It is, no doubt ironic that, as soon as I had finished watching We Live In Public, the new documentary from DiG! director Ondi Timoner, I posted a 140-character micro-review on Twitter. The film is squarely focused on Josh Harris, an Internet visionary who, during the 1990s, spearheaded a number of projects, experiments and services that anticipated much of how our relationship with the web would develop in the first decade of the 2000s.
If you’ve not heard of Harris, don’t worry; he was one of the generation of tech-geeks that burned quickly and brightly during the American dot-com boom of the 1990s, before fizzling out and disappearing into obscurity, bankruptcy and self-imposed exile not long into the new millennium.
Timoner’s documentary, not unlike DiG!, is cobbled together from footage shot through her long liaison with the film’s subject, and at times lacks the perspective that would facilitate a compelling character study.
The narrative progresses with a dogged reliance on chronology and often sycophantic talking heads from Harris associates, which results in the kind of bio-doc where you are sick to the teeth of the words ‘genius’, ‘visionary’ or ‘ahead of his time’ before the subject has earned it in the context of the film.
It is surprising how exclusive and shallow it all is, considering how startling Harris’ innovations actually were. His earliest major project was Pseudo.com, the Internet’s first dedicated television network, that launched in 1993 – a good decade before widely-available broadband connections would make streaming video a comfortable reality. But this wasn’t any kind of network. Pseudo’s studio and adjoining office spaces were often used as a Factory-style hub of partying and debauchery, with Harris frequently appearing in costume as a clown called Luvvy.
But his projects after leaving the day-to-day business of Pseudo are more enthralling. Using his connections made in the New York art-y underground, he set up the Quiet: We Live in Public event, an elongated Millennium Eve celebration where a community of guests and volunteers would be given their own pod – essentially a bunk bed with a television – along with free food, drink, drugs, and a handy shooting range in the basement for blowing off steam.
Cameras were hooked up throughout Quiet, including in the showers, toilets, and each pod itself, with the footage broadcasting to the subjects’ televisions. It was all supposed to be a crackerbox metaphor for the alienating effects of the hooked-up-ness of Internet-savvy life, at least according to the fawning interview footage – which reaches its idiotic high point when the director of the PS1 Community Arts Centre rambles her way through how she was driven to creating a ‘god’ that ruled over Quiet’s microcosm, naming him ‘Oz’.
Of course, Timoner was there as well, and the editing suffers from a lack of distance, with the ensuing pursuit of a tidy ‘narrative’ – featuring the Quiet citizens becoming out of control from ‘too much freedom’, and the whole thing being eventually shut down by the authorities – seeking to only detract from some of the more interesting and troubling aspects of the whole experiment, such as the rigorous, harrowing interrogations that each volunteer had to suffer upon entry.
It’s a bit messy, and the film dedicates little time to engaging with Harris’ arguments about technology taking over its users, and inevitably creating a repressive society.
This is a shame, because apart from these broad brush-stroke theories, Harris was right on the money, as services like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube thrive on the users’ desire for both voyeurism and self-exhibition.
A later project, simply titled We Live In Public, fares better, no doubt because of its more streamlined approach, as Harris installed dozens of cameras and microphones in his New York apartment, with the view of broadcasting his nascent relationship with his girlfriend over the web.
Again, the issues and debates are short-changed, but some sequences are certainly striking, including an unsettling flash of violence as Harris’ partner resists his petitions for sex.
That certainly says more about Harris than his theories, but We Live In Public the film also mishandles its character study aspects.
Even though much of the runtime is handed over to interviews with his family members – who tell of his idiosyncratic behaviour, and his neglectful relationship with his mother – little of it sticks in a meaningful way, and references to Gilligan’s Island, seemingly Timoner’s bid for a ‘key’ to Harris’ neuroses, seem a little shallow.
We Live In Public contains some brilliant historical content, and a few shocking moments of when ahead-of-the-curve genius and madcap experimentation have collided.
However, the film cannot effectively reconcile itself into a satisfying whole. And, unfortunately, it neither adequately wrestles with the immediate implications of Harris’ work, or gives an enlightening insight into his life and mind.
A missed opportunity.