Craving connection

In ancient times, the rabbis probably couldn’t imagine that, one day, a Kol Nidre service would be broadcast live on something called the Web.

Naturally, some would have shunned the implications of such a modernizing event for a tradition steeped in ancient mores and law. The new often threatens the old.

Even today, the concept of online worship is seen by some as a violation of halachah. Is a virtual minyan equal to a fleshy one? Does checking in with the click of a smartphone count the same as showing up? For some, the Internet’s contribution to new notions of community represents progress, a way of making Judaism in one place accessible to a global audience anywhere — and in real time.

The way technology has irreversibly transformed human culture is the subject of Tiffany Shlain’s documentary, “Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology.” Shlain, a brainy blonde from Northern California with a penchant for big ideas and bright lipstick, has crafted a nonfiction essay movie that traces the origins of the universe to contemporary civilization through myriad lenses, such as evolution, art and neuroscience. With a comprehensive view of history, Shlain tries to get at our current purpose: “What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?”

“All technology is an extension of our desire to connect,” Shlain said during a Q-and-A following a benefit screening on Oct. 2 organized by the nonprofit think tank Jumpstart.  But, while Shlain posits that technology is rewiring our brains, literally changing the way we think, it is not, however, changing what we ultimately want: human closeness. And in an ironic twist, at the heart of Shlain’s cerebral meditation on constant, compulsory connection is a father/daughter love story about letting go.

In the middle of production, her father, Leonard Shlain, a renowned brain surgeon and author, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Through her eyes, he is faultless and ideal, a superhero with a super-brain. He is at once Superman, who magically appears to rescue her from a car accident, as well as an in-house Einstein, who solves her problems and stimulates her creativity. When it becomes clear she will lose him, Shlain can think only of capturing his final moments on film. She needs something to connect with after he is gone.

But a video and a visage do not a father make.

Of the many lessons Shlain learned from him, the most significant came while on a ski lift. As a young, curious girl, Shlain was moving about during the ride up and slipped under the bar. Her father barely caught her by the sleeve of her jacket. Sensing the limits of his strength, Leonard told his daughter he would not be able to hold on to her the whole way up. With slushy snow below and rocky cliffs ahead, he looked her in the eyes and told her it was safer to drop her there. “Don’t let me go, Daddy,” Shlain remembers saying. “You’ll be OK,” her father promised.

Decades later, when brain cancer began metastasizing in her father’s head, Shlain again wanted to plead: “Don’t let me go, Daddy.” It was unthinkable to surrender something so precious, to disconnect from someone who, for all her life, had so deeply fulfilled her. And yet, to not do so was impossible.

All human beings crave connection. It is a wonder of the technological age that connection is possible at all times to almost anyone, anywhere. “We are living in the most exciting time, when 7 billion people will be connected,” Shlain said. To her, being plugged in is not merely play: In “Connected,” Shlain reveals that each time a person clicks to send a text, or open an e-mail, a hormone called oxytocin is released in the brain. Most prevalent during female reproduction, oxytocin is associated with bonding, arousal and emotion. The effect of this always available neuro-stimulation makes us unwitting junkies of online connection, ever increasing the craving.     

But almost no connection, human or electric, is destined for permanence. Relationships break; power goes out. What is left of a global social network when there is a power outage? What is left of human relationship when someone you love dies?

Each week, Shlain and her family practice a “technology Shabbat.” For 24 hours, concurrent with the Jewish Sabbath, they power down the things that connect them globally to focus on the things that connect them locally. A day in the living room with her husband and two daughters is not defined by tools that connect, but by love that binds. Only the deepest emotional connections can survive a forced shutdown, or a necessary letting go.

On Yom Kippur, Jews shed their skins to get at their souls. They disconnect from work and technology and try to connect with God. “A part of all faiths is the idea of connectedness at its core,” Shlain said. “Everyone wants to feel part of something larger than themselves.”

Connection, though, is simply a beginning. Life is a continuous cycle of drawing close and letting go, birth, death and the need for love.

In a scene near the end of the movie, Leonard Shlain makes an appearance at his own funeral. Enabled by a prerecorded tape and a giant video screen, technology allows him a final postmortem act. Superimposed over a cloudy, blue sky, he appears as if from heaven and tells those gathered: “I’ll always be with you.”

Leonard Shlain knew that when the video screen went off, he’d live on in the hearts of those who loved him.