We Live in Public

In 1993, Vernor Vinge began his abstract for his essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” thusly:

Within thirty years, we will have technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

The tone of this prognostication, somewhere between impartial and menacing, is like that of a machine. Vinge’s written voice sounds a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000, who famously “became operational” in 1992. Internet innovator Josh Harris, the central figure of We Live in Public, also became operational in the early 1990s, and like Vinge and HAL, his prophetic voice would prove to be revelatory as the future caught up to him.

There were several science fiction films last year that explored the way in which virtual reality or technological enhancements could enable and/or distort human identity. These films varied in quality, ranging from the messy spectacle of Gamer and Surrogates to the visually lush but otherwise unfulfilling Avatar to the intelligently inquisitive Moon and District 9. Yet it was Ondi Timoner’s non-fiction We Live in Public, now on DVD, that offered the most heady assessment of how technology dictates the way we live now.

DIG! director Timoner — the sole two-time winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize — followed Harris and his exploits for ten years in order to collect the 5,000 hours of footage from which she would craft We Live in Public. In a sense, the arrival of the Facebook era enabled Timoner to bring the film to a conclusion in 2009, because our present virtual interconnectedness dovetails so fully with Harris’s many past experiments. In its sensory-overloading 90-minutes, the film finds parallels between a few key phases of Harris’s life and the societal and technological evolutions that he precipitated and/or predicted.

As the founder of JupiterResearch and Pseudo.com, wunderkind Harris was a star techie amongst the young and much-hyped dot-com generation. Amassing a fortune from early breakthroughs in webcasting and subsequent sales, his worth was once valued at $80 million. However, for all of his involvement with technology and business, Harris was at heart a self-styled artist, and Timoner’s film focuses at length on two of his art projects from the turn of the millennium.

Harris’ projects were not so much about the end of the human era as they were models of interaction that mirrored and exaggerated his own fantasies about how humans could relate to one another virtually. One benefit of his riches was that Harris could construct real-life laboratories in which to enact those fantasies. Timoner connects these endeavors to comments from Harris’s family and friends in which we learn that he never related to other people in a “normal” fashion. These interviews highlight Harris’s obsession with television (specifically Gilligan’s Island and its creator Sherwood Schwartz), and there is a suggestion in the film that his mother’s own incapability to express love resulted in her intensely disconnected son.

The film acquaints the audience with the psychology and demeanor of its main character in a way that helps us overcome how disagreeable he is at times. While his more extreme proclamations and behavior remain difficult to accept, we at least have a well-crafted context for them and the madness that unfolds. Additionally, the portions of Harris’s own history that the film explores, do lend some sort of credence to his self-appointed status as one of “the first great artists of the 21st century”.

“Quiet” was one of Harris’s most expensive and controversial endeavors. He spent millions of dollars designing and constructing an elaborate bunker/capsule hotel in New York City that would hold over 100 residents for 30 days. Although this was very much a social experiment, it was also an extension of the virtual world-building Harris had achieved at Pseudo.com. Both efforts shared Harris’ stated goal: to be “in the business of programming people’s lives”. In the case of “Quiet”, residents of the bunker would live and eat for free if they were willing to surrender their image to Harris. Each pod within the capsule hotel would be wired with cameras and monitors so that residents could watch and be watched at all hours.

Whereas his webcasting activities were a business venture with certain real-world boundaries (witness, for instance, Harris’s clown alter ego “Luvvy” and its negative effect on investors), “Quiet” had no such bourgeois rules and regulations. In creating his vision of the future Internet, Harris chose some disturbing design elements and reference points, such as concentration camps, a militia armory and the “Stasi-like” collection of intelligence. Max Heller, one of the documentary camera operators who shot footage in the bunker, says in an interview that the experiment has a “fascist overtone”.

Given these seemingly negative connections and connotations, it is surprising to witness the eagerness of those who wanted to become residents in Harris’s bunker. This contradiction is one of the main themes of We Live in Public. As Harris predicted, people are all too willing to cede control of their lives if it means they will be featured on camera and sate their quest for fame. We watch as those living as “rats” within Harris’s lab lose their privacy, inhibitions, and most significantly, the value they place on face-to-face intimacy. Timoner describes this as “the loss of intimacy in the age of technology” and Harris plainly states, “The more you get to know each other, the more alone you become.”

When viewed in this way, “Quiet” was every bit the prophetic statement Harris promised it would be. The project’s participants, whom included prestigious art-world figures such as Alanna Heiss, founder and former director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, talk fondly about the experience in present-day interviews. Those interviewed about “Quiet” seem to realize that, for better or worse, they caught a glimpse of a future world. Additionally, since director Timoner was one of the camera operators in the bunker, her first-hand experience informs the way she edits the material.

Providing even more of an abundance of footage (and inspiration for Timoner and Josh Altman’s bravura editing) is the period of Harris’s life following the dismantling of “Quiet”. Harris’ decision to turn the surveillance cameras on himself and his girlfriend Tanya was, like his other work, a kind of breakthrough in Internet technology. Although Jennifer Ringley’s “JenniCam” and some reality television shows such as Big Brother had already explored similar concepts in the late 1990s, Harris’s project focused on the everyday life of a couple in a new romantic relationship and all of the potential therein. Their dedicated viewers followed their every move through an extensive network of cameras within the apartment and interacted with them in chat rooms.

We Live in Public is an exceptionally well-structured documentary, and the section concerning the rise and fall of Tanya and Harris’ relationship provides some of the film’s most compelling moments. Whereas the interviews and archive of material from “Quiet” are the result of varying degrees of participation with the filmmaker, the footage from Harris’s apartment comes from unmanned, motion-activated machines. Nevertheless, Timoner constructs a compelling arc from material in which she originally had no involvement or control.

Also, as Timoner explains in her fantastic commentary track on the DVD, the style of camera coverage in this section of the film frequently frustrates our voyeuristic desire to see the drama unfold. As a result, the film’s perspective on the intersection of humanity and technology is reinforced when the arbitrary angles and motion-motivated cuts of the surveillance cameras work against our human desire to visualize the proceedings.

This mastery of observation and selection of material in service of the story is a large part of what makes We Live in Public such a groundbreaking documentary. Although the film incorporates archival footage, several interviews, complex graphics, an energetic rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack (Pixies, David Bowie, Spoon), and a narration track, it also retains the spirit of classic observational documentaries. Timoner has spoken of her affinity for Frederick Wiseman, and like his films, We Live in Public chronicles experiences in a way that extracts and reveals their essence. This is especially impressive when one considers the 5,000 hours of footage from which such clear perceptions were drawn.

Harris’ story includes additional breakdowns and redemptions. The ten-years-in-the-making We Live in Public concludes with the surprising developments of Harris’s post-surveillance life and a rumination on how our current reality reflects what he envisioned long ago. Although the industry and technology he once reigned over seem to have, in some ways, forgotten him, his touch is all over our daily technological rituals.

We certainly do not collect tapes of Harris’ life, as he once predicted we would, but Timoner convincingly points out the various ways in which we allow ourselves to be collected by others. Like the residents of Harris’ bunker, we offer ourselves up via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. to advertisers, admirers, and parties unknown. This is a startling, even frightening, conclusion to a film that acts as a cautionary tale about a persistent man and a seemingly unstoppable technology.

Towards the end of “The Coming Technological Singularity”, Vernor Vinge summarizes his argument:

I have argued above that we prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators.

In addition to its hybridization of participatory and observational documentary approaches, We Live in Public is also a historical film about the Internet and that process of human initiation. Although he is far from infallible and prone to revising his own history to suit current circumstances, a figure like Josh Harris is inarguably emblematic of the overwhelming sway modern technology has on otherwise reasonable people. The tension within Harris, to both fully submit to technology and simultaneously control it, is present in anyone who gauges his or her self-worth through page views, status updates, and the like.

These days, the more radical decision would be to avoid living in public and to reclaim a lost sense of intimacy and community. This, too, humans could initiate, but the first step requires logging off.

RATING 9 / 10