Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Brave New Online World: We Live in Public

It might seem like a no-brainer today, but it was considered somewhat bold when Josh Harris foresaw extensive demand for online chat-rooms dedicated to sexual topics. It led to one of his first big internet paydays. Though he might not be a household name, probably no one better personifies the internet boom and bust than Harris, whose spectacular reversal of fortune is documented in Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is no denying Harris saw the potential of the internet well before nearly anyone else. He positioned his market research company Jupiter to take advantage of the developments that were then just over the horizon. As a result, he was able to take Jupiter public and make a bundle that would allow him to move on to flashier projects. One was Pseudo, the now defunct interactive webcasting network that was a brief sensation.

While Pseudo did not make it out of the nineties, Harris’s marked the turn of the millennium with an endeavor that was more performance art than entrepreneurialism. Broadcasting the interaction of one hundred people living in an underground bunker beneath the streets of Manhattan, “Quiet: We Live in Public” was a Big Brother-style webcast that predated the host of similar reality shows now dominating network television. However, nothing would be censored for Harris’s internet viewers, including showers, sexual relations, and the bizarre interrogation sessions that were part of his performance art conception.

Completely stripped of their privacy, Harris’s lab rats ran amok in a weirdly hedonistic online version of The Lord of Flies. Eventually, the NYPD shut down “Quiet,” fearing the bunker residents were involved in millennial cult activity—suspicions which the surviving participants find quite reasonable in retrospect. However, Harris was already thinking about his next online happening: “living in public” with his new girlfriend. You can imagine how that worked out.

Harris truly anticipated the ways in which the internet would break down traditional notions of privacy, stoking a cyber form of exhibitionism. In Harris’s brave new world, it will not be the case that privacy is impossible. Rather, it will actually be undesirable for a generation raised on webcams, hit counters, and friend lists.

Unfortunately, though Harris might be something of a visionary, he is not a particularly interesting figure to spend time with, coming across as immature and easily bored throughout the documentary. Still, Timoner does yeoman’s work building up the drama of his life. She opens with what seems like an unforgivably cold episode: Harris recording a videotape goodbye to his dying mother. Yet, as the filmmaker unfolds the dynamics of his personal life, it becomes understandable, if not laudable. Also, her selection of vintage 1990’s rock tunes is also quite shrewd, appropriately including Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” heard over the closing credits.

While Harris might be a problematic documentary subject, at least he shows a healthy interest in the Second Amendment. Perhaps a questionable businessman, he certainly had a prescient vision of the changes that would be wrought by the internet revolution. It is when Timoner explores those societal sea changes that Public is most engaging. A Sundance award winner and part of the Museum of Modern Art film department’s permanent collection, Public opens theatrically this Friday (8/28) at the IFC Film Center.