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We Live in Public: Are We Surrendering Our Privacy–and Sanity–to the Internet?

Award-winning director Ondi Timoner’s latest documentary is a captivating look at our growing dependence on the Internet.

We Live in Public: Are We Surrendering Our Privacy–and Sanity–to the Internet?
We Live in Public

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When you got up this morning, did you immediately update your Twitter account? How many pictures of you are tagged on Facebook? When was the last time you posted a video on YouTube? If you answered “yes, a lot, and recently,” you’re not alone. So here’s one more question: As we continue to display our lives to the eyes of the World Wide Web, are we chipping away at our very notion of and right to privacy?

We Live in Public is a voyeuristic and captivating look at our growing dependence on the Internet, through the bizarre world of Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris as he rides the rise and fall of the 1990s dot-com boom and bust. A successful businessman-artist, Harris was one of the most eccentric characters of Silicon Alley, carrying out extreme social experiments that foreshadowed the current craze for social networking.

First there was “Quiet.” Harris asked 100 people to live under constant surveillance in an underground bunker in New York City for 30 days leading up to the new millennium–broadcasting all of their actions to everyone else in the space. The experiment demonstrated that people would sacrifice privacy for public recognition. Emotions intensified and participants’ mental stability began to falter. The police shut down “Quiet” on New Year’s Day.

The next logical step for Harris was turning the camera on himself. For six months, he and girlfriend Tanya Corrin lived with 32 cameras in his Soho loft and broadcast their lives to viewers on WeLiveInPublic.com. The relationship devolved, the money ran dry, Harris broke down and all but disappeared.

We sat down with Harris and director Ondi Timoner, who won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for We Live in Public. The pair began work on the film in 1999, when Harris asked Timoner to make a movie about “Quiet.” Ten years and 5,000 hours of footage later, and the dynamic between these two is nearly as fascinating as the film. Harris talks endlessly about his accomplishments, his struggles, and his wild plan to get back on top of innovative use of the Internet with a Wired City TV show. Timoner counters with the tone of an older sister who has been asked to babysit a mischievous younger brother one too many times. “Can we talk about We Live in Public the movie? For one second?” she asks at one point.

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Wired City, which Harris has been pitching around Hollywood, can only be described as an exaggerated, more unsettling version of Big Brother. More surveillance, more user generated content, more people watching people watching more people. “It’s really commodifying what the NSA is doing commercially,” Harris says. “Some guy is there watching, manipulating, pulling levers. And essentially power structures develop and at some point, you have Captain Kirk running the Starship Enterprise.”

But when it’s Timoner’s turn to talk, it’s clear that after years of witnessing Josh’s work (and taking part in during its heyday), she wouldn’t sign up for the Wired City. “Josh is this incredible walking cautionary tale of, don’t raise your children on the computer and the TV, make sure they go outside, hug them a lot, or they could turn out like Josh.” (To which Harris responds with a quiet “Geez.”)

“And the second part of the cautionary tale is, if you do expose your life–God forbid you sign up for his Wired Citywhat are the ramifications of that?” Timoner asks. “He thought he could handle anything, he thought it would be fun, he thought he was going to conceive a baby with Tanya, they were going to live happily ever after. The relationship went down, nervous breakdown, everything just kind of crumbled.”

As a society that loves publicizing its private life, there is a lesson in We Live In Public. Ten years ago, when Harris predicted we would all soon live in public, no one was particularly concerned with the consequences because no one really thought it would happen. We’re not living in underground bunkers with surveillance cameras, of course, but we are over-sharing personal information on Facebook, frantically updating our Twitter accounts from our BlackBerrys, and celebrating when we gain a new follower. We’re inviting voyeurism into our lives.

This realization helped push Timoner to finish the film: The first status update she saw on Facebook–a post that read “I’m driving west on the freeway”–made her realize the time was ripe. “I thought, ‘what is that and who cares?'” Timoner recalls. “But then all these people seemed to care, and it hit me that the bunker was actually a physical metaphor for what was going on, that in a way we are the people who are in the bunker and Josh is Facebook.”

So where do we go from here? Are we trapped in the bunker forever?

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Harris seems to think so.

“We’re being harvested. We are what we eat. It’s common sense to me that we’re not at the top of the evolutionary food chain,” he says. “And what are we eating but Perdue chicken? We’re caging ourselves. The more efficient we become, the better the harvest will be for whoever’s harvesting us.”

While your own opinion is probably less extreme than Harris’s, the film will undoubtedly cause you to think long and hard about how you use the Internet. The knockout soundtrack punctuates powerful footage from inside the bunker and Josh’s stint with WeLiveInPublic.com, and the film encapsulates the energy and outrageousness of Harris’s life experiments. With cameos from Web stalwarts including author Douglas Rushkoff, Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis, venture capitalist Fred Wilson, Gawker managing editor Gabriel Snyder, and dethroned MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe, it becomes an even more fascinating retrospective at a contained industry and some of its key influencers.

We Live in Public opens today at the IFC Center in New York, and begins touring the country after.

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