3:30 PM EDT, September 27, 2013
In the 1840s, Benjamin Disraeli, still a long way from being prime minister, wanted to wake people up to the plight of the British working class -- and move them to act. The alarm he sounded wasn't delivered in a speech, a pamphlet, or an article -- but in a novel, "Sybil," published in 1845. It had the desired effect -- raising awareness, provoking outrage, and leading to the passage of several fundamental social reforms.
Disraeli knew that one of the most effective ways to touch people is through narrative -- putting flesh and blood on raw facts and data. Ever since I read "Sybil" when I was at Cambridge, I've loved thinkers and writers and gadflies who use storytelling to reach people and get us to act. Of course, since Disraeli's time, other powerful ways of telling those stories have emerged -- including movies.
And so it was that I found myself moderating a panel discussion last week with the director and two cast members (Frank Grillo and Marc Jacobs -- yes, that Marc Jacobs!) of a movie that uses storytelling to wake us up to one of the biggest problems of our modern age: the effect that being "connected" to technology 24/7 is having on our ability to connect with our lives, ourselves and the people we love.
The film, written by Andrew Stern and directed by Henry-Alex Rubin, is called "Disconnect," and when it opens on April 12, I urge everybody to go see it. I found "Disconnect" incredibly compelling -- a perfect use of storytelling to vividly dramatize an issue that permeates our lives to such an extent that it's hard to even see. As well as Frank Grillo and Marc Jacobs, the cast includes Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Nyqvist.
"Disconnect" -- I'll try to avoid spoilers -- interweaves three stories, each involving characters whose lives have reached a crisis exacerbated by their dependence on technology at the expense of real human connection. There's a couple who has recently lost a baby. Instead of grieving together, they turn away from each other, and lose themselves in online distractions. There are two boys who use the power of social media to take advantage of another boy's loneliness and isolation -- itself partly caused by his father's obsession with work and email. And there's a woman reporter who becomes involved with a 18-year-old webcam porn performer who lives in a house run by a porn kingpin played by Jacobs. Now do you want to see it?
The stories become more and more enmeshed and finally come together in a gripping ending. In each instance, it takes a crisis to shake the characters up. "Disconnect" shows how easy it is to allow technology to lure us into a somnambulist life, gradually being pulled away from a sense of who we are and what really matters. At one point, the father, played by Jason Bateman, huddles with his wife, played by Hope Davis, and his daughter, played by Hayley Ramm, and looks at his son, played by Jonah Bobo, and says, "Everything I love is in this room." And yet that's certainly not how he had been living.
It's easy to get seduced by technology. As Henry-Alex Rubin said during our Q&A, many people use the Internet as medication, to dull pain and disappointments. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, you're missing your own life. Before the screening, Marc Jacobs told me that he'd banished all technology from his bedroom and has a low tolerance for it at dinners. "You have friends over for dinner and they're on their BlackBerrys and iPhones all the time, and you think, 'Why are you even here?'" And in fact, it was the sight of people around the dinner table emailing and texting that inspired Andrew Stern to write "Disconnect" in the first place.
As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," pointed out in a TEDTalk: "From social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship," she says. As a result, "we slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone," but "actually it's the opposite that's true."
Like so many people, this is something I struggle with on a regular basis. That's why "Disconnect" struck a nerve. Through the unique stories it so masterfully tells, it speaks to some universal truths about one of humanity's core traits -- our desire to connect. And, I should add, there is absolutely nothing didactic about the film. "I didn't approach this with any sort of theory or polemic," Henry-Alex Rubin said in the Q&A. "I just wanted to make things as real as possible. I approached it like a documentary."
Like a modern "Sybil," "Disconnect" sounds the alarm through fiction and drama about some very dark realities and deep truths.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)
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