We Live in Public

We Live in Public

Film review by: Witney Seibold

We Live in Public

Many people, on occasion myself included, have declared that the Nerd has taken over the world. With the proliferation of computer technology, the growing subculture of so-called “gamers,” and the popularity of comic book material in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, what was once relegated to the socially awkward, unintentionally virginal, snickering marginalized specialist has become de rigueur, and even expected by the common man. The Nerd has become the rich hero, and, in the last decade, they have been granted a level of social and financial power unheard of in the late 1980s, when we Nerds were taping “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and memorizing facts in our heads, rather than on our ‘blogs.

One of the Nerds with such power, and the subject of Ondi Timoner’s new documentary “We Live in Public,” is a man you may have never heard of: Josh Harris. Harris was one of the hotshot computer programmers who helped shape the Internet and what it was to become back in the early ‘90s. He earned millions of dollars during the Internet boom, and even had theories about the future aof human communication which are turning out to be true. He was ahead of the curve; people scoffed at him when he said that everyone would think of themselves as a celebrity when the Internet invades homes, but just take a look at the big-headed, narcissistic, insistent self-importance of a Twitter or a Facebook or a MySpace (or a Friendster, to recall the first one that started this mess), and you’ll see that he was right.

Josh Harris, trying to look tough.

Josh Harris, trying to look tough.

Harris even had his own network for a short while, bring the people TV-style shows on the Internet before technology really allowed for high-quality streaming video. He though he could put CBS out of business. His descendants may seem destined to do it. His most ambitious project (one that Timoner was around to film) was a 1999 “social experiment” he called “Quiet! We Live in Pubic.” Harris seemed unclear himself on what he was doing, but his experiment was based on the theory that in the future, everyone will want to be a celebrity so badly, that they will willingly remove all limits of their own privacy. He gathered about 100 people in an underground bunker, where they were given capsule-style sleeping arrangements, free food, free drink, and free utilities. They all had to be interviewed by a Stasi-type psychiatrist, and they had to, on film, confess all of their past transgressions. They had no doors on their showers of bathrooms. Most dangerously, they were given free access to firearms. Each capsule was equipped with a TV that allowed you to see into any other capsule.

The scenes from this experiment are haunting and, strangely, predictable. When people know they are being watched, they will not withdraw, but act out. People tried to be the starts of the day. They would perform, have sex, shower, eat and drink outwardly. I think this would have been a more interesting experiment had people not been constantly rattled by booze and gunfire. Eventually, the bunker had to be closed down by the police, as it was feared Harris was leading a millennial death cult.

Harris tried the experiment again a few years later with a “We Live in Public” website, on which he and his then-girlfriend wired their apartment with cameras, and lived under constant observation. This is trying on their relationship. Some of the things Harris does are shameful and telling, and should not be witnessed by others.

We eventually see Harris living in hiding in Africa, running from debts, and severing ties from his family. How bad did it get? When his mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, rather than going to see her, he sent a videotape wishing her a fond farewell. The phrase “socially awkward” doesn’t begin to describe how alienating that must have felt.

Harris had millions of dollars at one point, and blew it all on parties and cults and weirdo social experiments that revealed more about himself than they did about any sort of human condition. Timoner posits that Harris was just trying to create an ersatz family in the form of Internet strangers, and tried to complete a strange familial fantasy given to him y reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.” To me, “We Live in Public” is a dissection of what happens when the Nerds, used to be marginalized, are given too much power too quickly (one could point to live-action version of “Transformers” as a further indicator). Harris was a computer kid, raised by TV, whose idea of a stirring press conference was to show up as a foulmouthed clown named “Luvvy.” He earned millions. He blew it.

Harris is not an evil man, but seems like an innocent out of his depth. “We Live in Public” is fascinating, raw, amusing, and, despite some cutesy animations, fascinating to look at.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 3:26 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Three Cheers for Darkened Years! Film Articles by Witney Seibold “We Live in Public” is fascinating, raw, amusing, and… fascinating to look at.” […]

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