'We Live In Public': Yesterday's Future Revisited, By Kurt Loder

Josh Harris: Internet prophet or fascist dream merchant?

Josh Harris was an emotionally stunted early computer nerd who came to New York City in 1984 with $900 in his pocket. He got into high-tech market research and made a bunch of money. He pioneered chat rooms and then Web TV before it was really feasible (dial-up was a stumbling block). He surfed the big Internet wave, became a name player and by the end of the '90s was worth $80 million. How did he do this? And what ever happened to him?

He did it by inventing the future. Well, by inventing the way people would live in the future. Or so he thought. But would they? Do they?

"We Live in Public," Ondi Timoner's new documentary about Harris, prompts a number of questions — about the future of privacy, the decay of intimacy, and technological totalitarianism — that keep burrowing back into themselves. It's a maddening, mesmerizing film. Harris is a half-brilliant entrepreneur with no moral sense whatsoever. That he grew up in a loveless bubble — with emotionally absent parents, his only friend the living-room TV set, his real family the cast of "Gilligan's Island" — tells us a lot, if not everything, we need to know about the man, and about why he grew up to be so strange.

At the end of 1999, rolling in dough, Harris turned his eye toward bigger things than making money. He decided to ring in the new millennium with a month-long techno-art happening he called "Quiet." This involved assembling about a hundred people — artists, musicians, other dot-com kids like himself — and installing them in an old building in downtown Manhattan that had been filled with more than a hundred video cameras, some stationary, some hand-held and roving. There was a barracks-like "pod hotel" — essentially rows of bunk beds with cameras affixed to record everything that went on in them. There was a big shower with see-through walls; the toilets had no walls at all. There were all kinds of great food, a 24/7 open bar and, down in the basement, a firing range heavily stocked with weapons, many of them automatic. (You can hear the roar of machine guns in the background of the period interviews Timoner has dredged up here.) There were also drugs, of course, and lots of nudity, lots of sex, all of it incessantly documented by Harris' cameras. The food, the booze, the ammo were all free — Harris paid for everything. ("I spend money like it's sand through the fingers of time," he says here.) The video footage, however, he kept for himself.

The atmosphere of creepiness that emanates from all of this thickens when we learn that every partygoer had to undergo an "interrogation" before gaining admission. These sessions, conducted by a stern note-taker, with a uniformed goon standing nearby, probed the subjects' fears and insecurities, their sexual practices, everything, with answers jotted down in individual files. We see a bipolar man unsteadily talking about the delusions from which he suffers, and a girl instructed to demonstrate exactly how she sliced open her arm in a suicide attempt. (She breaks down in tears.) Harris is watching all this — everybody is watching, via video hookup — and at one point we see him consulting with an on-the-scene psychiatrist, pressing him for suggestions about "any technique we can use to intimidate them — to break them, in essence."

According to one of the many cameramen on hand, "There was a tremendous fascist overtone to the whole thing." A woman adds, "It was absolutely a surveillance police state. Just by walking into the premises, you basically relinquished your rights." Harris saw it differently. "This is a perfect analogy of what the Internet will [become]," he said. "Everyone will have a camera and a monitor. ... As time goes by, we're going to increasingly have our lives exposed. And we're gonna want that to happen."

In the end the police arrived, drawn by the sound of all the gunfire, and shut the party down. But Harris was just getting started. "With 'Quiet,' " he says, "I saw what surveillance could do to the human condition. The next step was to experiment on myself."

And so for the first time that anyone who knew him could remember, Harris acquired a girlfriend, a fresh-faced young woman named Tanya Corrin, whom he invited to join him in his next project. He called it "We Live in Public," and once again it involved lots of cameras and microphones, this time installed all around a large residential loft into which the new couple moved. There were cameras in the shower, the bathroom, the bedroom — no space was left unobserved. They were all wired together into a Web site that allowed a community of online voyeurs to observe what Josh and Tanya were up to at any hour of the day or night, and — this being all about interactivity — to offer streams of real-time text commentary about the lives these two people were living.

An iron law of human nature ensured that this sinister experiment would end badly. Tanya grew unhappy. ("I'm not gonna be your porn star," she shouts at one point.) Harris, possibly in an attempt to goose his Web hits, became abusive, pushing her around and bruising her. Finally, she left. Harris, who appears to be in denial about virtually everything in life, responded with feigned nonchalance. "I couldn't wait to get rid of her," he claims. "Tanya was a pseudo girlfriend. I'd been trying to cast [that part], and she was perfect." He would soldier on: "I had to take 'Living in Public' to the end because I'm a celebrity ... there are people who watch." Unfortunately, observing Harris on his own — muttering to himself in the bathroom mirror or even taking a call on the toilet from a lady telling him his bank account is empty (the big dot-com bubble had finally burst) — was remarkably uninteresting. When his audience dwindled to about 10 people, he quit and left New York for a farm out in the middle of somewhere or other, where he fired off guns a lot and communed with the apple trees, which he felt could "sense my energy source."

Harris eventually attempted a comeback with another interactive Web site, but the new breed of younger moguls who might have financed it had no idea who he was, and they didn't. Then Harris disappeared.

So who is this man? Is he the guy we see in the film saying, "I'm an artist — one of the first great artists of the 21st century"? Or is he the guy telling us, "I'm sick. I'm mentally sick"? Timoner wants to make a case for Harris as a prophet ahead of his time — a man who foresaw the online-all-the-time world in which so many people now live. Maybe so. But he was hardly the first person to foresee the disquieting possibilities of modern communications technology. In a 1951 book called "The Mechanical Bride," Marshall McLuhan suggested the deceptive allure of the dominant medium of his day: "Come on, kiddies. Buy a radio and feel free — to listen." But McLuhan gave this subject considerable thought; he stirred concern. Harris didn't care. The grave new world he saw coming seemed to get him off. Being an emotional nonentity himself, living in public may have been the only way he could really live at all.

At the end of this remarkable film, Timoner, who worked on it for 10 years (and also worked on the "Quiet" project back in the day), tracks Harris down to the last place on Earth you'd expect to find him, far from the siren lure of digital media (and the even more insistent clamor of the many creditors he skipped out on). He's settled into real life at last and says he's there to stay. Let's hope so.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The September Issue" and "A Woman In Berlin," also in theaters this weekend.

Check out everything we've got on "We Live in Public."

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