If you haven’t heard of Josh Harris before, perhaps it’s time to rectify that. The timely release of Dig! (2004) director Ondi Timoner’s new documentary, We Live in Public reminisces on the last 40 years since the dawn of the internet, specifically tracking the arguably destructive path of Harris, one of the masterminds behind the emergence of the internet into the popular mainstream as a new and ever-relevant medium.
Opening with archive footage of Harris recording a ‘goodbye’ message on a camcorder (which was then emailed to his own dying mother as a replacement for a bedside visit) Timoner’s film sets out to expose Harris, unfurling both his brightest moments and his darkest hours on-screen. A fragile portrait of a seemingly closed-off and lonely man, Harris’ behaviour seems to stem from several different outlets including early-childhood neglect and his subsequent fixation with television, to his growing obsession with the virtual world – a world greatly favoured over ‘reality’.
However, the fact that Harris is constantly arranging for Timoner to follow him with her camera crew (the film’s narrative spanning over a decade), in addition to the eminent zoom-out from the startling ‘goodbye’ video to its YouTube page, could both be viewed as proof of Harris’ relentless hunger to pursue the sickly limelight of internet fame. Harris likens his own ‘human experiments’ (especially that of the aptly named Orwellian amalgamation ‘Quiet: We Live in Public’) to Warhol’s renowned ‘Factory’, describing the project as a commune for artistic freedom.
Yet, Harris seeks to mark a great distinction between his own experimentation and that of Warhol’s own ethos, (that ‘everyone just wants their fifteen minutes of fame’), defining ‘Quiet’ as testimony that through the ever-enhanced power of the internet as a tool of (artistic) expression, people are no longer willing to settle for a mere fifteen minutes; they now demand a lifetime of recognition for essentially not achieving a great deal.
Harris’ utopian underground ‘sanctuary’ soon begins to turn sour; ‘Quiet’s’ participants begin to feel as though, by being constantly connected to the internet and networking systems, they have lost a part of their real ‘selves’. ‘Quiet’ also seems to reveal Harris’ sadistic playfulness; a shooting range and gun department are situated in the bowels of the constructed environment, which seems to beg the question: If this community is so perfect, why supply guns ‘just in case’?
While the sinister undertones of ‘Project Quiet’ certainly don’t go unnoticed by both Timoner and audience alike, Harris’ follow-up project (upon falling in love with a co-worker from his site Pseudo.com) reveals an even darker side in the battle between his own humanity and the cyber reality that he envelops himself within. Essentially a smaller-scale version of ‘Quiet’, the re-imagining of ‘We Live in Public’ takes the form of a constant live feed, projecting the daily lives of Harris and his girlfriend onto the internet alongside ‘live chat’, whereby viewers were able to discuss the on-screen action with the couple. A startling act occurs in the middle of the experiment, shaking the roots of all that Harris has craved to be a participant of, leaving the audience in a state of disconcerted dread.
Whilst it is difficult to truly warm to, or sympathise with Harris, one cannot help but look (as always) to the roots of the problem by attributing the blame solely to Harris’ own mother and the waning support given to her son since his childhood. Keeping all his cuttings as a display of her son’s success, whilst telling him to “fend for himself” and deserting him in his darkest moments of depression, her absence of emotion would explain (at least in part) Harris’ own ‘shut-down’ emotions and his reactions towards those around him.
The only way Harris is able to empathise with others is if his fellow humans are playing the pawns in one of his endless games, acting out arranged ‘scenes’ as only he sees fit. Currently spending his days hiding out from debt-collectors somewhere in Ethiopia, it surely won’t be so long before Harris begins to miss toying with both virtual reality and human emotions (two separate entities that have become ever-more intrinsically entwined in today’s society). Are you afraid of Josh Harris? Perhaps you should be.
Laura J. Smith