flattened out. And I think it — then it comes down to how do you define humility, because I actually think …

MS. SHLAIN: How do you define it?

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve — well, it’s interesting that you asked me, because I actually — I was at divinity school when my daughter was born, my first child, and so I was doing my version of what you’re doing. I was studying theology. And I was thinking about these ideas, and so, I was reading, at that point, about humility in the Bible, and about what — Jesus always talks about the humility of a child. And I think I had exactly the same reaction you did, as a woman. To me to be humble was to be ineffective and ineffectual.

MS. SHLAIN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: But I started to look at that word all the way through the text, and the Hebrew Bible, as well, and I realized that I think spiritual humility is actually not about making yourself small or about debasing yourself. It’s about having a proper awe before everything else and everyone else. Right? So you can break that apart, but, so then, I think …

MS. SHLAIN: No, I like that. It’s almost like your place in the larger context. That you always are coming from understanding where you are in the larger, interdependent context of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah, to put it into that wonderful framework that you use, yeah.

MS. SHLAIN: Huh, I love that. OK. Thank you for that. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] You’re welcome.

MS. SHLAIN: There is a zeitgeist with character, which is exciting for us …

MS. TIPPETT: There is.


MS. TIPPETT: It’s developed in the same period of your interest in this.

MS. SHLAIN: OK, but, actually, wait. I want to ask you, if I can — we really — we do this event called Character Day because we felt like when we tried to look up information about it, there were all these silos of information about character. There was education, there were people from the religious, there were people from this — it wasn’t all in one spot. And we thought it’d be very powerful to have a global conversation that was aggregated …

MS. TIPPETT: Also, I think, a lot of it has this eat-your-spinach feeling to it.

MS. SHLAIN: Yes. And we try to make it more exciting. But my question for you is why do you think there is this resurgence of the discussion of character right now in the 21st century in the last couple years? What do you think that’s about?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK. I’ll give you my answer, and then you have to give me yours. How’s that?

MS. SHLAIN: OK. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: Well, to me — so, a word I use probably more than “character,” but I actually think it’s completely connected, is the language of “virtues,” right? Or the…

MS. SHLAIN: Right. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …language of wisdom, which is different. And wisdom is one of those strengths, but I think…

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: …character and virtues, which, to me, are maybe the practices that add up to character. And I find — I was going to ask you, so — I find also that the language of virtue, for example, is that people who are a bit older, sometimes, it has baggage to it. But I find that younger people are — find this language really magnetic.

And for me, it’s — again, the language I use more is “virtue,” but I wonder if you find the language of character, that periodic table of strengths, like wisdom, and humility. I don’t know. What else is on there? What else is on there? The …


MS. TIPPETT: Probably kindness.

MS. SHLAIN: Humor.

MS. TIPPETT: Humor, yeah.

MS. SHLAIN: Social intelligence.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I love that humor’s on there, yeah.

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, yeah, humor’s a big one. I love humor on all of this stuff, because a lot of it is very — it’s been done in a dry context. And I think humor, really with any intellectual idea, just makes it move more easily in your mind. And I always try to bring that lens, the humor and irony of certain things.

I just heard Gloria Steinem speak. And I find her incredibly wise. And she laughs with almost all of her wisdom, and I was noting, God, every — even when she’s delivering the intense stuff, she’s laughing. And I absolutely love that delivery, because you’re open — usually, in my films, I will try to make people laugh right before I want them to think deeply. Because when people think they know how they feel about something, their body language, everything is tight. And you make them laugh, and immediately their body opens, and I always feel like I can go in deeper with the idea, or into their heart, or their mind, or both at the same time, hopefully.

So I’m pretty deliberate. I’m like, OK, I have this big idea coming, I must make them laugh with either a line or a visual like eight seconds before. [laughs] It’s not that scientific, but I do think that way, how much laughter is important.

[music: “Initiate” by GoGo Penguin]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Tiffany Shlain through our website,

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Initiate” by GoGo Penguin]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, I’m with internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. She founded the Webby Awards — the “Oscars of the Internet” — and she and her family have helped popularize the practice of a technology sabbath or shabbat — 24 unplugged hours each week. Tiffany Shlain believes that we can focus far more on the life-giving, character-building potential of the internet, and this is the theme of her films and global projects. The annual Character Day created by her non-profit, Let it Ripple, has encompassed over 6,000 events in over 40 countries.

MS. TIPPETT: So, if we think about this work of — really, what we’re talking about here, if we combine these different sides of the conversation, and these different sides of your endeavor — you’re talking about growing up the internet by growing up ourselves.

MS. SHLAIN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: Like growing up our species. Evolving.

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, I love that. Yes. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And I feel like you have a lot of — you’re close to a lot of what we’re learning on this frontier about how we interact with technology and what it does to us. You’ve talked about how, when you’ve gone out with your films, you realized how concerned people are about this, and about what technology’s doing to our brains. So talk a little bit about what you know — and one thing I want to ask you to explain more about is this MEG imaging, M-E-G…

MS. SHLAIN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …and what we’re learning through that.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. People are very concerned. It kind of feels like there’s a hysteria right now about artificial intelligence, which also is an offshoot of that. On some level, I’ve been really interested in neuroscience as it relates to creativity, and there are studies that you need to let your mind wander more. Daydreaming, spacing out, going for a walk, doing the dishes, taking a shower, your mind goes into this whole other mode that is really important for creativity.

And what they’ve found is that your mind goes into the default mode network, which is — it’s almost like you’re taking a journey in your own mind and you’re exploring what’s already in there, and you’re making connections you wouldn’t normally make. Because when you’re doing focused thinking, you’re deliberately thinking. But when you’re daydreaming, you are making unusual connections. And unusual connections are really where I think creativity comes from. So that does concern me. And I feel like people really aren’t making any space for daydreaming.

MS. TIPPETT: And do you feel like carving out your Shabbat, just even sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, does that then permeate the rest of the week?

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Where you are presumably texting and emailing as much as the rest of us?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. And I’m doing what everyone else is doing the other times. I’m not like some puritan or something. I feel so creative on Sunday morning. It’s crazy. I mean, I — oh, wait. This is the other thing that happens that really I find fascinating — when you’re turning off the technology, you are slowing down time. You’re slowing down your mind. And most people that I run into — I was just at Sundance, and said, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m so busy.” That’s everybody’s response. I don’t want that to be your response. Tell me something interesting. [laughs]

But everyone feels overwhelmed. So, this amazing thing happens on Friday nights and Saturday morning. My husband and I — Ken and I still joke. We’ll just be like, “What time is it now? Oh, my gosh, it’s only eight in the morning. We’ve done four things!” Time just goes ridiculously slow when your phone is off.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, to the addictive feeling of our relationship with our technology, would you say a little bit about what we’re learning about — the neurotransmitters, like the oxytocin and the dopamine and how those things — and also not necessarily in ways that seem terrible, but what’s released in our brains…

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …as we interact with these devices.

MS. SHLAIN: It’s very similar to — I’m not proud of this, but in rebellion in my 20s, I smoked. And I know what that feels like. And sometimes I’d have a cigarette in my mouth and want another cigarette. And I would be blown away that that thought could happen. [laughs] And when you’re on an email and you want to check for a new email, I think that’s the same thing. But yeah, dopamine — but the good news is that the — and dopamine, it’s also things that make you feel good, things that make you want more, like food, or sex, or there’s all of these things that you can’t be satiated with.

And then on the flipside, with oxytocin — this is what I love — oxytocin is the love hormone. When women are breastfeeding, they get flooded with oxytocin. Or it makes you feel trusting. And it makes you want to collaborate. And they’ve shown that when you get a text or an email from someone you love, or someone you feel connected to, you get a rush of oxytocin.

So, there’s a part of me that thinks that the reason why there’s all these collaborative businesses on the rise, whether it’s AirBnB, or Lyft, or all these companies that are growing on the internet that are all based on collaboration, is because we are awash of oxytocin. We are so filled with it that we’re just wanting to collaborate. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Now you used that — this language of the “participatory revolution fueled by all that oxytocin pinging around.”

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. That’s on my most optimistic days. That is what — that’s a beautiful thing. And, of course, not in a Pollyanna way. I know there’s a lot of very bad things happening in the world, and I do think about those. I’ve chosen in my life — I feel like we’re surrounded with such bad frameworks on everything with the news, generally.

I just feel like I can contribute best if I come from a — actually, my husband and I call it “opticism.” [laughs] It’s optimism and skepticism combined and merged. Opticism, because we’re optimistic, but realistic, because we’re — we love history and grounding it in the past. But I really choose to focus on what we can do instead of feeling overwhelmed and drowning in all the problems in the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, the other thing I think a lot about is — the internet is a new and very powerful oversized screen for the old human condition. Right? There’s nothing that happens online that doesn’t have an offline corollary.

MS. SHLAIN: No, it’s amplifying everything that we are. And that’s the amazing thing about it.

MS. TIPPETT: You use the word “beauty” a lot when you talk about technology. And I just — I wonder what — how do you — a phrase like that, that language of the “beauty of technology.” What are the connotations that’s filled with for you?

MS. SHLAIN: I think that probably — just as you were saying it, I hadn’t really thought about that, but just growing up with my father writing Art and Physics, that the beauty of math — the poetry of an amazing equation and code and — I mean, I think art is — I think beauty really can be applied to everything. I see art and science the way he taught me to see it, which is that they’re just — one’s images and one’s equations and numbers, but they’re the same — they’re showing us the same ideas, but in different languages. And he goes all throughout history and kind of charts examples of that in that book.

MS. TIPPETT: Your father does?


MS. TIPPETT: So, in terms of this work of the internet being in its infancy, and how its foundation is us, in fact, and how we are building its foundation. Where do you see this happening? I mean, you’re out there talking about this stuff. Where do you see this hopeful, character-driven foundation being built?

MS. SHLAIN: Well, going back to one point you said that I think about a lot is just things that become self-fulfilling prophecies if we keep saying it. I think that with the internet, I absolutely think about it with the women’s story, that we’re always “not” — we’re not enough of this, we’re not enough — we’re not enough board seats, we’re not enough directing jobs. I never think — it’s such a different way to think about the world as coming from what we’re not, instead of, for me, which is, where are we? Where are we on are the arc of history? And how can we shape it moving forward?

And I think — I’m very excited about the moment of everyone being online, which I think is going to happen in the next five years. Everyone who wants to be, which will be a very large proportion of the population — again, going back to the neuroscience of a child’s brain, that there’s a point in the development of a child’s brain where all the different parts of the brain are connected that they can have their first insight. And extrapolating that out to the internet — we’re, I think, at this point, 60 percent connected. And the moment that we can truly get everyone on the internet connected, imagine what that will be — the insight that will be able to happen when we have that many different perspectives coming together in one network. And I think the challenge is going to be to create enough collaborative tools to make that happen. But that makes me incredibly hopeful.

MS. TIPPETT: What would you say …

MS. SHLAIN: And I mean, I ultimately …

MS. TIPPETT: Keep going, yeah.

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, I was just going to say that I believe in humanity. I feel like there’ve been a couple moments where we could have knocked the whole — huge swathes of population away. And we didn’t. And I think, on a really bigger picture, I ultimately believe in humans. And I believe that we’re going to evolve. I think — like anything, with progress, it’s two steps forward, one step back, and there’s always going to be these parts of us that aren’t great, that are horrible, that are violent, that are always going to be there. But I think on a whole, when we get everyone online, I think you’re going to see amazing things happen that we can’t even imagine.

MS. TIPPETT: Would you say that — you cofounded the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Webby Awards. Would you say that that’s a way — that’s a tool or platform for…

MS. SHLAIN: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …calling out character and goodness and excellence?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. What was so exciting when I founded the Webbys back — a long time ago, it was really about this very young medium, that we wanted to set the standard of excellence, and say this is the best. Just like what you’re saying, if we put it to character, these have the best attributes and strengths on the web right now. Here’s excellence, and now push beyond it next year. And next year it always — you’re constantly raising the bar of what is excellence and what are strengths. And you help evolve something, just like with your — like you were saying earlier, if you’re raising the internet. You’re helping to develop it. It’s funny, now — because they’re called “web developers,” and I just thought of that in a whole different way just now. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] It’s so true.

MS. SHLAIN: Web developers. We’re all developing it.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, well, also — yeah, exactly, and to that point, if you think about — because you do make this connection now. Think about growing up the internet in terms of what are healthy child development techniques. You’re right. It’s wonderful. And just what you said a minute ago about self-fulfilling prophecies. We know if we’re raising a human being in the world, and we’re constantly generalizing about them and their future on the basis of the worst thing they did, this mistake they made.

MS. SHLAIN: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: This flaw, this character flaw.

MS. SHLAIN: Thank you. Yes. That’s the news.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s how we ruin them.

MS. SHLAIN: That’s what I find — if we’re just constantly saying the worst of humanity, which is the news, that is what you’re hearing. And if you’re raising a child, just bringing — that would be the worst way to raise a child, instead of — this is what you can become, this is where you need to go, these are examples of excellence, you’re saying the worst. And, yeah, I’m tired of that. What do we want this to be? Let’s think about it together.

[music: “Rain” by Dustin O’Halloran]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain.

MS. TIPPETT: I notice you’ve also worked out — I don’t know if this formalized, but something like rules of etiquette for the internet age, I would say, with Sherry Turkle. Can you share a couple of those?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, when people write really long emails. Who’s going to read them right now? The hundred-word-or-less email, bullet point, clear subject header. Also, I laugh when you ask to see a photo of one of your friends’ children, and they pull out their phone. And suddenly they get lost in their last year of photos. “Oh, let me show — oh, no, no, no. Let me show you this one. Let me show this one.” And then by the end, you didn’t want to see 20 videos and six photos. You wanted to see how their child had grown, and appreciate their child for a second.

MS. TIPPETT: What was the one about finishing a text, not — if your spouse walks into the room, you …

MS. SHLAIN: Oh, actually, I try to really not walk into a room talking on the phone. Because that — you don’t realize how much that, for the person that is in the home, when you’re in mid-conversation, it’s not a great way to greet someone.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it’s a little thing that — you’re right. We don’t think about the effect we’re having on each other. Or our presence. Our presence.

MS. SHLAIN: That’s what’s so beautiful about the — even in the technology shabbats, everyone turns off their phone, all the screens, and you’re just — you’re very present with each other. I remember when my father died, there was a lot of people at his funeral that I hadn’t met before, but they all came up to me and shared some story. And what most of them said to me in different ways was, your father always made me feel like the most important person in the room. And I feel like today no one makes anyone feel like they’re the most important person in the room.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, we have…

MS. SHLAIN: It’s …

MS. TIPPETT: …our habits kind of work against that, don’t they?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. There are just too many things that are more important that could happen at any moment. And you just — we have to pay attention to the emotional connectedness. And a lot of people worry about the youth, and they’re like, “Oh, the kids, they don’t make eye contact,” and all — I’m, in general, not so worried about the youth. I feel like we’ve gone through so many different technologies that have changed the way we’ve experienced the world. And ultimately, we’re humans, and we need to make eye contact. That — we…

MS. TIPPETT: That they’re not going to stop doing that.

MS. SHLAIN: …that the mother and child have to make it for a child’s brain to grow. And if you’re in a marriage you have to make eye contact. You have to connect authentically, or else that marriage, it won’t work. And real relationships require deep connection. And again, this goes back to — I believe in humans, I believe we’re in this very transformational period with all this technology, and that we need to evolve and create — whether you want to call them habits or practices that allow for the connectivity while also utilizing this amazing tool of the internet.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you — I think a lot these days about how, even when — my children are now 17 and 22. But when my children were young, the great fear was that television would rot their brains.

MS. SHLAIN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And now they are young adults, and as the world has changed in that time, if we are all in the same room, watching the same TV show, that is quality time. Right?

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, I was just thinking about that when I was at Sundance just — I watched a whole bunch of movies in a big theater with lots of people, which was so delicious and wonderful to just experience all those things with other people. And it’s so much fun to watch that with your family when you really get into a movie or a show together. It’s so wonderful.

But television was the big fear. That was the big fear, which is funny to me now as I hardly — I watched so much television when my parents got divorced. And that became the surrogate family that wasn’t happening during a very difficult time in my family. And watched The Brady Bunch more than I care to share to with you. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] So, tell me — I wonder, when you think about technology and human connection, I wonder if there are insights into that, aspects of that, that are surprising you right now, that you couldn’t even have known or imagined five years ago, or ten years ago, and what are — are there some things you’ve been learning that feel fresh and kind of take you…


MS. TIPPETT: …in the next direction?

MS. SHLAIN: I’ll tell you, there’s one thing I’m kind of wrestling with how I think about it, which is that we recently have a device in our house called the Alexa. And it’s an Amazon speaker that you can verbally say, “What’s the weather?” or “Put on NPR news,” or “Play Nina Simone,” or whatever, and it just does it. And I’ve been thinking a lot about, was it the screen that was bothering me? Because suddenly there’s this verbal — and it’s really intuitive. It really works. You can say anything and it’ll happen.

And it’s in the center in the kitchen, and it’s great if you’re cooking, because you can put multiple timers on it, which I love. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about, OK, so I don’t have a screen, but I’m suddenly interacting with this larger infosphere, and is that too much? Is it — what does that mean? I’m thinking about that a lot. Because I think that’s going to be soon just commonplace, where you’re verbally saying all these things into the ether and responses happen. And how is that going to change things?

MS. TIPPETT: And that it’s only the voice involved.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah, it’s just the voice. And I think a lot about robotics, obviously, because my husband makes them. And there’s so many concerns over them. And he’s not, again, concerned. He thinks it’s going to be a very collaborative relationship on outsourcing things humans don’t need to do, and humans will still do what, of course, they need to do, which is creative thinking, and empathy, and all of these other things.

So going back to your question of things that have surprised me, I’m always surprised by how powerful — and again, I think this has to do with the tech shabbats. Every week I get re-surprised [laughs] there’s a new look of surprise now — of just this sense of connection with people, with ideas, and then I ultimately feel incredibly connected to the people that I meet online, on Twitter — mostly on Twitter, actually. I feel most exposed to new, fresh ideas I wouldn’t have interfaced with. I heard this funny thing that Facebook is who you went to school with and Twitter’s who you wish you went to school with. Which I think embodies the way I think about the technology, but I don’t think I’m getting at the larger question about the bigger surprise, which — or…

MS. TIPPETT: No. No, that’s all good. I made fun of Twitter for such a long time having not tried it. And it’s so counterintuitive in a way that something…

MS. SHLAIN: It is, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …that — right? That forces — which was what I made fun of — that forces anything into that many characters, I think has such — it has — obviously, it’s not always poetic and profound, but it has this incredible capacity for poetry and…

MS. SHLAIN: It really…

MS. TIPPETT: …profundity and connection.

MS. SHLAIN: Yeah. I feel it’s — I’m interfacing with just so many ideas. And it’s exciting — it, actually, it’s going back to almost that default mode network where the unusual connections that I look down and I see some idea, and I was just thinking about something else, and then that just joined with that idea, and some new idea will happen. And I’m always like, oh, that was — that’s fantastic. So I love that. I love that. The idea generation that comes from that.

MS. TIPPETT: How do you think — the passions you’ve lived into, which have so much to do with technology, and our lives with technology, and connection — how do you think all of that has flown in and shaped your sense of what it means to be human? How would you start to talk about that? It’s a huge question, but how would you — where would you start to talk about that?

MS. SHLAIN: I feel, through the technology in some ways, it’s almost in the way that science has given an underpinning to ideas that have been around for a long time. And in a lot of ways, the technology connecting all of us, and the tactility of the technology, is creating this kind of underpinning of our yearning for this larger connecting to something larger than ourselves. Does that make sense?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s great. Have you ever heard of Teilhard de Chardin? Do you know his…

MS. SHLAIN: Of course. Of course. I …

MS. TIPPETT: In a way, the idea of spiritual evolution, and the idea — his perception through working with a long view of time, right, but with how far humanity had come physiologically through evolution. And his sense that the noos — that this realm of idea, human creativity and ideas and thought would kind of overlay the biosphere, and would transform the biosphere, would transform reality. To me, that — it’s one way to also talk about what you’re proposing. And I think you have a long view of time, as well, that we should be aiming for, in very practical ways in terms of how we live our every day.

MS. SHLAIN: Yes. It’s all the little moments that are tapping into this bigger interdependent network. How we tap into it are the ways that we can infuse the sense of character in how we’re growing and evolving the internet. And this larger interdependent system that we’re creating, that’s showing us what already is there so deeply.

[music: “Fort” by GoGo Penguin]

Tiffany Shlain is the founder of the Webby Awards and a co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. 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, and Technology.

You might not know that On Being is incubating a community engagement initiative called Your Audio Selfie. At you can hear collections of audio snapshots in response to a single, artfully worded question. This week, we’re featuring our series “What’s in a Name?” — reflections on who we are and what we are called. All this and more at

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Tess Montgomery, Aseel Zahran, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.

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And the Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Leonard Shlain
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Binding: Paperback, (496)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Label: Summer Rain Recordings (White)
Artist: GoGo Penguin
Label: Blue Note
Artist: Dustin O'Halloran
Label: Milan Records
Artist: GoGo Penguin
Label: Gondwana Records

About the Image

Black Girls Code students pose in front of a mural. Black Girls Code is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and empowering girls of color to enter STEM fields and become “builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.” Learn more at

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