Our Next Evolutionary Step?

As creator of the Webby Awards—the Oscars of online videos—Tiffany Shlain has had a front-row seat to the Web’s power and the creativity unleashed when people with disparate points of view and from different cultures put their minds together.

With the reach of the Internet and social media growing to some 2 billion users, Shlain began contemplating whether such collaboration could reprogram the brain’s thought processes and facilitate humankind’s collective ability to solve the environmental, ideological, population, and economic problems threatening the planet.

But she also noticed a dark side: namely, the deterioration of interpersonal relationships. So for every novel solution—such as gamers solving a years-old biochemical quandary—there’s a burgeoning techno-addict with an overwhelming urge to text at dinner. “What began as a way to improve life is now threatening to consume it,” she says.

Shlain unveils such hopes and warnings in her latest film, Connected, which screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Utah and is now making its way around art houses internationally. It wraps its New York run Oct. 27, and next month Shlain will speak after a special screening at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“We created computers as an extension of our brains, and now we’re connecting through those computers and the Internet cloud as a way of expanding them,” she says. “The way we think is totally changing—we’re interfacing with so many ideas.”

The film’s perspectives pull from scientific arenas close to home. The first is from Shlain’s late father, Leonard Shlain, a laparoscopic surgeon and best-selling author of Art and Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. He suggested that the formation of alphabets and writing moved societies from right-brained (conceptual, matriarchal) to left-brained (linear, patriarchal) thinking. Expanding upon her father’s theory, Shlain proposes that the Internet might enable humans to evolve collectively, by facilitating global problem-solving ability, and individually, by its dual use of words and visuals stimulating both hemispheres of the brain.

Shlain's other scientific contributor, and the film’s co-writer, is her husband, Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and an IEEE Fellow. He notes that software can loosely model human patterns of finding better solutions from enhanced collaboration. “My research in robotics suggests that nonlinear models with higher-order statistical filters may be used in new systems online to rapidly extract the most valuable ideas (the signals) from the noise," he says.

Shlain hopes that faster and more global consequences of human actions, courtesy of the Internet, may increase empathy. “The cause and effect of actions in real time may make people more thoughtful and conscious about their behavior,” she says in Connected. “The Internet is creating a global network [to] harness the potential of all our minds. How can humankind use connectedness to its advantage and take the next leap in human evolution?”

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