SIFF 2009: We Live in Public ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Marshall McLuhan is spinning.

So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? Tiresome jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems every time you turn around, yet another person is credited for being the “visionary” who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in the virtual sense).

Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film was a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (Dig!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia.

What separates Harris from the rest of the nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.

In December 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been concocted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would room together in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera trained on them 24/7. Each also had his or her own monitor, with access to “flip channels” and peek in on what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the obvious question). The complex was stockpiled with food, beverages, and guns (the latter allowed people to “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in their own sleeping pod.

Harris hired psychologists, who would grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcams and the glut of reality TV.

Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holds barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the empty halls of Xanadu).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately…Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does everybody necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so, why? Is the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my adorable little cat with a bag stuck on his head?

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