Living the Questions
We’ve been enmeshed with our technologies. Tech Shabbat for everyone?
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 more than 30 films. She is the author of 24/6: Giving Up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection.
Krista Tippett, host: OK, we’ve just been wrestling with technology before we talk about talking about wrestling with and living with technology. [laughs]
Tiffany Shlain: Oh my God. We love-hate technology.
Tippett: [laughs] That’s right!
Shlain: Oh my goodness.
Tippett: Yeah. So can we start, Zack? OK, all right. Yeah, so, and has that ever been more true than right now? I mean …
Shlain: Oh my goodness.
Tippett: … we’ve never been more grateful and had more reasons to love our technology. [laughs] And, I have to say, I have recently had this feeling of really getting really angry with my devices, like I’m sick of them, in the same way I would be sick of a person that I had been attached to the hip with for a year. [laughs]
Shlain: That’s a great way to put it. I mean, it’s like, enough of you! Enough of you! [laughs]
Tippett: Right, right! I feel — I think I’ve even kind of yelled at it or said mean things — “Just go away. But I can’t live without you. Can’t live with you, can’t live without you.”
So we’ve been talking about having this conversation for a few months, and here we are, with the world about to open up again, God willing. And I — among the many resets ahead is this “How do we reset?” We’ve been enmeshed [laughs] with our technologies. They have been our portal to much of reality, including people and places we love, and yet we have to reshape that relationship, moving forward, knowing now what we know, I think, about the connective power that in a way we possessed before, but weren’t availing ourselves of, but also knowing what we know about how it’s not good for us, for this to be the portal to reality. [laughs]
Tippett: So Tiffany, let’s just talk this through. Living the Questions is really like, 20 to 30 minutes, and I feel like this question is so out there for people — obviously, also, people who are living with children who’ve been in school on technology all year. I mean, just very briefly, and I’ll tell people about the book and all that, but I associate you with “tech Shabbat.” I mean, I don’t know if somebody else coined the phrase, but I think you are …
Shlain: No; I think we did, my husband and I. [laughs]
Tippett: I think you did, and I associate you as the person who’s really given this idea richness and put it out into the world. And then your book is 24/6, which is like a talk about tech Shabbat. And so just as I was getting ready to talk to you — and I will say, full disclosure, I’ve been fortunate enough to actually have analog, in-the-flesh Shabbat dinner with you [laughs] and your family.
Shlain: Oh, I’ve loved our Shabbats together. [laughs]
Tippett: And, also, I’ve been on some of the Zoom Shabbat experiences you’ve had this year, which was also lovely — not the same, but lovely. But it’s so interesting right now to think about how, in observant Jewish homes, in observant Jewish tradition, Shabbat always had this element of a break from technology, way before anyone could’ve known how interwoven technology in our century could become — like extensions of our eyes and ears and fingertips. But the principle was there. But for you, it was after your father died that you started this tradition.
Shlain: Well, I think that I was in a similar moment in my life that I think a lot of us have been in, this last year, where I felt like — when my father died and my daughter was born, it felt like life was grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, “Focus on what matters, what’s important.” And so this was eleven years ago that we decided to turn off screens one day a week, for what we call our tech Shabbats. And I have to say, during this pandemic where we’ve had to be on screens ten times more for everything, our day without screens has been ten times more important. I mean, my 17-year-old daughter Odessa said, “It’s the only thing that hasn’t changed.” [laughs] It’s the one consistent thing, is this …
Tippett: Aw, really?
Shlain: … this day that is unlike any other — it’s an analog day. And it’s a day of joy and family and eating good food and doing all the things we love to do and really a lot of inward thinking. I do my best thinking and journaling and all of that on that day, too. So it has been — it is interesting to think that this is over 3,000 years old, this idea, this elegant idea of one day of rest.
And what does that mean in our modern society, especially this year, where work and rest — and it was all so mish-mashed in this remote existence? And so I feel like I have a whole new appreciation for turning it all off — especially with the election news and the pandemic stressful news. I felt for one day a week I was protected. I got to recharge. I got to reflect. I got to think. I got to connect with my family and really get the perspective that I don’t have during the week, when we’re so in it and responsive and reactive, and all we’re doing is really kind of responding to the world and tweets and notifications and — I don’t know, I guess it’s a day to catch my breath and rethink things.
Tippett: Yeah. You know, there’s a point in there that I hadn’t considered, of — Shabbat is also a way of — it’s a way of structuring time, right?
Shlain: Yes, yes.
Tippett: It creates structure in life, as you say, that is predictable. It’s week-to-week, not day-to-day. But that’s another thing that disintegrated for so many of us, this year, those of us who worked from home —
Shlain: The blurriness of everything.
Tippett: And also, the stress in our bodies of having to create that structure every day for ourselves. I don’t even think we’ve known how to take in that burden, that stress.
Shlain: Well, I think that’s right and that there were so many articles where people were like, “What day is it?” and “Everything’s blurring together,” but I never felt that way, because I was always either heading and looking forward to [laughs] my tech Shabbat, a day without screens, or I was feeling the benefits of it at the beginning of the week. And it’s got this kind of whole hill rhythm where I’m going up, and then I’m going down, and looking forward. It also gave me something to look forward to every week, when I’ve had — [laughs] I’m sure like everyone — so many things cancelled. And this is the one thing that hasn’t — you can’t cancel Shabbat. It happens every week, and people are doing it all over the world, and you can count on it.
And I think the time-management point was a really profound one for me even when I started it, because I used to work all the time. And I love what I did. It wasn’t — this is when I was running the Webby Awards, where I was like — I loved all of it, and yet I was burning out. And to create this day where my whole family — and so our daughters are now almost 12, almost 18, and Ken’s a professor of robotics. We obviously are into tech.
Tippett: Yeah, you created the Webby Awards — you’re not tech-haters; you’re not luddites.
Shlain: We’re not — we’re into it, but not into it all the time. And Ken and I are both really interested in this question of “what does it amplify, what does it amputate?” And I think structuring our time and time management, of saying there’s gonna be this one day that is filled with joy and rest — because we always have people over for dinner, like you, and wonderful social night on Friday night. Even during the whole pandemic, we did it outside, with two tables at a distance. But we kept that going — with strong heaters, [laughs] I should say, outside. But —
Tippett: Well, also, you live in California. You would not have been able to pull that off in Minnesota, even with heaters. But OK.
Shlain: Yeah, it’s different, I know. I appreciate that, I do. I don’t live in the Midwest, yeah.
And then Saturday is a very kind of more quiet — that’s when we take long walks, and there’s napping, there’s reading. I feel the most creative on that day, and I do a lot of — I try to get up before everyone on Saturday morning, and I kind of pour my brain out onto the page, [laughs] and I try to do a lot of thinking.
But it is about time — like there’s a lot of things I think, “I’m gonna save thinking about that until Saturday,” or a really incredible book or article — I’ll start piling things up, like, “I want to think about that generously. I want to give it the time that it deserves, and I’m gonna save it for Saturday.” And it makes you think about, there’s a time for work, [laughs] there’s a time for rest.
And I’m not a religious Jew. And I say that because I love Judaism so much, but I love thinking about the ideas of Judaism in a way of like, living a good life. So if you think of the Ten Commandments as like, OK, these are ten ways to live a good life — taking a complete day of rest is number four on the list. I mean, it is above “Honor thy mother and father.” It’s above “Do not commit murder,” [laughs] is, “Take a day of rest.” So it’s like, I almost think, if you take a full day of rest, you’re gonna honor your parents; you’re not gonna commit murder. I mean, it’s like —
Tippett: Your chance —
Shlain: You need to take — yeah. [laughs] Yeah, exactly. It’s in order — it’s number four for a reason, I think.
Tippett: Somewhere in your book, in 24/6, you talked about how it feels like on — I think you’re talking about that Saturday, that you said your mind gets to wander, and you’re thinking off a leash. And again, in the pandemic, because there were no boundaries between all the different parts of life — it might’ve sounded to some of us like it would’ve been a freedom, but that image of the leash that we’ve been on, eternally connected to, or in every moment connected to the rest of our lives through technology — I don’t know, it just sounds very luxurious.
Shlain: I’m so glad you brought it up — I love that you brought up the leash, because I’m thinking about this idea of a leash and off-leash, in a whole new way, because I — like many people, [laughs] we got a puppy, we got a pandemic puppy, and I’m so grateful. I mean, she has just brought such joy and long walks into my life. But the biggest thing I think about is, there’s nothing that makes me happier than unclicking her leash and watching her frolic in the hills.
And I think about that a lot because I do consider, on my tech Shabbats, that I let my brain off leash, because there is no doubt, Krista — I mean, now that I’ve been doing this for 11 years — it is my most creative day. All the ideas come on Saturday.
And I think about that a lot because, as a filmmaker, when am I feeling most juicy and creative? And it’s when my mind gets to go off leash, and it’s not responding to things on my screens. It’s just doing its own thing. And when I see our dog — Rosalind Franklin, we call her Rosie — running in so many wonderful directions through the hills, I think, that’s what my mind [laughs] gets to do on Saturday, is I get to go off leash. And I think a lot about the vaccine, which we’re — I don’t know how it is for you, but we’re really starting to get them a lot here, and it’s gonna allow us to be off leash again as a society, because we’ve been in these kind of chrysalis pandemic pods for a year.
And what are the lessons we’re gonna bring from this year — which I think there are many, and it’s been a very intense and difficult year; it’s also been — I’m starting to feel hope in a bigger way, for the first time. But I think this idea of, are we gonna really appreciate being with other humans, in this whole new way? I mean, when I have seen my friends, usually for our tech Shabbats, at a distance, it’s like my heart is pounding in a different way, to physically be with people I love, and just another human. And I hope one of the lessons from this year of screens is that there is nothing that replaces that human connection.
And I also — I feel the stress of — everyone talks about Zoom fatigue, but I think a lot of it is because we’re not making eye contact. We’re making this kind of faux Zoom eye contact all the time, because the camera is above, you’re in the middle —
Tippett: Even when it feels like you’re looking at somebody, you’re not. You’re not actually looking at each other.
Shlain: You’re not. And I think it’s this kind of accumulative feeling of not really, truly connecting on some biological level with our eye contact and the neurons and the — we’re looking askance, kind of, [laughs] the whole year.
Tippett: I have also felt — I have become aware, through the absence of this, that when we’re in a room with other people, at an animal, physical level we’re picking up energy from each other. We’re giving energy, we’re giving it off, we’re absorbing it — I mean, if it’s a harmonious room or a complicated room, there’s a lot of energy exchange. And I felt like that’s part of what I’m missing. I can be on Zoom for an hour, I can be in an interesting conversation with good people, but I leave feeling depleted. I’m not taking in that physical experience.
Shlain: Yes, and I think that that word you just said, “depleted,” I think this is the big question of our time. I mean, talk about living the question; I think the big question of our time is, when does technology nurture, and when does it drain and deplete? And there’s a lot of times it has nurtured, in the last year, for sure. I mean, there is. I mean, just connecting with people that you might not have, in this last year, and just staying connected with the people that you love.
Tippett: Yeah, that’s been interesting.
Shlain: Yeah. But I do think, the closer people can get — after they’ve been online and they’re like, wait, did that give me energy, or did it drain — and understanding that feeling, is a really important thing because, as we emerge from this period, being able to get that sensibility tighter — like, Did that give me energy? Was that a nourishing online experience, [laughs] or did I — and how nourishing it is to be with other people, like you said, that energy flow — I mean, oh my gosh, I can’t wait to, I mean, as a filmmaker, be in a movie theater and experience a movie and hear everyone sigh together and clap together. And I’ve done a lot of talks on Zooms, and experiences, and it’s so hard to recreate that flow and just that exchange of energy. Oh my gosh. [laughs] So it is — yeah. Excited.
Tippett: Well, I want to talk a little bit more, before we finish, about the kind of big existential, philosophical questions here. But I also would like to ask you to — I mean, this is a — as you say, you don’t have to be Jewish. The way you’re talking about a tech Shabbat is something we could all do. I happen to think that if you’re Jewish — I think it’s a great gift to have this tradition and this ritual in your culture, in your DNA. I think that helps in imposing a ritual like this, but I also think that the extreme place we’ve come with our lives, with our time management, with our technology, means — and one thing I think a lot of us have learned this year, the hard way, is the need for rituals and, as you said, time management and creating structure. So, how would you talk — and the book is really fantastic. I mean, it really is a manual, and also a wonderful discussion and reflection, about our lives with technology. But just how — just for a few minutes here, describe what the invitation would be. How would you begin, if you wanted to create a tech Shabbat tradition in a family or in a home?
Shlain: Thank you, first. Thank you. I do think about Shabbat just like yoga and meditation; like these are two practices I do from other cultures that have brought so much to my life. And I think Shabbat can be that gift of an idea that anyone can do. I mean, it’s so exciting to me, now that the book’s been out for over a year, how many people are doing it. And really, I walk people through in the book, exactly how.
But I will tell you that — and as a parent, so much — but a lot of people do it that are single, don’t have kids, and it’s brought so much back to their lives, too. But as a parent, I can just say that it’s the single best thing that we’ve done as a family tradition because so much of parenting is modeling behavior and showing your kids, being like, we as a family value, for one day, we’re gonna be with each other without the whole world with us on these screens. And we value a conversation around a table with interesting people, like you, and family and friends — be around a table and learn how to have a conversation and make good food. And then we also value time where there’s nothing — where you’re walking in nature, you’re staring out the window, you’re reading, and you’re not doing too much of anything. And in a society that values so much of like, Go! Produce! Be! Hustle! — all these words that — that’s not the world — I don’t want to live that way 24/7. And how do you create moments of pause and space?
So I would say, depending on where you are, anyone can do this. You can do this next Friday. I mean, I love the idea that people are doing something at the same time, all over the world. So every Friday night, there are people on every part of this globe who are preparing for Shabbat. And we do make a special meal, and I think making something different and setting the table and putting flowers, I think, is a wonderful ritual. And we have one conversation around the table, no screens. I mean, I talk about in the book all these things I do the other six days, because I don’t look at my phone — my phone’s not in my bedroom before I go to sleep. It’s not there when I wake up. And I have — just like you said, the more rituals I’ve added to my morning and my evening routine have made the love sandwiches of my life so much better, because I don’t wake up in reaction to the world and let that stream of email or news or whatever dictate the mood of my morning — you know, the way I wake up or go to bed.
But then in the day, I’m a true believer — out of sight, out of mind. All the screens kind of go away. There might be one person in your home who’s like, “I just need to have it near.” Whatever; everyone’s got their own thing — I don’t like to look at it or touch it. And it’s an amazing thing that we all survived before phones and screens. And I write down on Friday afternoon, if we have plans on Saturday, but we try not to have too many plans. We’ve done it with our kids and sports and all that, but really, Saturday — Friday’s very social, with the dinner, with other people. And Saturday is very — I mean, it’s family. It’s what I grew up with in the ’70s. Sunday was family day. [laughs]
Tippett: Well, and which also can have a lot of boredom to it, but boredom is also a wellspring of creativity —
Shlain: Oh my gosh. Boredom is — yes, the runway of creativity. That’s the way I tell my youngest, if she ever says it. I’m like, “Great! You’re bored! That means you’re a little uncomfortable. And you know what? This incredible, creative world is right at the edge of that uncomfortableness,” because it inevitably happens that you’ll have to create your own sense of creativity. And I think I really — that’s one thing I worry about is, every second, it’s just so easy if you’re bored, to just flick your wrist and look at your phone.
And there’s such — and there’s so much neuroscience to back this up, and I’ve made a couple films about it, about the default mode network. And basically, your mind is in its most supple, creative state when it’s off leash, [laughs] going back to our original word. So we need to create more space off leash. And even now, when I step in the shower, I think, don’t turn on the news, don’t turn on anything, and just take a shower, because that’s why you have your best ideas when you’re in the shower or doing dishes or taking a walk. And we’ve just filled every waking moment with stimulation and input, and you need time to digest and create new thoughts.
And that’s really what the — tech Shabbats create this space to digest everything you’ve experienced that week and figure out how you think about it and how it integrates to your larger narrative and — it’s just such a great thing, to create that space to think.
Tippett: Sounds like it’s protecting your — [laughs] it’s protecting your brain, apart from just —
Shlain: Yes! You’re the curator of your brain. You are. You are.
Tippett: And I know you’re really steeped in a lot of the science around this, and it also looks to me, when I look at what you’re getting into these days, that — it sounds to me like there’s an intensification of that science around technology and our brains, especially with young people. I have to say, one of the experiences I’ve had this year is feeling like my brain isn’t working very well, which I know — I just had this conversation a few weeks ago about what’s been going on in our nervous systems. I know that pandemic brain is a real thing, and it has things to do with the stress response that got turned on and never turned off for us, a year ago.
But I have also — it’s clear to me that this addictive power of these devices, of phones — that because I am so enmeshed with going into that — with everything coming out of my device, with me interacting with the device. And I find, at my advanced age, not with a very — like an adolescent brain is gonna be more inclined to want a lot of dopamine — I can feel it hijacking my brain. And I have trouble getting myself off it, at times.
Shlain: I completely know what you mean. I mean, I completely know what you mean. Well, I — first of all, going back to just the brain. What I’ve been able to — [laughs] I just think everyone needs to be very forgiving of themselves this last year and how they feel and how much they are able to create. It’s been much less for me this year, [laughs] and I kind of leaned into it, at a certain point.
But I think, you know, it is very seductive and alluring because it was designed that way. To keep our eyes glued to the screen is the — that’s the strategy. So when you’re — can’t pull away, it’s because there’s thousands of engineers and psychologists and technologists who, that’s all they’ve been thinking about, is how do we keep her/him/they/everyone glued to the screen?
And even I — so we used to have a rule, no screens upstairs. And then, of course, during the pandemic, our kids’ rooms became their classrooms, so I felt like the screens were multiplying like hamsters in my house. I’m like, wait! How are there that many screens in your bedroom? [laughs] So that at a certain point like four months ago, Ken and I were like,
“OK, that’s it. Screens downstairs at 9:00 p.m.” And we had to like, extract the screens from the bedroom. And then my younger daughter was like, “Mom, why do you still have your phone here?” And I was like, “You’re absolutely right. Get that thing — get that kryptonite away from me.” [laughs] And so now when she takes the screens down, she takes mine down too.
And let me tell you, to get them out of the bedroom — you think you can’t do it, and then my nighttime — I look forward to my nights. I’m like, oh, I’m gonna read and take a bath, and I’m not going to just check that one more thing on my phone that will affect my dreams, affect my sleep, might stress me out.
Let’s go back to “protector of your brain.” You’re the curator of your brain. You’re the steward of your brain. And what you let in is gonna affect it all the time and how you feel. So it takes courage. I mean, I do think it takes courage to do tech Shabbats, because you have to say to the world, “Nothing is more important than what’s happening in my home, even if that’s me being with myself.”
And every great wisdom practice — I mean, Krista, I’ve learned so much from so many of your shows on all the different wisdom practices of every culture — there is a need for silence and stillness and reflection. And we’ve created a society where there’s no room for any of that because we’re filling every waking moment. So you have to have the courage to say, “I value my inner world and my inner thoughts and thinking on my own instead of in response to so many other people. And I need to carve out that space” — I believe one day a week, because it’s thousands of years old. They must be on to something.
But I also am now doing it — I do it at night, and now in the morning — I don’t look at my phone for 30 minutes, and it has made such a difference in how I end and start my day. And then, of course, what I always look forward to is this whole day of just thinking on my own, in my own space — because we’re so influenced. I mean, all the people you follow, you have to curate that list, because they’re gonna influence your stream of consciousness all the time.
Tippett: Do you think, because you do the tech Shabbat, because you take that 24 hours off, do you think that creates a resilience in you to be a little bit more resistant to the addictive qualities?
Shlain: No. I think it’s like a muscle.
Tippett: Huh? Yeah?
Shlain: Well, I’m like the rest of you. I mean, when you said that you feel like it’s hijacked — I mean, there’s certain points I’m like, “Tiffany, put it away”; like I’m talking to myself to put it away. But I know that every week — it is like a muscle, because — well, first of all — and I can see it in my kids; like, they know they can be without it, because they do it every week. So I love that —
Tippett: They have that experience.
Shlain: Yeah, that they know they can have a great day and that it’s not a scary thing to be without their phone. I think it does build a muscle; like I know the benefits. And there are so many theories around habit — that if you want to change something, you have to replace it with something you love to do. So, Shabbat — our Shabbats are just filled with food we love, people we love, things we love — it’s the day of doing all the things that you love doing.
And going back to anyone listening that wants to try this: if you live with other people or if you’re by yourself, if you wrote a list of what are all the things you wish you did more of in a more focused way — and everyone’s got a different list — and then you fill your tech Shabbat with that; and then you’ve suddenly replaced the habit of staring at a screen with something that fills your cup. And I think thinking about what are the things that bring you joy, that make you laugh, that make you feel happy, and replace the time when you’re [laughs] flipping your wrist to look at your phone, is a really good way to do it.
Tippett: I think this is wonderful. I think it’s so helpful right now, more helpful than ever before. I noticed in the book, in 24/6, you name as one of your favorite lines, one of my favorite lines, from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And that just feels so resonant, also, again, as we are able to move out, to be out, to see people again, to look up from the screens, to not go through them for so much. I feel like — you’ve used that word “curate”; like we have this choice again to very consciously curate how we spend our days.
Shlain: Yeah, and I think a big question that everyone — I know I’ve been asking a lot and kind of making lists — is what are the rituals that came into your life during the pandemic that you want to keep? And most of those are analog rituals, for me. And then what are some of the technological things that actually were exciting, that you want to continue? And then what can we bring forward from this experience? And I just turned 50 this year, and any time I have brought a new ritual into my life, it has made my life better. There’s no question. So start accumulating rituals, and I promise it’ll make you happier.
I mean, I really feel like, after 11 years of doing this, that I’m happier. I feel more creative and more connected to myself and the people I love and my family. And I don’t know what — there’s nothing that has done that so completely each week for me, where it kind of resets me. And I think that this pandemic was a big look at everyone — what matters, what’s important. And what rituals can keep that focus on what matters? — because of that Annie Dillard. It’s such a beautiful — it’s such a beautiful quote, because if you think about your day and how much time do you spend on screens, versus being outside or connecting, and it’s a real easy way to look at what you want to change, what you want to keep. And I think those are questions we should continue to keep asking ourselves.
Tippett: Yeah, especially now. Oh, I’m glad you’re in the world. Thank you for this.
Shlain: Aw, I love talking to you, Krista. It’s like, oh, I get to talk to you! That’s a joy, for me. I mean, I think if everyone can hold on — when does it nourish, when does it deplete, and how can I focus on what matters?