Director: Ondi Timoner (DiG!)
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 90 min
(Preamble: We Live in Public is, among many things, about the flash intrusion of the internet on our social lives, something the subject of the film, Josh Harris, anticipated in the mid-nineties. Its relevancy to the very medium upon which this review is cast is not lost on this author. This thing we are doing here, being digital people in a digital community has its ramifications that Josh’s story validly explores. The explosion of social network platforms mixed with broadband speed that marks the 21st century has grown exponentially and the surge is so great, the curve so acute that it becomes incredibly difficult to gage the present, and when something like this film is made as a record of a decade of accelerated culture, it is a bit of a wake-up call. There is so much noise, so much speed and disposability to everything we say that it is almost a necessity to be an exhibitionist if only to get your point across. In context, what Josh does, though on the surface bizarre, is ultimately a reflection of what has become commonplace. Even now I feel the impulse to be an exhibitionist as the speed by which many of us process no longer allows for subtlety of craft or comprehension. Its a strange impulse, this wrestling for permanency, for meaning, for identity. I write this conscious of your impatient eyeballs, perhaps even in spite of them.)
As mentioned in one of the opening title cards, Josh Harris is the greatest internet pioneer you never heard of. What follows in We Live in Public is not merely a chronicle of a dot.com internet guru, but something more tantalizing: a social experiment within a social experiment. On one level we are shown the ‘social experiments’ that Josh Harris inflicts upon himself and those following in his wake, experiments which are part performance art, part prophecy, all hinging upon the heightened potentials of surveillance and exhibitionism posed by the arrival of the internet. The scale and ambition of these projects, most notably Quiet: We Live in Public, are so sublimely psychotic that they were the first of their kind and incidentally, ushered in the new subgenre of entertainment known as reality television (particularly the confined social experiment variety of this type). His experiments spanned the best part of the nineties until, much like Warhol’s Factory (which is continually evoked as a parallel to this ‘movement’) the excess took its toll and the party abruptly stopped.
The chief set-piece of the film and of Josh’s legacy is perhaps his Quiet experiment. Here he created a quasi-fascist commune buried beneath New York City made up of artists and disparate individuals who volunteer to reside in a ‘futuristic’ bunker complete with living quarters (i.e. pods), social areas such as a kitchen, a bar, a church, and a shooting range, all rigged by surveillance. The experiment was to last thirty days, and as the days progressed the breaking point for some came to the surface all captured by Josh’s cameras. Director Ondi Timoner was a participant of this experiment, and captures the events with an eclectic mix of Warholian exuberance and Orwellian dread.
In his follow-up experiment, Josh rigged his apartment with surveillance cameras and microphones to become part of the first couple ever to be streamed online continuously over what appears to be a span of months. This too ends badly, as Josh confronts the psychological and emotional ramifications of these projects, and sets off on a decidedly different course in the third act of the film (and perhaps, of his life).
The film’s depiction of the rise and fall of a geek entrepreneur with its mad rush to compress the lurid details of the story into two hours is reminiscent of elements of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, however We Live in Public goes beyond the g[r]eek tragedy titillations by its insinuation that our seemingly benign use of technology and our role as voyeurs to the story makes us culpable of the visions Josh, in abstraction, devises. We are the exhibitionist society made flesh. The film itself becomes a social experiment, indicting its audience as they voyeuristically take part in Josh’s life, and by calling to mind the ways our commonplace social networking habits are nearly as insidious as his. Perhaps we scoff at the notion of 24 hour surveillance, but what percentage of your day is spent inputting information into devices that record your identity and behavior, and how often do you interact with people via screens and how often do you interact face-to-face? The film poses some interesting questions about the present state of our wellbeing in this culture of acceleration.
Timoner weaves a story together over a decade and a half from what must have been a near inexhaustible amount of footage. It is her story, but a persona of Josh Harris emerges that is fascinating to me, even if its not ‘the real’. I suspect some may see his escapades as vain acts of exhibitionism not dissimilar to that of reality television contestants, but there are significant differences to be made. Josh in effect introduced the reality television format, in particular the Big Brother incarnation. Unlike reality television contestants who are usually in it for fame and fortune, Josh rightly or wrongly goes through with his experiments in spite of the superficial concerns, honed in on the boundaries they push. As one person describes it, its as if the child who grew up living vicariously through the television shows he watched as kid decided to step inside the television and reside there unfettered. On one level it is psychologically unnerving to watch this level of unraveling of the human in pursuit of the idea, but I strongly believe Josh, at least in his later incarnations, has come to a point of making it less about ideas for ideas sake, and more about living life aesthetically as a real and viable option to the tedium of our middle-of-the-road alternative. There appears to be a method to the madness, but of this I expect much dispute.
There is also a sinister depiction of technology in We Live in Public that too may rub some audience members the wrong way. This may be a generational difference, those born into the Borg-like assimilation of technology may see no qualms with it, whereas my generation is one that bridges eras connected and unconnected, and a trace memory exists of life before the virtual identity. I would have preferred the issue to be left more open-ended, because I do think despite many of the valid criticisms of life lived digitally, there is a kneejerk tendency to resist anything new as hostile to a natural balance that only exists conceptually: in reality every moment slips forward to something else and the sense of permanency one may feel is as artificial as the relationships forged on facebook.
Josh Harris may be a provocateur and emotionally stunted individual but he is nonetheless a kind of cyber-cosmonaut demarcating the terrain we would soon populate. Like Timothy Leary or Andy Warhol, he made an artistic statement out of his life, a resistance to the familiar for the sake of aesthetics, and on that level I find his story fascinating, and the documentary on him equally fascinating.