We Live in Public

[31 August 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Just Sit Right Back

“You became gods, you became titans, because you knew how to set up a modem.” As he remembers the excesses of the dotcom era, Jason Calacanis sits in an office with a small stone Buddha on his desk. As he speaks, the scene cuts to footage of wild parties—beautiful young people dancing and drinking, cavorting their underwear, and experimenting with technologies. Captioned “internet mogul” in the documentary We Live in Public, Calacanis sounds aptly surprised and even appalled by the arbitrariness of his own and others’ success. While you’re watching a young man with his head inside what looks an electronic-performative box, mirrored and neoned, Calacanis adds, “And Josh Harris was, like, the most unique character of that whole period.”

Harris is described by captioning in this 1990s footage as “party thrower.” As head of the Jupiter Group, he brought together supermodels and nerds, celebrities and wannabes, sex and technology. Documentary maker Ondi Timoner narrates that Harris invited her to record his activities beginning in 1994, when he was starting up his company, Pseudo. “What I found there,” she says, “blew my mind.” What she found there, essentially, was the first internet television network. Harris was finding ways to use the then-new communications system to give users the chance not only to “broadcast themselves,” but also to view and talk about themselves at the same time. Years before YouTube and Facebook and MySpace, he saw and exploited the net’s possibilities of self-expression, self-transformation, and self-creation, its capacity for surveillance and behavior modification, data-mining and marketing. “It was just he most ingenious idea ever,” gushes Calacanis, “because people were hearing him say what they were saying in the chatrooms.”

The concept took off, fast, in part because it was so easy to promote. “When the press called around,” Harris submits, “I was the smartest guy in town and the reporters knew it.” As the face of something like the future, Harris became a “regular” on CNN, the New York Times, and USA Today, as well as 60 Minutes, during which interview he announced that Pseudo would overtake CBS, being a more efficient system of televising and advertising. Timoner’s film includes here some ominous synthy music and slow-motion close-ups of CBS reporter Bob Simon, underlining Harris’ profound insight. According to MySpace founder Brett Brewer, he “was really ahead of the curve,” in that he saw Pseudo as a way to track consumers as well as attract them. “We’re in the business of programming people’s lives,” Harris tells Simon (in 1994). The reporter stops him, declaring such a statement “scary.” As Harris sees it, his scheme is only what the networks already do, but better defined, better managed, and more plainly declared.

Using Harris as an emblem of the concept he named “Living in Public,” the documentary features brief snippets of his own life (growing up in a family with two brothers and three sisters, he notes, “There’s no privacy in that kind of environment”) as well as the drama of his difficult relationship with his mother (when she was on her death bed, he sent her a video letter that includes the line, “See you on the other side”; his brother describes the piece as “cold”).  “I was bred by her,” Harris remembers, under a sentimental piano track, “to sit n front of a TV set for hours on end, and that’s how I’ve been trained.” Moreover, he says, “My emotionality is not derived from other humans but rather from Gilligan.” 

Indeed, the film argues that his childhood obsession with Gilligan’s Island leads eventually to his adult understanding of “the human condition” and his “experiment” with Quiet. In 1999, using the millions he made during the dotcom boom, Harris built an underground facility (the Bunker) to house “citizens” for a month: they lived in pods, were provided food and distractions, primarily, lots of TV (constant video access to everything going on in Quiet, from eating, sleeping, and showering to practice on the shooting range and sex). Harris suggests that residents will be natural -selecting, because, as “You get new and more interesting people in, you need the racks, so you kick ‘em out.” Pod designer Jeff Gompertz observes, “It was partially an event, partially a party, and partially a social experiment.” To provide what Harris calls “Stasi-type intelligence” on residents, activities include interrogation, where methods are harsh. “Interrogation artist” Ashkan Sahihi works with CIA psychiatrist Harold Kaufman to come up with provocative questions and apparently revealing results.

Harris’ sense of Quiet’s “fascist” parameters seems self-fulfilling. As potential citizens were “clamoring to get in,” they also submitted all rules of this “uber-documented experience.” (Timoner was one of these citizens.) As the experiment produced tears and trauma, it also confirmed what Harris long suspected, that consumers today are thinking quite beyond Warhol’s initial observation. “Humans,” he says, “want 15 minutes of fame every day.” As participants describe their alienation, trepidation, and moral concerns about what performance artist Missy Galore terms “a surveillance police state,” the film revels that the police and fire department finally shut down the experiment. And Harris feels confirmed in his worldview.

In order to pursue the proto-reality-TV experiment, and in another way, Harris devises a new concept, that he and his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin will live together “in public.” That is, they live in an apartment outfitted with cameras and interact with viewers online. This portion of the film recalls a Real World breakdown episode, or maybe a Survivor finale, when participants describe their feelings—their fears, suspicions, reflections, and especially their ongoing efforts to decipher their own and other’s behaviors.

As Corrin and Harris’ relationship essentially melts down in public, they come away with what seem very different views of what happens. The film allows that their interactions with their “followers,” the viewers who commented and advised during the action, shaped their choices and their self-images. By experiment’s end, Harris is calling Corrin a “pseudo girlfriend,” someone he “cast for,” while she insists they were genuinely in love, and that his language now is only to “protect [his] heart” (this assumes he has one, of course). The documentary suggests that both saw reflections of themselves in the other, as happens in most relationships, but that these reflections were complicated (warped, refracted, changed, reframed) by the addition of consumers.

As fascinating as its subject may be, We Live in Public is at times glib and redundant, its argument concerning the effects of surveillance—whether equipped with interactive aspects or not—are familiar. And yet, this also seems apt, that the film is caught up in its own circle of consumption and regurgitation.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/110819-we-live-in-public/