The new film We Live in Public focuses on Josh Harris, whom the film calls “the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” The film offers a window into Harris’s psyche, and the impacts of living in a digital, recorded age. Director Ondi Timoner talks about this web entrepreneur’s fascination with privacy, and with recording life’s every moment -- including the most intimate -- 24/7.
The Story Of the WholeArtist: Out Hud
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Alexander is a former patient of reSTART, the first Internet addiction recovery center in the United States. Josh Harris was truly Internet-obsessed. It may have driven him crazy. A new film, called We Live in Public, dubs him “the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of.” But people, in fact, did know his name in the '80s, as he noted, when he made millions launching and selling an Internet company.
JOSH HARRIS: When the press called around, I was the smartest guy in town, and the reporters knew it. I was a regular on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, international press, et cetera, et cetera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His first company was followed by a series of projects that could be seen either as failed business ventures or landmark social experiments, among them, an anything-goes Internet TV station, a community living in a bunker where its members’ every scuffle or shower or sexual act was captured on cameras, and the first personal life cam. Ondi Timoner, the director of We Live in Public, says Harris made his fortune starting a company that predicted the rate at which Internet usage would grow, but -
ONDI TIMONER: Apparently he cooked up his first reports. He just kind of made them up [BROOKE LAUGHS] and showed a 45-degree [LAUGHS] rise in profits, and everybody loved it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He made up the data perhaps initially, and yet he proved to be right.
ONDI TIMONER: Yes, he had a very, very good sense of how we would react to technology, partly because he himself sought fame. He saw that instinct was in all of us. He said, you know, Andy Warhol’s wrong. It’s not 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime. It’s 15 minutes every day, and with the Internet we'll all have the chance at that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that was really striking is that he moved from one prediction to another to another to another and he always proved to be right, and yet he never made any money except off that first one.
ONDI TIMONER: Well, the thing is that Josh is more interested in being first than being commercial. His own company, Jupiter, predicted that broadband would not be available until the year 2000, yet well before, he founded Pseudo, the first Internet television network in 1994,that basically had .001 percent of the population or something, because who has the bandwidth to watch television on the Internet and who cares to watch a postage stamp image inside a little box on the screen? Not many people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of people said about Beethoven that he composed for pianos that hadn't been invented yet.
ONDI TIMONER: Yeah, and I was blown away by this Internet television network. What is this?
WOMAN: We are at a very hip underground SoHo party, and it’s aphrodisiac party.
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
ONDI TIMONER: You know, it was way before the Internet was really in any of our consciousnesses as, as a medium that we would watch anything on. And, and more than anything, it was his dream to be the head of a studio. Television gave him his idea of family. He was raised on Gilligan’s Island.
[GILLIGAN’S ISLAND THEME SONG]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What role did that particular program play in the formation of Josh Harris?
ONDI TIMONER: Apparently Gilligan’s Island is his family. Those characters, they were the only people he could rely on, that they would be on at a certain time every day and he could count on that show to nurture him. And so, he has an alter ego that starts to show up while he’s running Pseudo Communications and literally he’s showing up at board meetings as Luvvy, sort of a scary white-faced clown, which is based on the character Lovey Howell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, she’s a middle-aged ditzy millionairess in the show, and she takes on something of a sinister aspect when embodied by Josh Harris.
JOSH HARRIS AS LUVVY: Oh, the love! Oh, the love, ohhh [MOANING SOUNDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His colleagues at work thought he was going crazy, and he was actually turning off his investors.
ONDI TIMONER: Yes, he was asked to step away from Pseudo, and that was fine with him. He was ready to build the bunker at that point. But –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - really I think Lovey Howell on Gilligan’s Island, I think, he identified as his mother. All of the anger and antipathy that he had towards his mother was embodied in this scary clown.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quietly dropped in there about the bunker. Let's talk about that. Harris still had millions from selling his company in the '80s and so he launched a project he called Quiet.
ONDI TIMONER: It was anything but quiet. It was six floors of total chaos. There was an 80-foot-long dining room table where nightly performances occurred. There was free flowing liquor, three meals a day, a communal shower in the shape of a geodesic dome right there in the middle of a pod hotel that was full of capsules that slept over a hundred people. Everyone had their own surveillance camera and television monitor, and they were required to wear uniforms when they checked in and answer about 500 questions.
[SOUND OF GUNS] There was firing range with automatic weapons of every kind of you could imagine.
[SOUND OF GUNS/HIGH-PITCHED SOUNDS BY LUVVY]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He said this was a kind of artist project, but what do you think his real purpose was?
ONDI TIMONER: Well, he said that he was walking down the street [LAUGHS] one day and realized that the Millennium was coming in New York City and no one was going to do anything, and that it was up to him to do something to mark this moment of transition where the virtual world is taking over. But it literally took me eight years to figure out that what it was was actually a big warning shot and a metaphor for where we could be heading with our lives online today, if we're not already there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We watched the evolution of the bunker experience in your film, and it starts out as a kind of Woodstockian liberation.
[OUT-OF-TUNE MUSIC] And it ends up dark and ugly.
ONDI TIMONER: There was definitely a neo-fascistic edge to the entire event. There were interrogations that occurred and you had to participate in those interrogations or you weren't considered to be contributing to the community.
MAN: Were you ever politically active?
MAN: Where was that?
MAN: Here in New York I was a member of the Communist Party.
ONDI TIMONER: Everyone who moved in there felt like it was going to be a fun party, like you said, but nobody could really handle the stress.
MAN: Shut up! I’m talking!
MAN: And I don't control anybody like other people try to control.
ONDI TIMONER: And the neo-fascistic elements to me were Josh Harris’ attempts to say no matter what I do, no matter how extreme the circumstances, you'll give up everything. You'll give up your privacy and eventually you'll give up your freedom for connection and recognition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a line that comes up in the Quiet experiment. In fact, it’s the only line you repeat in the film.
JOSH HARRIS: Everything is free except the video that we capture of you. That we own.
ONDI TIMONER: Ultimately that’s an important element of the metaphor. Everything that was done there was recorded. It was not theirs to make private again, and, in fact, Josh Harris can take it and do what he wants with it. That is something that is happening every day online, and when we accept terms and conditions, it’s pretty much the same thing as filling out Josh Harris’ questionnaire and signing away your rights.
MAN: If you wanted to be involved, you had to be interrogated. And then you get issued a uniform. Once you’re in, you’re not allowed to go out. Literally, you cannot leave the premises again.
ONDI TIMONER: He was very much the puppet master, and I was not happy documenting it. I actually walked away from the project after cutting a feature-length version of the bunker in 2001. I only came back to it years later after the next step in his story occurred where he became the rat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the project that he called We Live in Public.
ONDI TIMONER: Yes. Basically, Josh decided to announce that he and his girlfriend would be the first couple ever to live in public and that they would live for six months under constant surveillance. He installed 32 motion-controlled surveillance cameras in every corner of his house from the kitty litter pan to the toilet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, in the toilet bowl.
ONDI TIMONER: In the bowl and more importantly, over the bed. So his girlfriend, Tanya, was definitely a Internet kid herself, excited about the medium, excited to pioneer along with him, but she just didn't feel like making [LAUGHING] love with him in public, because once the chatters were chatting, and there was a live chat stream going – Tanya lost her keys once, and –
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
TANYA: I'm trying to leave the house to get out of here but I can't find my wallet, that little silver cigarette case. Has anyone seen it? Do you know where it is?
ONDI TIMONER: And somebody said, oh, yeah, you left them over there, you know, over the computer. [LAUGHS] So this was kind of fun, and then it became any argument they had, chatters took sides. They ran to their computer monitors to see who won the fight. It was impossible to have an intimate relationship in public.
JOSH HARRIS: What?
TANYA: Don’t do this!
JOSH HARRIS: Do what?
TANYA: You’re scaring me! Stop it! Leave me alone! Don’t! Let go of me!
[BANGING/CLATTERING SOUNDS] Don’t hurt me! [CRIES]
ONDI TIMONER: What started as a dream to conceive a baby in public ended with Tanya leaving Josh, the stock market crashing; he finds out he has a negative checking balance, on his toilet, on camera.
MAN: I need to tell you, you’ve got a negative balance in your checking account.
JOSH HARRIS: Okay, bye.
ONDI TIMONER: And he really lost his mind at that point.
JOSH HARRIS: It’s all part of our subconscious. Yes, it’s all gonna to come out sooner or later. It’s all got to come out sooner or later! [CRYING] It’s all got to come out, sooner or later. It’s all gonna to come out!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess the question for me is was Josh Harris really trying to enact his vision of what the future may be, since he had the money and the insight to do it, or was he just doing what any superannuated teenage boy would do if he were a millionaire in his late 30s and early 40s?
ONDI TIMONER: I don't think that just any teenager would do this, but I think Josh Harris would say that the next evolution of programming is Weliveinpublic.com, but on a massive scale, so that many will be self-surveillancing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it fair to say that living in public did this to him and that it could happen to us all, or is this really just about Josh?
ONDI TIMONER: If this film was still just about Josh, I would not have finished it. I was absolutely struck with a lightning flash in late 2007 when I saw the first status update on Facebook – the first one that I saw – and it said, I'm driving west on the freeway, posted two ago, and I thought, who cares? [BROOKE LAUGHS] And then all of a sudden all these people [LAUGHING] cared and then everyone was posting what they ate for breakfast. And then, you know, I just saw this snowballing, and I thought, oh, my gosh, wait a second – the bunker is a warning shot of where we are ending up, where it’s almost like it doesn't exist unless it’s somehow shared. And for this next generation coming up they don't know a life before online, and as wonderful and beautiful and powerful as this invention is, there is a dark side. And I happened to record that. And it became my responsibility, I felt, to make this movie right now because I think it’s about all of us at this crucial time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to the final chapter of Josh Harris’ life, so far, in your film. Harris ultimately goes off the grid, first at an apple farm, then, after another failed attempt to start a business, in Ethiopia. Is that the answer for all of us in our increasingly online living-in-public lives, that in order to seize control we have to unplug?
ONDI TIMONER: Josh Harris shows us two very important things. One is don't raise your children on technology alone and, two, don't make your life too public; keep some part for yourself. Keep your intimate relationships private, if you can. And maybe by balancing our lives we can enjoy all the beauty that the Internet brings us and not lose ourselves in the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ondi, thank you very much.
ONDI TIMONER: Oh, thank you very much for your time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ondi Timoner is the director of We Live in Public, which opens this week in Los Angeles. Up next, is gender neutrality a Bible-buster? – and why dictionaries ain't what they used to be. This is On the Media from NPR.