Webby awards founder predicts Internet’s impact on the brain

Neurons as web pages; synapses as links. This is your brain on the Internet. That’s not just a spoof on “This is your brain on drugs” public service ads. It’s how Tiffany Shlain sees things. Human brains created the Internet. Now, human brains are being shaped by the Internet. 

Shlain, an award-winning filmmaker and founder of the Webby awards, came to Stanford recently to share with Knight Fellows pursuing journalism innovation her views on the “disruptive innovation” that is the Internet. 

Shlain sees the Internet as more than a tool for tapping the wisdom of the crowd but a new appendage that will change how we think. Her most recent film, “Connected: An Autobiography about Love, Death & Technology,” explains. 

Her thesis is an extrapolation of the work of her father, Leonard Shalin, a San Francisco brain surgeon and best-selling author. His book “Art & Physics, Alphabet vs. The Goddess and Sex, Time, and Power” argues that the advent of printing triggered the ascendance of left-brain (linear, rational) thinking. Once on an equal footing, right-brain thinking (intuitive, holistic) took a backseat – as did women, who in many societies had had more of a leadership role. 

“Connected,’ walks you through her exploration of her father’s ideas to those of her own: what the continued merging of technology and human life means for the future. What she hopes it means is more connectedness, a basic human need. She suggests the Web, where imagery and video are overtaking text, may restore the universal yin-yang balance by waking up right brains across the world. 

Tiffany Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, visit the Knight Fellows at Stanford.

Tiffany Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, visit the Knight Fellows at Stanford.

Shlain’s husband, Ken Goldberg, who has worked with her on many projects, joined the conversation with Knight Fellows. 

“We’re still in the ‘dot era,’ ” said Goldberg, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who does research in robotics and automation. The net is still very linear, being made up of various lists. But he predicts it will become more “specialized. Your email will come in in a lot of different ways.” 

Social media, he added, is still very binary. “It’s either thumbs up or thumbs down. With Facebook it’s either ‘Like’ or ignore. I think it’s going to get a lot more nuanced.” 

Bringing those thoughts back to filmmaking, he noted that their next project is a film about the development of the brain – still more complex than the Internet, he said. 

If neurons, the brain cells that transmit information, are equated to Web pages, the Internet has 10 times more, he said. But if you’re looking at synapses as links, which connect all the information that is entering and stored, the brain is miles ahead with something like 10 times more (synapses) than the Internet (links). 

Still, if the Internet never takes a break, brains need to. Both husband and wife are advocates of “deplugging,” and plan to go off-line for a couple of months this summer.