A visionary too far ahead of our times
There is something eerie about watching “We Live in Public,” Ondi Timoner’s significant yet ultimately unsatisfying documentary on Internet visionary Joshua Harris, a bizarre blend of geek pioneer and new age party planner who began toying with Web-human relations in the early ‘90s.
Harris intuitively understood the power of the Web to appeal to the narcissist in all of us. It would make him a multimillionaire; it would bankrupt him. Now, perhaps most painfully of all, he’s forgotten.
Timoner, who was hired by Harris in the salad days to document one of his grand experiments, follows along as the mad genius loses his way in his own new frontier. Unfortunately, she gets lost along the way too. If anything, the film is a reflection of the Web zeitgeist, where observation comes easily but insight is rare. What saves the documentary from becoming a complete frustration is the sheer, stunning prescience of Harris.
Long before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were conceived, Harris predicted, and proved with uncanny accuracy, what would happen when the Internet finally and fully connected with the ego of a plugged-in mankind. In the early ‘90s, when the speed of images and data was still glacial, he was figuring out how to exploit this new virtual world.
But then Harris was a classic early adopter. Before suicides, sex or pandas giving birth could be viewed real time on the Web, before reality became an adjective, Harris created Internet TV, an early iteration of what is now a prime-time TV staple. That venture, and its sale, was largely responsible for his fortune, which reached $80 million at its high point.
By 1993, the then-33-year-old was on to other things. He no longer thought of himself as an Internet entrepreneur but as an Andy Warhol-esque artist. It is the artistic side that would bankrupt him, though not because his instincts were wrong -- he just got there before the rest of us.
So much that is the Internet culture today -- good and bad, online and offshoots - is foreshadowed in his 1999 millennium project, “Quiet: We Live in Public.” Harris believed that the human desire to connect was so great, and human relations so fraught, that given the chance the masses would embrace the Web as a safe place to get emotionally, sometimes literally, and always publicly, naked. “Quiet” would test that notion.
Then Harris hired Timoner to document the process and set in motion an equally strange experiment in documentary filmmaking. It all began in an underground bunker where 100 artists would live for a month. Eating, sleeping, sex, elimination, anything that could be, would be recorded on the cameras Harris had stationed around the compound.
In a twist worthy of Orwell, the residents became both subjects and observers. Everyone had their own monitors with continuous feeds from all those cameras and the ability to channel surf across the real-time activities of everyone around them. In the background was Timoner filming all that recording and watching and acting out -- her camera the biggest Big Brother of them all.
Harris’ hypothesis proved true -- the bunker’s residents were soon addicted to being seen. Anarchy, when it came, was naked and mad and playing to the camera.
After the bunker was closed, Harris and a girlfriend moved into a loft and became the experiment. Timoner followed. Here the cameras were more invasive, the stakes higher, and the end even more difficult than “Quiet’s.”
Seeing it all unfold now, it is hard not to wonder whether things might have turned out differently had we paid more attention then. Or is it only that Harris understood the Pandora’s box inside the PC before the rest of us?
Timoner worked on the project for nearly 10 years, struggling, she says, to make sense of the roughly 5,000 hours of film -- some hers, some his. You see that struggle on screen.
As for Harris, he no longer lives in public.
MPAA rating: This film is not rated.
Runing time: 1 hour,
Playing: In limited release, locally at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre