We Live in Public (2009)

Director: Ondi Timoner

This is a weird documentary. It will make you uncomfortable, know that. It will also make you wonder if it’s real, you will question if what is presented is possible, plausible even. Know that it is indeed all true, every single moment of it. Let that sink in. Sit with it. This is our collective past – we should be very, very afraid for our future.

Josh Harris is someone most of us have never heard of. Yet he has made an indelible mark on society, art, culture, technology, and the way we consume entertainment and even interact with each other. Did he do this alone? Is he solely responsible? No. But he was a very real and central symptom of what was to come. The time? USA in the nineties.

The film opens with a recorded video of Harris expressing why he has chosen not to go see his mother on her dying bed. He carefully excuses himself, stating that expressing himself digitally is how he is most comfortable – his avoidance and distance is noticeable, his empathy or emotions missing quasi completely. What brought this man to behave in a way that seems so emotionally disconnected, so unloving, so mechanical? The film takes a giant leap back to Harris’ childhood, with the subject claiming that he was not really raised by his parents, but by television. Gilligan’s Island to be exact. His entire worldview and reality were filtered through this show, becoming more real to him than what he could feel and touch. His journey into a digital and virtual reality had begun.

As an adult, Harris found his way to Silicon Valley and was able to stake a claim in a fledgling business that was about to explode. Harris was at the forefront in a time in which technology and the internet were growing and seemingly taking over the world. Harris was a businessman and tech geek, but he thought of himself as something bigger, purer, more interesting. He thought he was an artist, and he had something to prove.

The documentary takes us through several experiments and business ventures that Harris undertook during the tech decade of the nineties. The first was a bizarre experiment in which volunteers allowed themselves to be continuously recorded, while living in pods (similar to Japanese capsule motels) and doing all things openly and publicly. Privacy was forbidden, all became communal. Underground in New York City, this Orwellian experiment started off as a utopia, but quickly devolved into a hedonistic and dangerous collection of humanity’s basest behaviors. The troubling and disturbing version of Big Brother if there were no rules and no escape.

Following that experiment followed a much more personal one. Harris and his girlfriend decided to live their own lives publicly, equipping their apartment with cameras absolutely everywhere. Any viewer with a computer could access their home and live vicariously through the couple. Routines, fights, lovemaking, and everything in between became public consumption – message boards allowing for an interaction between viewers and the couple. Immediate feedback to each choice made, from what to cook to who won a fight. Suddenly the couple was made up of hundreds and thousands of voices, each with an opinion and a say. Things did not go well.

I won’t spoil the third act of the film, but it is important to note that all of Harris’ oeuvre became a precursor to modern society. From reality television to online vlogging, even pornographic webcams, Harris started this all single-handedly. He created in many ways the society that Orwell had warned us about in 1984. For better or for worse, Harris was our Prometheus, and instead of fire, his actions ushered the all too willing self-surveillance we have nowadays, and we are all just a little worse of because of it. So for that, we thank Josh Harris. Pandora’s box is open, but I think hope wasn’t in this particular package after all.

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