October 3, 2009

300 Words About: We Live in Public

"Our business is in programming people's lives", says Josh Harris in Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize last January. He's talking both literally and figuratively, as a social "artist" (his word, not mine) and a cultural prophet - one of the most influential of the last generation. As his brother says in confused wonder, "Everything that he does is a precursor to something that is going to happen to all of us."

You've probably never heard of Harris, but if you're reading this you're living in his world, as he's left an indelible mark on the internet, including web browsers and social media and yes, even blogs. When he completed his biggest social experiment ten years ago, "Quiet: We Live in Public", he was already way ahead of the cultural curve. As he knew then, and as we can see now from the influence of the internet, "People want 15 minutes of fame - every day."

So we blog, and we use Facebook, and we iReport, and we all too often sacrifice way too much privacy in order to "connect" with people that we don't know and may never meet. Chances are I've never met you, for example, but I value the relationship that I have with you through this blog, through our shared thoughts and interests in film. It's an exclusively virtual relationship, but yet I feel like I know many of my regular readers well, even more intimately than some of the people I interact with in "real life". A bizarre new reality, isn't it?

But should we embrace it, adapt to it, fear it or reject it - and do we even have a choice? It's hard to make a blanket generalization for everyone, but as Harris' many experiments have shown, the virtual world can only supplement the real world, it cannot replace it. Observe his failed business, romantic, and familial relationships as evidence of this. And observe the social chaos that occured during "Quiet: We Live in Public", as one participant found, "the more you get to know each other, the more alone you become." Incidentally, Harris now lives off the grid in Ethiopia to avoid his creditors, the irony being that thanks to him there are fewer and fewer places that can be considered off the grid.

"I tend not to have particularly intimate relationships," Harris admits. Although people consider him a genius and an visionary pioneer of the internet, others consider him delusional and self-absorbed. In fact, in a documentary that included many disturbing images, one of the ones that bothered me the most was Harris' alterna-identity, "Luvvy", a strangely creepy clown avatar that he used to transform into for interviews and business deals. It was a weird regression to a child-like state, and it drove home just how socially alienated Harris was...and just how socially alienated we all may become? I desperately hope not.

[We Live in Public closes Sound Unseen 10 this Sunday, October 4th at 7:30 PM at the Cedar Cultural Center. Director Ondi Timoner will be present for a Q & A. Tickets.]


  1. Man, if this documentary doesn't hit all us bloggers and face-bookers where we live, I don't know what will. Thanks for the pointer to a film I haven't heard of. I will be looking for it.

  2. Preach, Rev. Rick, preach. Harris found out what would happen if we all went as far as we could go with this virtual connecting - and it's not a pretty sight. Fortunately I think (or hope) most people have at least one foot firmly planted in the real world and can control their virtual fate...for the most part.

    You might be able to see this yet in 2009 as I think it's on schedule for a limited theatrical release in November. What that means for your corner of the country I'm not sure, but the good news is that it should be widely available in due time.


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