A couple of nights ago, I sat down and watched We Live In Public, Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary about Josh Harris, Pseudo.com, the Quiet experiment, and the eponymous project that involved Harris streaming every mundane moment of his life onto the web for anyone to watch. I was particularly amazed that Quiet – a darkly and deliberately Orwellian behavioural experiment involving real people that not only prefigures but utterly eclipses much of the more recent reality television – isn’t better known and more widely discussed (though I believe it was a big influence on Douglas Rushkoff, who appears as an interviewee in the film and who was certainly part of the New York dot-com boom scene that floated Harris to prominence, and which I presume influenced and informed Rushkoff’s flawed but fascinating novel The Ecstasy Club).
The same applies to Harris, who comes across as a fascinating and damaged genius and visionary who foresaw – and concretised – many of the privacy and publicy issues that are hot button topics on today’s intertubes. I’m not sure I believe that Harris’ vision of a totally mediated world is inevitable, or even possible, but the extremity of the example he created is a valuable lesson and cautionary tale… as is his life as a whole.
The caveat here is that Timoner’s previous big success (and Sundance Festival winner) is the controversial rockumentary Dig!, which has been accused by Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre of portraying him and his band in a selectively negative light as compared to the film’s other main subjects, The Dandy Warhols. Much as I’m a fan of Newcombe and his work, however, it’s pretty clear that he’s a damaged genius (like Harris, though in a very different manner), and whether or not Timoner’s editing really was deliberately skewed to cast Newcombe as the bad penny will remain a mystery to anyone who wasn’t involved in the project. Sensation sells, after all… and the footage of Quiet in We Live In Public makes much of its more shocking aspects; I guess what I’m saying is that the same pinch of salt you’d apply to any other modern media is surely worth using here.
But that pinch of salt does nothing to negate a powerful story, and one that I think any internet habitue should watch. Residents of the United Kingdom have another 22 days (as of publication of this post) to watch it for free on Channel 4’s 4od service, and I urge you to take advantage of it while you can. Everyone else – keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity of your own. This is a hugely important document in the history of mediated network culture.