Review: We Live in Public (2009)

We Live in Public is a documentary I watched a while ago in Netflix, but haven’t gotten around to reviewing it till now. The synopsis from IMDB is:

On the 40th anniversary of the Internet, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC tells the story of the effect the web is having on our society as seen through the eyes of “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of”, visionary Josh Harris. Award-winning director, Ondi Timoner (“DIG!”), documented his tumultuous life for more than a decade, to create a riveting, cautionary tale of what to expect as the virtual world inevitably takes control of our lives. Josh Harris, often called the “Warhol of the Web” through the infamous dot.com boom of the 1990’s, founded Pseudo.com, the first Internet television network and created his vision of the future, an underground bunker in NYC where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days over the millennium. He proved how in the not-so-distant future of life online, we will willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire. Through his experiments, including a six-month stint living under 24-hour live surveillance online which led him to mental collapse, he demonstrated the price we will all pay for living in public.

When the documentary got started, I was quickly brought to the realization that the 90s was really the birth of the internet – and also when I was just getting introduced to FTPs, IRCs, BBs, and the ubiquitous IM. all these things me and my peers grew up with were the predecessors of our current day cloud-computing, skype and other video conferencing, WoW and the like, as well as tweeting, status updates, and everything else we do online.

We Live in Public follows Prodigy ISP founder Josh Harris through many years, beginning with his art project “Quiet”. This 30-day, 100 residents, cloistered and highly monitored environment helped demonstrate in 1999 how willing people are to give up their privacy for the sense of celebrity and recognition. the basement of an abandoned hotel was outfitted with open-ended bunks,

a clear-walled shower, a giant, long banquet table, no-privacy shared bathrooms,

and enough supplies for everyone to survive 30 days. The human experiment involved wiring the entire place with video cameras and tv monitors at each residents’ bunk. The residents could change the “channel” (which camera they looked through) and watch anyone, anywhere, at any time.

This isn’t a novel idea, as it is akin to most reality TV today, except without all the cameramen/crew. Although MTV’s the Real World had been broadcasted since 1992, the heavy editing and intentional provocation by off-camera influences created an almost unbelievable environment.

Ondi Timoner captures “Quiet” without (seemingly) as many manipulations, allowing the viewer to get a sense of how these residents were evolving as each person wanted the attention of other residents. Although Quiet was cut short by NYC police, they had been together long enough to see that Harris was demonstrating how humans value peer approval and awe, and are willing to give up their privacy and, to an extent, dignity for it. It seemed to remind me a little of Lord of the Flies, where the children initially followed conventional societal rules, but over time realized that on this island, on this cloistered place, they were the ones who determined the rules. Quiet seemed to mimic this concept but with a twist of technology.

In 1999, Harris was able to extrapolate his findings in Quiet to foreshadow a future where we could use technology to get limitless fame and recognition – but for the cost of privacy, or our dignity. Some prime examples that come to mind are Tila Tequila’s Myspace fame, Paris Hilton’s A Night in Paris, Erin Andrews’ hotel room videos, Heidi Montag’s n-th plastic surgery, any MTV “reality” show, etc. In “We Live in Public”, there is a pretty epiphanous remark made concerning the “We Live in Public” rebirth that starred Harris and his then-girlfriend. They said the fights and the arguments became not just a private conversation, but each person would go to their individual computers and look online for posts for advice or what to do next. The arguments became inflamed to be more about egos and the input from viewers, and not about necessarily just solving the problem. You see Harris’ relationship gradually disintegrate as the technology and lack of “real” talking takes its toll, as shown by the fight below:

The thing that really sticks with me is how Harris cautions that the internet will affect our social networks and how we socialize. Although he didn’t come up with it, he kind of predicted how online social networking would change our social landscape. vehicles like facebook, myspace, linked-in, delicious, twitter, foursquare, etc are all on-demand, immediate gratification, mass-attention types of ways we can project ourselves digitally – concomitantly feeding our egos too. Think of all the attention you get from retweets, wall posts, new notifications – these are all subconscious “you’re important” messages that we love to receive.

How much do you post on people’s walls, update your status messages, or otherwise draw attention to yourself? “everyone does it” doesn’t seem to be a solid excuse – but maybe “everyone does it to be ______” is more accurate. you can fill in the blank with whatever you want, “popular”, “liked”, “somebody”….

You can read more:

details from a Quiet resident

another movie review

5 of 5 stars

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