Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Idea Festival: Tiffany Shlain’s web of ideas

While Idea Festival isn’t quite the blogger gathering that many tech conferences are, there are a couple of us liveblogging here. Check out Evgeny Morozov, who just posted a great summary of Craig Nevill-Manning’s talk, and Wayne Hall, who’s done a great job blogging both the Festival and the run-up to the event on the official IF blog.


Tiffany Shlain, an independent filmmaker, titles her talk “A Declaration of Interdependence”. She notes that American history is built in part on a declaration of independence, but that the 21st century is going to require us to recognize our interdependence. “The 21st century will be about linking the dots”. She suggests that we might need more than carbon offsets – “we may need to think about karmic offsets”.

She outlines her forthcoming film, a project that connects “the disappearance of honeybees, travel and the effects of Federal Express, connections through China”, toxins, Crime, the focus on youth in ideas of beauty, and reproduction. She admits that it can be hard to understand how these ideas fit together, but her films are hypertextual, built on links.

Shlain tells us her life story to contextualize her work. She’s from the Bay Area, and grew up in Marin in the 1970s, the daughter of author, surgeon and innovator Leonard Shlain. She’s been fascinated with technology from early on, including early PCs like the Apple II. In 1988, she and a friend proposed a computer network that would allow people from different cultures to communicate.

As she moved into adulthood, she turned to filmmaking, and to interactive media. She built an early CDRom for Sting and a website associated with it. This led her towards building the Webby awards, which have run for 12 years and established wonderful traditions, like the five word acceptance speech. (Al Gore was awarded a lifetime achievement award and offered his speech:”Please don’t recount this vote.”)

Shlain suggests that people feel a need to be connected by technology “because in the womb, we’re connected to an umbilical cord. We spend the rest of our lives trying to get connected to something larger.” The something larger Shlain found herself looking for, after the stock market crash and 9/11, was a way to talk about women’s rights and reproduction.

The film Shlain shows the audience at Idea Festival is about judaism, and specifically about Jewish tribal identity. She uses the Barbie doll as a way of exploring Jewish identity, assimilation and insider/outsider status. Barbie was created by Jewish toy desiger Ruth Handler, who based the toy on a German doll marketed to adults. (The film explains that Shlain designed Barbie for Mattel and left the company to wrestle with breast cancer. After recovering, she built a company building prosthetic breasts, thus making a fortune twice from plastic boobs.) The film is a statement of tribal identity for a generation of jews raised on assimilated Barbie dolls, an identity which might have more to do with a Hollywood picture of judaism than with ancient practices.

Shlain explains that she rarely shoots original footage – she searches the Internet for footage rather than picking up a camera. The films, she tells us, are designed to spark conversation, encourage people to jump on the Internet and research the details. She’s experimenting with new ideas for how to release these films, and will be releasing some of the past films on iTunes.

For the new film, the honeybee, not the Barbie doll, is the way to discuss interdependence. Honeybees pollinate a third of the food on the planet, and the collapse of bee colonies around the world is a huge concern. Is the cause cellphones? Pesticides? The overwork of bees, behing shipped from farm to farm? She analogizes bees to sex workers – “they’re taken all over the world and put to work.” The film ends up with an Einstein quote to the effect that, without honeybees, there’s no human civilization within four years.

From honeybees, Shlain quickly connects Federal Express and the volume of eggs and sperm exported from Los Angeles; the connection between youth and beauty, between botox injections and honeybee stings; between burqas and beekeeper outfits, between plastic bottles and reproductive chemicals; crime and access to abortion; in-virto fertilization and China’s one child policy. It’s hard to imagine a film coming from this odd web of ideas, but anyone who can connect Barbie and contemporary Judaism is well positioned to try. The sheer non-linearity of Shlain’s talk makes it very hard to blog, but I suspect it makes for some very compelling cinema. And it’s hardly a surprise that – as she shows off to us at the end of her talk – she’s a power user of mind mapping tools as there’s little else that could represent these complex webs of ideas.


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