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'We Live in Public': A portrait of an Internet visionary — or was he?

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we-live-in-public_lThe Internet is good at many things, but one thing it’s great at is selling future visions of itself — speculation as reality. That’s what went on in the dotcom boom, when a thousand what if? on-line gimmicks created a thousand virtual millionaires. And it goes on, too, in We Live in Public, a fascinating documentary that nevertheless partakes of a kind of visionary-hard-sell, cult-of-the-Internet, the-future-is-now cachet. The movie won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury prize, but I confess that when I finally caught up with it just the other day, I found it at once resonant and naive — often at the same time. We Live in Public wants to be a bold statement, but it’s as much a hermetic product of its time as the hot-house Internet prognostication it traffics in.

An opening title informs us that “this is the story of the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of,” and that’s quite a hook indeed; it hints at the secret history of an underground tech revolution. The movie then lures us in by taking us back to the pre-historic days of computer culture, when Josh Harris, the movie’s genius-hustler hero, already had everything figured out.

How ahead of the curve was Harris? Born in 1960, he had realized, by 1980, that the Internet was coming and was going to change the world, and he knew, just as decisively, that he was going to get in on the ground floor. With his first company, Jupiter Communications, he innovated and popularized sex chat rooms, and when the company went public, his wealth shot up to $80 million. Nothing so out of the ordinary there, but Harris, unique among Internet entrepreneurs, used his socially skittish, revenge-of-the-nerd passive aggression to market himself as a “personality.” He became a New York party maven — a geek hosting the fabulous — and in the late ’90s, during the still primitive age of streaming video, he launched Pseudo, which was basically an on-line television network.

The notion of running his own TV network ran deep. Harris, as we learn, grew up monstrously alienated from his mother, and he took refuge in television, especially Gilligan’s Island, whose creator, Sherwood Schwartz, he idolized as a surrogate parent. To Harris, Gilligan’s Island was more than a show; it’s what gave his life meaning. On Pseudo, Harris’ on-line network, the “content” wasn’t much (hipster hosts, much acting out — imagine the early days of MTV done on a public-access budget), but Harris, now lionized as “the Warhol of Web TV,” was profiled on 60 Minutes, where he announced that he was going to put CBS out of business.

That now sounds like the quintessence of dotcom-bubble hubris, but Harris, driven by his almost cellular connection to the TV he worshipped as a kid, did, in the end, have one simple and visionary idea: He saw that the Internet, more than anything else, was going to be the new television. (The difference is that no one was ever going to denounce it as brain-sucking, end-of-civilization trash.) High on his celebrity, Harris began to fray at the edges and flame out. He started to show up at parties in the guise of a disturbingly sarcastic and bizarre alter ego, a cooey “affectionate” clown called Luvvy (named after Thurston J. Howell III’s dowager wife on Gilligan’s Island). Even a lot of the people close to him began to realize that Harris was a creep who was using his dotcom cash to go off the deep end.

But We Live in Public gets that and doesn’t get it at the same time. From this point forward, the movie treats everything that Josh Harris does as if it were touched with a visionary glow. As the end of the Millennium approaches, he decides to spend millions gathering a group of New York artists in a sprawling loft bunker in Manhattan, where they will spend a month living in adjacent pods (modeled, admits Harris, after photographs he’d seen of bunk beds in concentration camps), with surveillance cameras set up to broadcast their every move. There’s even an “interrogation” room where each subject is stripped down, often literally, and laid spiritually bare. The “experiment,” as Harris described it, was called Quiet: We Live in Public, and it’s presented by the movie as a bold precursor to the way we live now, or will shortly enough. Except that the clips we see of Quiet, culled from thousands of hours of footage, look less like “the future” than like something out of the decadent bohemian past — a ’70s commune stocked with professionally obnoxious downtown art-world types, who are just savvy enough in their self-promotion to groove, perversely, on the setup’s fascist-playpen overtones. (One of the participants was Ondi Timoner, the director of We Live in Public, best known until now as the creator of the very fine indie-rock doc Dig!)

More to the point, let’s assume for the moment that Quiet really did incarnate something telling about the contemporary impulse to broadcast our lives. Wouldn’t the proper credit for that idea go not to Josh Harris but to the creators of the original version of Big Brother, which was shot in the Netherlands beginning in September 1999 (prior to Harris’ Millennial experiment)? The whole navel-gazing surveillance/exhibitionistic impulse behind Quiet seems less connected to the Internet than (obviously) to reality TV. The last time I checked, I don’t recall anyone hailing the producers of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab as the greatest Internet pioneers you’ve never heard of.

After Quiet, which turned into such a hostile and unheathy environment that it was shut down by the New York police, Harris took his I-am-my-own-show opportunism a step further, setting up a bee-hive welter of surveillance cameras in his own apartment, where he proceeded to broadcast every waking and eating and sleeping minute of his life with his girlfriend onto his own Website. (This human guineau-pig stunt was also called We Live in Public.) The movie, once again, hails Harris as a visionary, for having forecast the era of Facebook and MySpace. And, yes, we can certainly see the overlapping impulses. But Harris was playing out something deeply disturbed and power-driven (when his girlfriend refuses to have sex with him on camera, he becomes physically abusive), whereas if you were looking to find someone who truly predicted the spirit of Facebook, I would have to give the honors to Jimmy Fallon and his great, recurring Saturday Night Live sketch “Jarret’s Room,” featuring that dreadlocked college-dorm stoner who believes that his most eager trivial whim is broadcast-worthy.

It’s been a long time since the late ’90s, when every new Internet idea was conceived, and announced, as a ticket to wealth. The key phrase then — the words that everyone wanted to hear — was “going public.” As in: the day that you saw your stock shoot up to a zillion. Josh Harris may have meant it only unconsciously, but when he entitled his experiments “We Live In Public,” he was making a fantastic pun on the ideology of his time: He, at least, was living in a place made possible by the virtual Ponzi funding of a thousand anonymous stock purchasers. Josh Harris was enough of a creature/symptom of his era to believe his own hype, and to deserve his own movie, and I’m glad I saw We Live in Public. But really, it’s the film that’s living in public, in the shadow of that breathless look what’s coming! innovation-as-hucksterism dream. If there was a moment when Harris truly did see the future more than he knew, it’s probably the day that he imagined we could all watch Gilligan’s Island on our computers.