Josh Harris and We Live in Public

I just watched a documentary called “we live in public,” about a 90s dotcom entrepreneur named Josh Harris and felt absolutely compelled to write a post about this as it relates to my interest in social networking.

The background here is fascinating. Apparently this guy Josh Harris founded some internet companies in the 90s and became a multimillionaire with a company called pseudo.com, which as far as I can tell, was the forerunner to youtube, but suffered due to lack of bandwith.

But more important than Harris’ business acumen and completely anti-social and crazy behavior was that he conceived a project that he called a social experiment in which roughly a hundred people lived in an orgiastic commune created beneath new york city in which every aspect of daily life is taped. This community, called “Quiet,” (like “Rapture” from Bioshock, except the opposite of Randian and rather more communist or something else I can’t even describe) is something I find endlessly fascinating on a variety of levels. First, the community was supposedly an art project but also part experiment. In this society, everything is free including constant and gluttonous supplies of food, drugs, and alcohol, as well as an underground GUN RANGE stocked with hundreds of guns ranging from pistols to some of the most dangerous and bizarre looking automatic weapons I’ve ever seen. People would just go down there and fire off tons of ammunition so that the floor would have to be swept to be cleaned of the bullet casings.

But the big point was that participants in this society were interrogated and quasi-tortured by ex CIA intelligence agents (hired for this purpose) and then given jump suits and a pod to live in with TVs that recorded them constantly as well as allowing them to tune in to other TVs in the underground world. The ideal, according to Harris was to experiment with a surveillance society as well as to make people into TV objects so that everyone was on TV all the time, watched by others, and capable of watching everyone else. Kind of like a chat roulette commune.

Unsurprisingly, the people who signed up for this experiment are probably, let’s say, not ordinary, and became more so as the experiment wore on. People spoke of having their souls stripped from them as Harris continued to manipulate things behind scenes with his CIA hirees (there’s a scene where an interrogator and his assistant regaled in quasi-nazi attire ask a woman abusively and mockingly about the details of her suicide attempt. She starts crying as a result). There was also an extremely cultish looking temple that was built at one point as well.

Symbolically, all hell breaks lose on the night of Y2K and you get the impression that this commune was on the verge of total anarchy as you see Harris watching as a man seemingly forcibly(?) has sex with a woman in a public shower in front of hundreds of other people. The police come soon after (the first morning of the new millenium) and shut the whole thing down as complete chaos erupts. You can only imagine the  faces of the NYC police when they found hundreds of guns organized in an armory along with the “church” of this “art project.” Words cannot convey how shocking and interesting this documentary is.

What are the lessons? Well, it’s hard to tell exactly. At some points this commune seems to be an indictment of a certain kind of obsessively artistic mindset, which as some people interviewed remarked, was a kind of aesthetic fascism. Other times, one gets the impression that this was simply a large group of mentally ill people being manipulated by one extremely smart but also mentally ill person. Other times one thinks that this was a fantasy world of a man that confesses to being raised completely by TV. One imagines that this was his ideal television world. Lastly, one thinks that “quiet” was kind of a dystopian warning trying to convince us to rethink our relationship to technology. Presciently, Harris’s predictions have largely come true with the advent of social media – we are approaching the limit case of sociality on the internet in which everyone desperately attempts to share every aspect of their lives and becomes a slave to the eyeballs that check in on them during every second of everyday.

My own take, given my somewhat conservative mindset, is that “quiet” is just what it purports to be: a kind of hipster aesthetic obsession taken to it’s extreme in which slavery and chaos rather than liberation is the end result. I think aesthetics plays a valuable role in our lives, and I think that I’m progressive enough to understand the importance of breaking taboos and pushing the envelope for the goal of new experiences and new molds of human conduct. This project however seems to be the end point of a kind of totalitarian and melodramatic preoccupation with making everything into art. The result is just bullying and the collapse of human self-worth. Art, if it is to be special, cannot be everything. There must be the everyday and the quotidian for their to be the sublime.

In any case, this is must watch documentary, since I cannot do it justice with this brief description.


9 Responses to “Josh Harris and We Live in Public”

  1. 1 chris
    May 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

    yea, that was a pretty amazing documentary. i love the ending. i think he looks more healthy and normal during those last 3 minutes in ethiopia than at any other point in the film. you probably know what i’m going to say about that… technology obviously completely distorted his life and made it into something that would certainly qualify as mentally ill and unhealthy in a variety of ways. getting removed from it was probably a good idea. i will leave out the rest of my anti-technology spiel, as you’ve heard it a few times and it’s not exactly what this is about.

    i really like your analysis of quiet, the community, in your last paragraph above. i would say that both quiet (the community) and we live in public (the taping of his whole life w/ his girlfriend) both failed as art (at least based on this documentary). and i think you are right that they failed because art cannot be a video of everything that happens. like you say, there has to be a difference between art and the everyday, otherwise art will just not be special or interesting. an important comparison, i think, is mtv’s the real world, which sort of claims to be filming the everyday life of 7 strangers living together. however, i think it succeeds as (“low”) art because it is actually a very stylized depiction of a not very typical situation for the people involved. so in the end it really is not very everyday at all.

    but this comparison is messy, in part because the documentary doesn’t do a good job of telling us what the output of the filming of the quiet experiment was supposed to be and who the audience was. was it supposed to be a half hour show that was online once a week? was it supposed to be a movie? was it supposed to be an exhibit at an art gallery? i think it probably would have succeeded as a really interesting (if scary) piece of art if it took any of the three forms listed above. but if the only audience was josh harris and the other people living within the community then it was bound to fail as art for the exact reason you outline, that art cannot be the videotape of what you do all day everyday.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      May 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm

      No that’s the thing, I’m coming around to your anti-technology viewpoint in a big way. Really though, I don’t think technology itself is quite the problem, but a lack of questioning about what technology is. Many people thing technology is “just a tool” and so morally neutral, but that’s not true. Technology is just like anything other human creation and it can be limited, expanded, embraced or rejected on its merits.

      • 3 chris
        May 23, 2010 at 1:57 am

        Well, often I am often tempted to say that technology itself IS the problem. I’m thinking back to the last time we had this argument, on Aaron’s blog. That time we were talking about how a technology as simple and basic as sneakers turns out to be bad for us.

        But then I do some reflection, and I realize that it would be impossible to stand behind the claim that all technology is inherently bad. Shoes almost definitely are, on the whole, a good development, even if they do hurt our knees when we run weirdly in them.

        And it’s also almost definitely true that we’re better off now than the first animal was before they invented the first thing we could call technology.(I’m not sure what I mean by “we’re better off”).

        So what you say seems like the best solution: embrace or reject each technology on its merits. The problem I see in that is that we can’t know the merits of a lot of the new technology that comes about, or the merits of the next generation of technology to come from it. This was my point in that response on Aaron’s blog, our brains aren’t good enough to be sure that sneakers really are a good thing on their merits. So how can we be expected to make the right decision about embracing or rejecting them? Experimental or epidemiologic data might help i guess. But the studies we could do would probably not be comprehensive enough.

        But the only other option is to just stop development right now. I think I have said at least once that I would be ok with that. But I probably would not actually be ok with it. It is probably a bad idea to everyone else too.

        So I guess we just need to do our best to think through what the merits of each major new technology will be. (I guess that’s what we’re doing now, anyways, for the most part.)

    • 4 Brad
      December 20, 2010 at 5:53 am

      I think you’re both missing a key point here. The rather dogmatic definition that has been employed in order to quantify ‘art’ leaves a particularly narrow spectrum at which any creative pursuit can be exhumed. Initially, the first mistake here is to assume that art must indeed be ‘special’ or in some way removed from the environment of the ‘normal.’

      More specifically chris, it seems odd to suggest that both projects ‘failed’ as art, which then suggests that the medium itself has a progression to which it strives, an artistic endpoint so to speak. This may be true in the more linear forms of artistic expression, for example, a painter may have a pre-conceived notion of form and spatial harmony that they strive for. However, in installation or performance art it is a much more ambigious concept, and often the most profound and moving pieces of work are those that move well outside their initial conceptions.

      Would it not make more sense to consider such art as physical manifestations of an idea, an essence eventually able to call into existence a lucid reaction or resonance akin to both the viewer and the participant? and in this sense, under this definition, both ‘quiet’ and ‘we live in public’ are powerful pieces of work, as they illicit an entirely visceral reaction in the hearts and minds of both audience and ‘performer.’

      Personally, I can’t stand the guy, I think his work is morally an absolute travesty. Though it is that very quality that makes it so fascinating to me. Like his vision and foresight in the technological community, his artwork has preempted an entirely new frontier in that relationship between performer and audience. The interaction enabled through the integration of the chatroom into the process underlines a creative experience without the element of such rigid composition, and in this way, challenges the very standards that we experience our public and private lives.

  2. May 28, 2010 at 1:22 am

    I was at a private party last weekend that Harris was at. Didn’t talk to him and knew nothing about him, but he had this presence and I was immediately intrigued. Now I know why.

    This was a great film – I saw it this past week on Netflix.

  3. 6 JustTim
    June 16, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Hi – thought I’d jump in as I caught some of this documentary just last night on UK tv… I wondered about whether the point you guys were driving at but perhaps missed, was that technology is not itself the problem – in fact it serves to be quite liberating in a number of ways – the problem, if it can rightly be called a problem as the way i see it it is an innate human flaw, is that technology can be used in malicious ways and can have a profound and substantial impact upon the users. This was obviously seen in the quiet experiment/ art exhibit.

    I don’t think Harris was trying to make a point about technology he was merely trying to entertain himself and was trying to understand the relationship between humans and technology. The no-holes barred total party with no natural light and constant surveillance is not the reality we all exist in so no wonder the people went loopy wether the cameras were there or not I think… but besides that we saw Harris and his team of people – who can’t in any genuine use of the word call themselves artists (making the whole thing NOT ART) – actively manipulating the inhabitants with cia interrogation tactics.

    If we can learn anything from works like quiet and take them along with narratives of modernity such as Adam Curtis’ films suggest then we find an even more bleak and repressive version of society and the internet. Not wanting to lower the mood I’ll talk a bit about the art/ reality debate…

    I suppose art mirrors life and vice versa but does it do any good to suggest that everything that glitters is gold? No. Simply put yes things that are everyday object can be viewed as art when taken as such by an artist and installed in an appropriate exhibition environment or performance area, but conversely art can now be taken into the everyday spaces and is no longer confined to the galleries, museums and concert halls that traditionally house “ART”. Beyond that what’s clear is that modern art is going through a period of transition from something that was based in ideas to ideas themselves again. And let’s be clear ideas and art make no sense without each other. Nothing gets done without both.

    • 7 questionbeggar
      June 16, 2010 at 9:51 pm

      Thanks for this thoughtful reply.

      I mainly agree with what you say. However, I do think it’s worth questioning the point you make, which is that technology is neutral and that its value depends simply on use we put it toward. This I think is a tempting view, but misleading in some ways. It’s hard for me to put my finger on the exact argument or illustration that makes the point, but I believe that technology is not neutral and rather that pieces of technology are objects we use to think about ourselves and our world. Ill try to make the point by a comparison with ideas. Our ideas are not neutral. You can’t say, “racism isn’t good or bad, it’s just when it’s put to a bad cause that it becomes bad” (and this is not to compare your argument to racism or anything like that, I just want to dramatize the point) or “wanting to help people isn’t good or bad, but just bad when it used badly” and this is because ideas CONSTITUTE our decisions about what is valuable. Technology then, and by that I mean all physical things made by humans, are merely our ideas MADE PHYSICAL. And so, I don’t think we can put distance between our things and ourselves as if there is a person with no material commitments making decisions about how to use the material things we then come into contact with. Rather, like ideas, technology represents what we think is valuable. Just as some ideas are mistaken or prejudicial, so technology can be mistaken or prejudicial, even when we’re using it “in the right way.” I don’t mean to indulge the philosophical rhetoric too much, but merely hope that there’s at least an argument against thinking that humans and technology are two separate things so that one decides how to run the other.

      As for your point about art, I couldn’t agree more. Art is maturing and becoming more pervasive. But as with all democratizations, become broader also means becoming more fragile. As art spreads to all areas of life, non-art spreads as well threatening to destroy day to day aesthetic possibilities. So, at the limit, if everything is art, art is nothing. In short, I agree that art is more than just museum paintings, but I still hold that for art to exist, there must be a barrier between art and life. If life completely becomes art and vice versa, you have art fascism of quiet’s variety and furthermore, you don’t even really have art at all.

  4. 8 ButcherZwin
    October 9, 2010 at 2:49 pm


    Thanks for the review, I watched this last night with a friend and we were both completely fascinated.

    What both really intrigues is the fact that we had never heard about any of this time, we live in Canada so I don’t know of the news of these social experiments or however you want to phase them went past the States.

    I wonder if footage beyond what was seen in the documentary for both QUIET and we live in public is available for consumption.

  5. 9 josh harris
    December 13, 2010 at 1:23 am

    hi all,

    really interesting comments and write ups…


    (yes it really is me. Media Jockey Luvvy (mjluvvy).

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