'We Live in Public' is a revealing, cautionary tale

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

"We Live in Public," winner of the 2009 Sundance documentary competition, studies the elusive Josh Harris, one of the first dot-com millionaires and "the greatest pioneer you've never heard of."

A pudgy, socially inept loner, Harris went to New York City in the '80s and immediately glommed onto the life-changing possibilities of the Internet. He created sex-themed chat rooms, then sold them for a fortune. At one point, he was worth more than $80 million.

His on line network Pseudo exploited streaming video to offer 24/7 programming on multiple "channels." Harris wasn't an artist, but he created an environment in which art flourished. His operation was compared to Andy Warhol's the Factory back in the '60s.

In 1999, he told "60 Minutes" that his goal was to put TV networks like CBS out of business.

Although not outgoing, Harris was the most colorful character in this new industry. The estranged siblings of this "nutty professor" describe a kid who avoided intimate human contact and obsessed over "Gilligan's Island."

Once successful, he created a clown alter ego called Luvvy. Harris thought Luvvy was endearing; everyone else found him grotesque. Important investors would show up for a meeting with Harris and end up dealing with demented-looking Luvvy.

As the millennium approached, Harris sank millions into Quiet, a month long experiment in which dozens of volunteers lived in a sealed New York City building. They paid nothing to eat, drink, party and go nuts on a basement shooting range, but their every move (including sleeping, showering and having sex) was captured by video cameras. Other residents could watch. Participants also had to submit to Orwellian interrogations and follow orders with cult like fidelity.

Harris may not have realized it at the time, but he was experimenting with the Internet's ability to zombify its users. He spoke of the public becoming "slaves to little digital boxes."

When the cops raided and shut down Quiet, Harris and his new girlfriend, Tanya Corrin (possibly the only woman with whom this geek has been intimate), wired their apartment for 24-hour surveillance. They webcast their lives as "We Live in Public." Devotees witnessed the relationship crumbling under the pressure of constantly being watched.

The dot-com bust of a decade ago left Harris all but broke. For some years he ran a one-man apple orchard. He sold it to finance a return to the Web but couldn't get funding. Most recently, he has lived in Ethiopia, where he coaches a basketball team of orphans.

Ondi Timoner's film — she has known Harris for a decade — is a riveting look at an idiot savant and a chilling suggestion of where we may be headed.

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