REVIEW: We Live in Public

10 01 2011

In honor of the DVD release of “The Social Network,” I figure this would be as good a time as ever to review two documentaries with incredibly powerful insights into the digital age and social media.  The first movie of this two-day spotlight is Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public.”

Calling Mark Zuckerberg ahead of his time is about on target; calling Josh Harris ahead of his time is a true understatement.  This obscure Internet pioneer was at the height of his power and influence during the dot-com bubble, yet he predicted with a frightening accuracy the effects of the social networking age.  “We Live in Public” is a chronicle of his bizarre experimentations in the late 1990s, which were misunderstood then but had implications so incredibly accurate that the movie’s 10-year-old social commentary is pertinent enough to be labeled both mind-blowing and jaw-dropping.

Looking back from the Facebook-saturated 2011 culture, Harris seems to be a sort of digital prophet.  He founded Pseudo in the mid-’90s, an Internet television network that he predicted could put CBS and other major networks out of business.  Nowadays he’s looking a whole lot less crazy with television suffering from the rise of YouTube and Hulu and other sites that provide entertainment on the viewer’s own schedule with significantly less advertising interruption.  However, the movie focuses more on his social experiments dealing with exposure, privacy, and attention on scales the 20th century was simply not prepared to handle.

If you take a step back, his art project “Quiet: We Live in Public” is like a living, breathing version of Facebook.  Harris took 100 willing volunteers and stuck them in a basement where their activities were monitored constantly by camera.  People slept in close quarters with a monitor situated in each bunk that could be turned to watch any other person in the group.  Call it the birth of the Facebook stalker, the Facebook whore, the excessive Facebook status-updater, and just about any sort of social media stereotype you can come up with.

When you look at the psychological impact of literally living in public was from Harris’ experimentation, the results are shockingly similar to those of digitally living in public.  We begin hesitant to share and give up our privacy, but once we spend time interacting with people in this sort of manner, our reluctancy fades away.  We become more prone to do things that we wouldn’t normally do in the “real world,” and any notion of boundaries flies out the window.  Eventually, we enter a state where we desire nothing more than to be noticed and are willing to do anything to get it.

It’s the ultimate writing on the wall for the Facebook and Twitter generation, and the smug genius Harris seemingly kicks back and implicitly imparts “don’t say I didn’t tell you.”  And if “Quiet” isn’t enough to scare the living daylights out of you as to where we are headed as a society addicted to social media, Harris taking the project home with him to capture every moment of his life on camera for an Internet audience will.  The haunting invasion of the last sanctum we see as truly ours – the house – makes the fear of an overbearing connected society so palpable that it sends chills up your spine.

With the man then proclaimed ahead of his time now incredibly disillusioned, anyone who watches “We Live in Public” won’t be able to resist questioning how long it is before the rest of the world catches up with him.  Harris has been spot-on so far; if the catastrophe he lived through is any indication of how society is heading, we all have reason to fear.  A


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