July 2010 Archives

I had the opportunity yesterday to see "We Live In Public", a documentary film produced by Ondi Timoner on "the greatest Interent pioneer that you've never heard of", Josh Harris, at the Museum of Modern Art. One of the benefits of working for a firm that values the arts is free admission to most museums in NYC via corporate memberships, so while I didn't pay anything to see this, don't let the detract from the review, I'm just saying this in the interest of full disclosure :)

Timoner begins by painting Josh's childhood as somewhat troubled, which lays the context for the rest of the film. Josh was amazingly prophetic of things to come, even though he was way before his time. While you've never heard of Josh Harris, the things that he predicted have largely come true.

It begins in the late 90's, when he founded an online television network of sorts, called pseudo.com. However, Josh had no classical training in the arts, so he viewed himself more as a facilitator of creativity, giving people extremely wide latitude to do whatever they wanted on any of the "channels" of pseudo.  Keep in mind that this was in the days prior to mass broadband adoption, so the quality of online video was abysmal at best - there's only so much data that you can shove down a 56K modem.

By doing things that we now think of as commonplace, for example leveraging multiple medium (video and live chat for example) to engage the viewer and make the viewer part of the content, Josh was able to make pseudo the first example of social networking.

When 60 Minutes came to do a segment on pseudo, Harris told the host that he would put CBS out of business, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was highly effective targeted advertising, instead of what I like to call "carpet bomb" advertising that must be performed in traditional media. While it is true that advertising in traditional media is somewhat targeted to the demographic of the "average" consumer of that content, obviously online advertising can be targeted to the specific user, and Josh was a visionary in that space, coming at it in the late 90's. Of course the host just sort of smiled and laughed, and asked when you could watch video online that was of as high quality as that which you could get on television. Well, you be the judge.

As time went on however, Josh was acting more and more quirky. He had an alter-ego that he called "Luvvy" that dressed up in clown makeup and various costumes. He would come to important business functions as this character, and as a result, pseudo began trying to distance themselves from Josh. Josh ended up leaving pseudo (which he then categorized as a "performance art piece" rather than a business), and went on to other endeavors.

The next one, at the end of 1999, was a Orwellian-type surveillance state bunker installation called "QUIET: We Live In Public". Approximately 150 artists and technologists were invited to spend a month living under 24-hour video surveillance, doing whatever they wanted, and sharing the most intimate details of their lives with the world-at-large.  Cameras were everywhere - the beds, the showers, the toilets, just about anywhere that you could imagine. Everything was free, "except the video that we capture of you. That we own." In the basement, there was a firing range, there was an 80-foot long dining table, and in every sleeping pod, there was a camera and television.One could tune the television to whatever other pod they were interested in seeing at the time.

This was sort of a psychological experiment on a grand scale, seeing what would happen to people when faced with surveillance, control, and the complete loss of privacy. Every resident was a lab rat of sorts.  Every single resident was interrogated in military fashion. The results were interesting and disturbing at the same time. As Alanna Heiss, the founder and then-director of MoMA P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, who herself was a resident, said: "it's really quite dangerous. Someone is going to snap".

The NYPD and FDNY came in to shut down the "millennial cult" on New Years Day, mostly due to live ammunition being fired in the basement. As one resident put it "we quacked like a cult, must be a cult".

Following QUIET, Josh decided to turn the experiment on himself. He and his girlfriend Tanya lived in an NYC loft, complete with 30+ motion sensing cameras, some in the most unlikely of places, and 60+ microphones, all broadcasting 24 hours a day. Again, every detail of every day, captured and integrated with chat for the world to see and interact with. At one point, Josh said that he wanted a pizza, and one showed up at his door without him ever ordering or paying for it.

After about 6 months of living like this, the relationship ended in a bitter fight, and with Josh suffering from some form of mental illness.  He then retreats to an apple farm, where he lives for a few years. After that, he comes back to found another company, called "Operator 11", with the premise that users should be able to have their own interactive television network 24/7.  He pumped the last bit of money he had into this, and prepared the company for sale. He went to pitch to MySpace, and the executive there said "I don't know who Josh Harris is" - a sure sign the the revolution had happened without him.

MySpace was unable to see the value in Operator 11, so Josh ended up with that venture also failing. He now lives in a self-induced state of exile in Ethiopia, teaching children there how to play basketball.

Overall, I would highly recommend this film to anyone to see. I would caution the the imagery is very explicit at times, and the film is most assuredly not appropriate for children or anyone who's sensitive to that sort of thing
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