DocuMondays – We Live in Public

We Live in Public (2009, dir. Ondi Timoner)
Featuring Josh Harris

Josh Harris is much smarter than you. He is also likely more insane than you, as well. This documentary by director Ondi Timoner (also behind the great docu DiG! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols) follows a near prophetic vision of the internet and privacy that was unleashed from the mind of the aforementioned Josh Harris. The ideas he would present, for himself an experiment born out of curiosity, would shape the concepts of social networking and cultivation of user information as a commodity. The way Facebook works now is indebted to the research of Harris, a man who is unknown by the very executives whom run companies that wouldn’t exist without him.

In 1980, Josh Harris was a low level researcher in New York City. He attended a conference where the idea of computers being networked globally was being discussed and from this he began to think of how this could completely change the way people run their lives. He founded Jupiter, a company focused on surveying to gathering information on how people would use the internet. From there he developed the concept of public chat rooms which he sold to Compuserve. He was the first to think of making the internet a replacement for television and started Pseudo TV, back when streaming video was a blocky nightmare. Investors liked the idea but by 1999 Harris had become bored and was behaving in a more increasingly erratic manner. His next venture was a piece of performance art/social experiment where around a hundred people signed up to live in a subterranean village Harris built.

Before they could join though, they had to undergo extensive psychological testing, not to ensure their stability in the community but to help feed periodic interrogations that would be held during their stay. Everyone slept in Japanese style pods which had both a television and a closed circuit camera. Every channel was simply another pod. The bathrooms, showers, dining room, entertainment venues, simply everywhere was wired with cameras. The psychological effect it had was at first detachment by the citizens of the village and then a air of insanity took over. The experiment was busted on Jan. 1, 2000 after rumors spread that it was a Heaven’s Gate type cult. At this point, Josh and his girlfriend at the time set up cameras all throughout their loft and launched a 24 hour stream of every facet of their life online. This experiment culminated in Harris physically assault said girlfriend on camera when she refused to have sex with him.

From there he fell victim to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, left New York City and ended up buying an apple farm. He tried to reinsert his “brand” into the current online climate but was met with executives of social networking sites who had no idea who he was. Harris is shown as being incredibly detached from others. His mother was on her deathbed and, instead of physically visiting, he recorded his message to her and mailed the tape, which arrived too late. His most formative experiences seem to have been bonding with virtual families via the television of the 1960s and 70s. Gilligan’s Island was a highly influential element in his life and he seems to transpose both the character of Mrs. Howell and his own mother onto a bizarre personality he would some times take on called Luvvey.

Harris ideas about people willingly giving over their information and their privacy has come true in the form of the 24 hour tweet culture we’re experiencing. He mentions that Warhol was right about the fifteen minutes of fame, however, he add people want that fifteen minutes every day. The documentary is an excellent examination of how we got to a moment where identity and privacy are typically forfeit when it comes to online culture. Through Harris’ insane experiments we can see that it is not so much about the technology as it is about a distance our culture has taken on in relation to each other, long before the internet.

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