TANGENT: Dan Steffen on Radical Sharing and "We Live in Public"

Posted: 6/3/11

I fear that too many viewers of We Live In Public, director Ondi Timoner's high tempo study of the life and works of Josh Harris, will not get past the question of what they should think about the film's subject. Is he an important artist and futurist visionary or a bullying, rich megalomaniac who watched too much Gilligan's Island? In the end the filmmaker asks us to accept the former proposition, although she gives us plenty of evidence in favor of the latter including the film's opening scene where Josh says goodbye to his terminally ill mother via a web video. Later on we see Josh conducting humiliating interrogations in the underground bunker, engaging in a borderline sexual assault of his live-in girlfriend and describing his bankrupt company as an art project. Yet I believe viewing We Live in Public as merely an amusing freak show about one man's narcissism and bizarre antics really is missing the point. Josh is a narcissist, yes, but in the same ways that we all are now, a little more each day.

So let’s stick with the the idea of Josh Harris as futurist visionary (and set aside the idea of Josh as an artist; he is explicitly compared to Warhol several times in the film). Josh's vision, as I understand it, is of the Technological Singularity. This has been proposed as the point in the future where the constantly accelerating rate technological progress reached a crescendo, making everything post-singularity fundamentally different from everything pre-singularity. This is frequently viewed as the end of the human being as the most significant rational agent on the Planet Earth and the arrival of some sort of post-human intelligence. Most professional Singularists (yes, these people do exist) are focused on the coming of some sort of Artificial General Intelligence, a self-aware computer program that will run the world. Josh, in contrast, sees the post-human as some sort of collective consciousness, where we all become integrated into some sort of emergent super organism, each of us functioning like a single neuron cell firing as part of a giant virtual brain. Josh's favorite images "for when the internet really takes over" are a bee colony or a zoo. But here's the thing, its not that this is some sort of Orwellian nightmare of authoritarian coercion; this is something we are going to all sign up for, gleefully, because deep down we all really want the attention damn it.

The majority of the film is taken up by Josh's two experiments in radical sharing, where people bind themselves to a complete public existence for some period of the future. The first is Quiet: We Live in Public, his bunker hotel beneath New York where over a hundred people lived out the last thirty days of 1999. In Quiet you live under 24/7 video surveillance, with no privacy in the bar, the dining room, the shower, the bedroom, or the gun range. More importantly, everyone in Quiet is rationed a television, where you can channel surf through the feeds what of everyone around you doing everything, including watching you on their television screens. Second was his public apartment, weliveinpublic.com, were he and his girlfriend Tanya webcasted their entire lives via hundreds of cameras and microphones filming their entire relationship. Their lives took on a chorus of sorts in the form of thousands of followers on a constantly running chat room (who at one point collectively convince Tanya to make Josh sleep on the couch). Both of these experiments begin with a giddy, euphoric honeymoon and slide into madness, paranoia, and regret. This tragic arc seems inevitable, although it certainly seems to be helped along in both cases by the extreme nature of Josh's personality (why not a video confessional in Quiet in lieu of military style interrogations?) The experiments also seem to have consumed (alongside the bursting of the dotcom bubble) all of Josh's fortune, leading to his retreat to isolation and privacy on an apple farm in the film's final act.

Do these experiments really capture what is happening to us now and what is going to happen to us in the future? It was shocking to me how quickly I became addicted to Facebook; how I immediately felt compelled to try to share my private and frequently offensive thoughts on everything with all of my family and friends (Facebook led me in rather short order to have a rather intense conversation about epistemology with my grandmother). I enjoy very much the constant stream of feedback from all of the characters in my life, but even without it, there is something very appealing to me about making little copies of my thoughts, and being able to send them rippling out into the memosphere. Still, it is really hard for me to imagine wanting to aim cameras at myself, to want to share my images of my body (as Josh and all of the other participates in his experiments do frequently) as well as my mind. And even with my mind, I know that I intentionally haven't shared everything. I feel like there is a clear demarcation in my head between things that I've shared on Facebook and things that I haven't. My piecemeal sharing seems to me qualitatively different to the things that we see in We Live in Public, for now at least. But a few years ago I couldn't have conceived I would be sharing as much as I am right now, so how can I know what I will want to do in the future?

We Live in Public perhaps came out a year too early, as 2010 seems to be the year of the social media movie. Watching We Live in Public alongside The Social Network and Catfish, I am most struck by how little the three films overlap thematically, even as they all try to explore how it is that social media is changing us. The Social Network's study of obsessive genius in the service of socio-sexual revenge and the searing creepiness of Catfish's faux romance seem to me quite different than what we see in We Live in Public. I guess what the three films have most in common is that they all serve as an uncomfortable reminder of how we truly are. attention seeking animals and just how much we are willing to do to get it.

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T/F’s Dan Steffen on radical sharing and "We Live in Public"
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