Ondi Timoner’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning doc We Live in Public, about the rise and fall (and rise and fall…) of visionary Josh Harris—billed as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of” and the “Warhol of the Web” in the film’s press notes—surprisingly lives up to its Barnum-esque hype. The film, a quintessential New York story, begins with a YouTube clip called “Goodbye Mom”—Harris’s cyber farewell to his dying mother in lieu of visiting her bedside—and ends in a third-world country. In between, Timoner, who previously took home a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Dig!, pieces together a thought-provoking portrait of society’s future through the technology of the recent past.
To say the film is meticulously researched is a vast understatement. The director has been documenting Harris (and Harris has been documenting himself; the number of camera credits for this movie is overwhelming) and his iconoclastic projects for the past decade and a half. Timoner met the 21st-century Warhol at Pseudo.com, the first Internet television network, which Harris founded during the dot-com boom, and followed him right through “Quiet,” an “experiment” that brought together over a hundred bohemian types, including Timoner, to live under 24-hour surveillance in an underground bunker for the 30 days leading up to the millennium. She was also on the scene for “We Live in Public,” in which Harris turned the multiple surveillance cameras on himself and his girlfriend Tanya, living fulltime on the Internet (the downside of this being the entire world is allowed to watch your life flushed down the toilet—yup, there are cameras in there too—in the dot-com bust). Though, as Tanya shows, the ability to find a misplaced wallet by simply asking the World Wide audience is a handy perk.
With a soundtrack that includes the era-appropriate Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, and a well-placed Jesus and Mary Chain along with old Bowie, and imagery that makes the most of computer graphics and animation juxtaposed with eye-catching vintage television clips, We Live in Public moves with the groove of the rock-star atmosphere that surrounded the dot-com kid moguls of the ‘90s. Though Timoner’s presentation at first glance appears as shallow as a blowhard son who bids adieu to a dying parent via YouTube, the film is actually as deep as the emotional pain Harris experienced at the hands of an emotionally distant mom who was only there for him during the good times. Indeed, there was a method to Harris’s madness (and I mean madness in the Hunter S. Thompson sense, from his clown avatar named Luvvy, who may have been inspired by Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, to his hiring a “surveillance artist,” an “interrogation artist,” and an “artillery artist” for the firing range in the underground bunker), born from a compelling desire to warn the world of how the Web was going to revolutionize not just social interaction, but the very essence of human behavior.
“Quiet” proved that people would do things in front of a camera that they would never in a million years otherwise do. As one participant allows, the more she’s on camera the more detached she feels from herself. The experiment even visualized how the line between creativity and destruction becomes a mirage. And how someday soon we would all be living in public, under the watchful eye not of an authoritarian Big Brother, but, as Harris puts it, our own “collective conscious.” In other words, the Facebook future is here today.