Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 by David Chen
According to Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public, Josh Harris is “the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” Timoner’s documentary paints Harris as a man keenly attuned to the rapid advancements of the internet age, always one or two steps ahead of both the conventional wisdom as well as the prevailing technologies of his day. Harris made millions when he started internet data-analysis firm Jupiter Communications, then parlayed that money into other ventures, such as the short-lived internet TV studio Psuedo. Psuedo was launched before Hulu, revision3, justin.tv or uStream; hell, this was even before broadband was as widespread as it is today, making streaming, high-quality television a reality (Psuedo’s programs were a bit choppy).
After Pseudo, Harris launched perhaps his most ambitious project of all: an experimental community/art project called “Quiet: We Live in Public.” Harris rounded up over 100 artists into an underground bunker, offering free food, drink, and firing range access (with a huge of assault weapons to choose from, no joke). Using an intricate system of cameras, he recorded their every move and provided each of them a TV monitor so they could watch the activities of others. When FEMA shut down the bunker, Harris launched a different, more intimate version of “We Live in Public,” installing dozens of cameras and microphones inside his apartment to record the actions of himself and his girlfriend, Tonya. He then broadcast the results onto the internet, to the pleasure of many an internet chat room participant. As the second iteration of “We Live in Public” progressed, Harris found that constant internet surveillance had the ability to drastically affect his psychological condition and, perhaps, the course of his life.
I saw We Live in Public last night at IFFBoston and came away greatly impressed. Timoner is a masterful storyteller, whose ability to choose and edit footage to create a coherent plot cannot be understated. The movie was filmed over the course of a decade and that Timoner was able to take 5000 hours of material and convert it into an exciting, compelling 90-minute film is no small feat. Timoner herself admitted that she filmed all of the material not really knowing what it would be about until she had an epiphany in 2006, when she first saw someone update their Facebook status. At that point, what was once a short, self-contained piece about an experimental underground community run by a quirky entrepreneur took on a whole new significance.
Not knowing Josh Harris personally, I can’t speak to his brilliance or intelligence, but the film certainly makes his prescience undeniable. With the advent of web 2.0 and user-generated content, we now live in a world that is oversaturated with personality. Whether on Facebook, MySpace, Youtube, or Twitter, people willingly and easily upload bits and pieces of themselves for everyone to see. Before we even had the technology to do any of it, Josh Harris saw it coming. In a segment on the film covering Pseudo back in the 1990s, Harris opines that whereas before people once longed for 15 minutes of fame during their lifetime, “Our view is that people will want their 15 minutes of fame everyday.”
Harris’s “Quiet: We Live in Public” community put this theory to the test by tapping into the hidden desire that many of us possess: The desire to be seen, and by extension, the desire to be famous. What I loved most about the film was how it dives into the insidious effects our internet culture can have on the human psyche. People who listen to any ol’ podcast on the internet understand this: Knowing that you’re being broadcast can bring you into a state of “hyper-realism.” The film seems to ask, “What would you do in front of a camera that you wouldn’t do otherwise, and why?” Timoner and a film crew spent 30 days in Harris’s underground bunker, and her coverage of it plays out like a bizarre fever dream. The fact that this community even existed at all is remarkable, where people pissed, shit, fucked, showered, and practiced their use of automatic weapons, all under the watchful gaze of cameras. As the atmosphere in the bunker become more tense and unstable, Timoner makes it all seem simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but an unforgettable experience either way. Thus, We Live in Public partially serves as a fascinating Lord-of-the-flies-esque document of humanity unleashed.
But it was when Harris turned the camera on himself and his girlfriend that I really began to see the issue with a whole new level of granularity. Simple quarrels became climactic duels, and mundane activities became charged with the thrill of exhibitionism. Slowly, you see the their relationship painfully buckle under the weight of the camera. The results are heartbreaking but also carry implications disturbing for us viewers, as much of our lives increasingly take place online.
Both “We Live in Public” experiments serve as microcosms of society today. It should be said that there ore often benefits to always being plugged in and connected with people. In Clive Thompson’s New York Times article, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” Thompson argues that the “ambient awareness” generated by services like Twitter and Facebook can help us feel more connected with people than previously thought possible. Yet too often, we don’t stop to consider the implications of the fact that our lives are laid bare for the world to see, and what effect that might have on us as individuals. As society’s obsession with technology and our obsession with internet fame continues to accelerate, these issues will only become more prevalent. We Live in Public is an important film, part interesting profile, part searing social commentary on the dehumanizing effects of the information age. It deserves to be seen and discussed by anyone who has never stopped to think before they eagerly answered the question, “What are you doing?”
Here’s the trailer for We Live in Public:
I had the privilege to speak with Ondi Timoner about her film this past Saturday. We spoke about the filmmaking process, the implications of life in a Web 2.0 world, and her upcoming projects. Please note that this interview took place while Timoner was getting a deep-tissue massage in the filmmaker’s lounge at IFFBoston. The audio you will hear reflects this. You can download the interview by clicking here, or you can play it in your browser below:
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[Photo from Ondi Timoner's Twitter page]