I downloaded We Live in Public on itunes while waiting for my return flight back to school. (Note: there are way too many inappropriate scenes to watch this in an airport with families around…) Anyways, I thought the film was very interesting. I had watched Digital Nation earlier in the week and both films showed very different interpretations of our relationship with technology and the Internet.
We Live in Public tells the story of Josh Harris, “The greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” Harris made his fortune and debut into the media during the dot com boom of the 90’s. He started a couple Internet start-up companies and was one of the key figures within the powerful group of youth nerds that dominating the New York computer scene. Within his business ideas, Harris predicted the popularity of many of the Internet technologies that have become an integral part of our daily lives. Of particular interest to Harris was the changing ideal of privacy. Now, we don’t think twice about the amount of information we fork over to google or present via Facebook. However, at the beginning of the Internet boom, the ways that people were beginning to share previously private information changed the cultural landscape.
Through various cultural experiments portrayed throughout the film, Harris put the lives of participants as well as himself online. Everything about their lives (a sort of Big Brother experiment) was made public. After the group experiment ended in 2000, Harris and his girlfriend taped their own life together and showed it online. Gradually, both Harris and his girlfriend began to relate more to the viewers online (who would contribute their ideas via chatrooms) than with each other. For example, after an argument, Harris and his girlfriend would rush to their computers to see who “won” the argument in the eyes of the people watching the tape. Ultimately, their relationship broke down. Harris also lost all of his net worth in the dot com bust; He left NY and went into the country to start an apple farm. The film ends with Harris trying one last time to pitch an Internet company idea to MySpace, failing, and then moving to Ethiopia to avoid creditors and to experience “real” culture.
What does all this mean when one of the largest Internet figures leaves the world of technology behind and chooses to live in an underdeveloped country with no connection to the world made available through technology? If Harris was able to predict the future popularity and cultural significance of many of these technologies, is he also predicting their decline? Or at least the negative effects that the technologies might have? I think fundamentally that We Live in Public is telling the story of someone young coming into huge amounts of money and power, not knowing what to do with this newfound power and wealth, and ultimately breaking down. What is interesting about the phrase, “biggest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of,” is that because technology is constantly changing, the people who are influencing the way we interact with these technologies are also changing. Without a prominent voice in the field, I think this allows each individual or community to really dictate their own relationship to technology and how those technologies are able to influence their lives.