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Internet for good

We Live in Public – the cautionary tale of Josh Harris, the internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.

Is it true that every innovation or modern invention has a drawback? That every silver lining has a cloud? In our industry and – closer to home – at Intergen, we talk a lot about how technology improves the daily lives of those around us. We look for tangible examples of how what we do makes a difference. I’m sure that’s true of most people, in most industries, not just IT.

We have a thing at Intergen that we call the BHAG (aka our “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”) and that is: That everyone, every day is touched positively by the things we do. It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the why in what we do. We get so busy just doing whatever we’re doing that the wood and the trees become interchangeable. And when people use expressions like “seeing the big picture” we look at them suspiciously, like they’re trying to sell us on something that’s probably not even there, something dreamed up by business strategists and foisted on us blinkered worker moles just trying to go about our business.

Maybe I’m coming at this the wrong way around. So let’s shelve this thought and come back to it in a bit.

Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public – winner of the Sundance Grand Jury prize – recently screened at the Wellington International Film Festival, followed by a 45-minute Q & A with Timoner herself. When it comes out on general release, I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the ways in which the internet is shaping our culture.

We Live in Public is a 10-year-or-so trek through the short history of the internet, a socio-cultural history filtered through the experience of one person: Josh Harris. It’s also a very alarming and intimate personal story of one person’s incredibly public demise. Harris isn’t the only person with a dream who has walked a wavering line between visionary genius, spectacular failure and mental implosion.

It seems ironic, even oddly fitting in a way, that if you search online for ‘Josh Harris,’ the first few results returned are for a preacher man in Maryland who goes by the same name. For years, the ‘real’ Josh Harris fell right off the map (well, at least as far off the map as Ethiopia, where he coached a basketball team of local boys and slowly hatched his latest virtual scheme). That won’t be the case for long, though, I’m sure. Once this film has been released, preacher Josh is going to have to preach a lot harder to keep his top SEO ranking.

So who is Josh Harris, then? He grew up in a large family with distant parents, where he got his “emotional calories” through the television set. He goes as far as to say that, as an adult, he identifies more with Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island than he does his own family (and Gilligan is an ever-present idol/icon throughout the documentary, whereas his mother is a remote figure to whom he sends a video tape as a farewell gesture as she is dying of cancer).

In the 80s, his brothers tell us, Josh had a vision of a networked world. Back then no one knew what he was talking about.

He went on not to ride the Dot Com wave, but to precede it. He formed a research company whose predictions for the internet were nothing short of self-fulfilling prophecies. Riding high – if only temporarily – and with millions now under his belt, Josh formed Pseudo, a multi-channelled online television station (bear in mind this was more than a decade ago). When interviewed by CNN, Josh told the interviewer that before long the internet would take the place of not just CNN itself, but news and television in general. The CNN interviewer smirked and raised his eyebrows at the camera.

Josh’s Pseudo headquarters are most aptly likened to Andy Warhol’s Factory – a hedonistic, rule-less party zone where people could do – and film – whatever they wanted in the name of wholesale online consumption.

Josh’s pièce de résistance, however, came in 1999, with a project that cost him untold millions. Quiet was six floors of a Manhattan apartment, kitted out to simulate a real-world internet. A sort of fascistic beehive where people flocked to take part in the experiment, surrendering all rights with little or no justification provided for why they should. People slept in grid-like pods, fired guns in the firing range and underwent interrogation in cells to the point of psychological collapse. Everything was filmed; everything was recorded. The Citizens of Quiet (or the partying inmates) were told that everything here was free – an endless end-of-the-century dance party. As Harris himself said, “Everything is free except the footage we take of you.”

(Facebook’s latest third-party advertising policy, anyone?)

There is something macabre, Orwellian and ultimately destructive about this prison party. Revelry becomes fear. That it’s shut down by force at 10am, 1 January 2000 seems almost poetic.

But where, with Quiet, Harris’s subjects are rats in a cage of his making, his next project takes things one step further. He becomes a rat in his own cage. In his first ever relationship, Josh’s girlfriend agrees to have real-time around-the-clock footage of their apartment (and by that I mean every single room within the apartment) made available on the internet. It wouldn’t exactly be a spoiler to say that their initial honeymoon phase takes a spectacular and swift (not to mention public) turn for the worse.

As I said earlier, this is definitely one to watch. It is thought provoking, timely and, at times, pretty scary.

And now back to my opening point. Perhaps the biggest bonus of seeing the film was getting to hear Timoner talk about it. One of the points she made was that the internet is a hugely positive presence in the modern world. But every good thing can be abused, and every technological advance – when intentionally or unintentionally misused – has a dark side. Consider the advent of the motor car or the aeroplane, for example. Huge, revolutionary benefits, but colossal drawbacks, too.

Timoner mentioned that We Live in Public is soon to be screened privately back in the States for a couple of companies like Microsoft and AOL. Perhaps as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a good thing goes bad. And to challenge us to use the internet for good.

This was the overarching message I took away from the documentary, anyway: That we have a responsibility (and this is especially true for those of us who help to shape and benefit commercially from the internet) to remember why we are engaging online, and doing so in an unequivocally positive way.

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 03 August 2009

Tags: BHAG, Engaged Web

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