My friend Betsy and I went to see the latest SXSW Film Festival offering this morning. It was a beautiful spring day and Betsy had been yammering about staying outside and taking a walk and weren’t we nuts to huddle inside a cold, dark movie theater? Probably, but we went anyway, choosing the virtual experience over the gorgeous, real-life weather.
Which is what the documentary we saw, We Live in Public, is all about, as it turns out. It’s the story of the Internet visionary Josh Harris, who made one of the earliest and largest dot-com fortunes in the late eighties and early nineties. It’s his story, but it’s ours, too, of course; it’s just that Harris was ahead of his time by years. He predicted it all — the loss of privacy, the replacement of real experience with the virtual, the social networking, the rampant voyeurism, the hunger for Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame that had to be constantly replenished by even more exposure, no matter what the personal and emotional cost.
Most harrowing, in 1999, Harris fashioned an Orwellian world of pods and people and cameras everywhere beneath ground in Manhattan, where a group of people were filmed doing everything — eating, going crazy, having sex, showering, defecating, giving up every shred of privacy and personal information simply to be there. Interrogators grilled the group members about every facet of their lives and ordered them into all kinds of demeaning poses. Why? To see how far they would allow themselves to be pushed, Harris said later. It was Milgram without the shocks, with people inflicting damage not on others, but on themselves.
Harris had a nervous breakdown, then tried another foray into the Internet of the 2000s, where his once-famous name elicited blank looks at new venues like MySpace. He financed another venture, then went broke. He’s currently in Ethiopia, working with impoverished children and living a real life for what might be the first time. If he can stay away from all his creditors — and this virtual world he envisioned.
It’s a superb, jarring documentary. At the end, I squirmed in my seat and thought about my own notions of privacy and hyper-connectedness — with my blog, my website, my email, my Facebook account, my own little Internet addiction. The day was still beautiful when I left the theater and walked to my car. I won’t go to another movie today. It’s a day that cries out for something more. I’m going for a walk.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)