CATEGORIES Documentary, Sundance, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Sundance Reviews 2009, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Cinematical
"The unexamined life is not worth living." -- Socrates
"Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." -- William Gibson, Neuromancer (1986)
We Live in Public, the newest documentary from director Ondi Timoner (Dig!, Join Us), looks at internet technology and how it's changing us, prying into these larger issues through looking at the life and times of Josh Harris, who the press notes call "The greatest internet pioneer you've never heard of ..." Harris made a fortune from the internet before you ever heard of it with his consulting and analysis firm Jupiter Communications, then launched a revolutionary web-based set of video programs called Pseudo and then descended into a series of ornate and risky multimedia art projects: First was Quiet, a constantly-broadcast bunker and residence in 1999 New York that offered participants comforts and privileges in exchange for certain rights and concessions. Then came We Live in Public, where Harris and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin lived in a loft with a 24/7 web broadcast of everything they did, said and were to each other.
The unexamined life is not worth living, to be sure, but what We Live in Public asks -- as a pertinent question in the age of blogging and MySpace and Facebook and Twitter -- is if perpetually broadcasting your life is the same thing as examining it, and asks the question of who, exactly, is doing the watching. Harris was the bored researcher with his thumb on the fast-forward button for a while, and he tumbled through these thorny philosophical issues years before any of us even had the chance to, and wound up scratched and bruised by them. He's currently broke, living in Ethiopia, pursuing the interest-slash-obsession with Gilligan's Island he acquired in his youth and expressed in weird, wild ways throughout his whole life. He also claims to be working on some new revolutionary project he speaks of only in the vaguest possible terms. Perhaps he's being cagey about a brilliant new big idea; perhaps he's trying to hide the fact he's got nothing. Like many tech entrepreneurs, Harris walks a fine, tangled line between genius and charlatan, between insight and obliviousness.
Watching We Live in Public, you see how Timoner was in the right place at the right time to meet Harris and get the background for this film, (she worked for Pseudo before it crashed, as well as being a regular guest of Quiet before it imploded) and also see Harris' knack for making any place the wrong place at the wrong time. We see scary footage from Quiet, with interrogators Harris hired breaking the residents down as bizarre experiments; we see Quiet residents enjoying live-fire 'fun' with a huge, crazy arsenal of guns in a basement firing range; we see other, far more questionable curious moments as well. The cops shut Quiet down after a month, and looking at the footage, you understand precisely why.
Much as Dig! went from showing the battles between two bands to showing the challenges and opportunities indie rock created, We Live in Public uses Harris as a wedge to open up a discussion about internet-era culture. New-school web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis appears as an interpreter of the field and as an intimate of Harris'. I know Jason -- he founded Weblogs, which used to own Cinematical -- and consider him a friend, which is why I can note that in his appearances in the doc he's thoughtful, he's articulate and on several occasions when he's overly rah-rah about 'user-generated content' and 'the human internet,' he's sometimes fascinatingly wrong. (Calacanis asks us to imagine an edition of The New York Times where the staff can write " ... whatever they want ... that would be the best Sunday New York Times!" Actually, if you look to The Times for information about things you don't already know and insight about the issues of the day -- instead of enthusiasm and randomness and minutiae -- it would actually be the worst.)
But even with the occasional bit of loopy tech-talk or burbling enthusiasm only lightly tinged with forethought, many of the insights Calacanis, Harris, Timoner and the film offer are fascinating. How much of our lives are we sacrificing for the illusory intimacy of Facebook and the 140-character blurps of Twitter? Has the ability to say what we're thinking to a broader and broader group diluted the quality of what we have to say? Who owns these electric extensions of our self, and how long will they endure? (I can't help but wait for the first news story about a political candidate undone by the revelation of their Twitter feed or status updates -- if that hasn't happened yet.) Were people meant to live in the absence of privacy, or with their every utterance stored in digital database 'memories' that remember for them? And who's ultimately profiting from all of this?
Timoner incorporates much of Harris' own footage from Pseudo, Quiet and We Live in Public, but the grace of Timoner and Josh Altman's editing and the power of Timoner's new footage make it clear this the film is not merely some simple act of gimlet-eyed picking through Harris' vast archive. Some of Timoner's voice-over may sound too conversational (before explaining Facebook's targeted ads, she grabs our attention by saying "But check this out ..."). But, more importantly, she has a firm and fierce but ultimately human capacity for portraying a friend in a less-than-flattering light when required, and she looks at Harris' life in ways that he himself has not.
I walked out of We Live in Public ready to use my smartphone to Twitter a reaction -- as I, and so many of my peers have been doing to make post-film snap judgments and endorsements during this year's Sundance -- but actually instead took pause after the film's conclusion: Why would I be doing that? To say something real? To look clever? To reach out to a like-minded community when far from home? To be 'First!'? To avoid actually thinking? Ultimately, We Live in Public made me take a 24-hour vow of silence from Twitter, and made me think about my own signal-to-noise ratio in the interconnected world. (I tried to go for a similar break from Facebook, but Scrabulous is a cruel taskmaster.) Watching the film's finale -- Harris living and working in Ethiopia far from the numb hum of the modern age he helped create -- you can't help but wonder about our new age of miracles, and how soon it will be too much, and what refuge or relief we'll seek out when that happens. Timoner hasn't made the definitive documentary about the internet -- who could? -- but she's crafted a incisive, exciting and thought-provoking examination of the ways our new chances to live in public both make and mar the way we now live.