We Live in Public

We Live in Public movie poster
Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: NR
Genre: Documentary
The story: This documentary chronicles the life and ultimate breakdown of Josh Harris, a pioneer of the Internet whose early endeavors anticipated MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, and whose experiments with the limits of privacy led to his collapse.
Starring: Josh Harris
Director: Ondi Timoner
Running time: 1:30
Release: Opened Dec 11, 2009
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Editorial Review

Here, there, everywhere
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 11, 2009

The title of Ondi Timoner's Sundance award-winning documentary about the loss of privacy in the Internet age says it all: "We Live in Public." Don't believe it? Just try Googling "Tiger Woods" or "Michaele Salahi."

The filmmaker -- whose 2004 "DiG!," about the band rivalry between the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, also took top documentary honors at Sundance -- focuses her lens on a singular subject in order to tell her only mildly harrowing cautionary tale: Josh Harris. Or rather, Josh Harris focuses the lens on himself. You probably have never heard of him. And when the film is over, you may wish you still hadn't.

The movie opens with a clip of the onetime millionaire, who made his first small fortune selling the chat-room platform to Prodigy -- remember it? -- and then an even bigger one developing an early Internet TV network called Pseudo. He's talking into his own camera, making a video greeting card of sorts to send to his mother, who, at the time, was on her deathbed with pancreatic cancer.

That's the sort of guy Harris is. The self-proclaimed visionary, who also calls himself, despite any real evidence, "one of the first great artists of the 21st century," may have been a little ahead of the curve when it came to anticipating the whole World Wide Web thing, but he isn't exactly a people person. What did he do with all his money? Plowed it into a couple of so-called experiments that he'd like to believe blurred the line between art and sociology, but that really only confirm what most of us already know: People need space.

The first experiment, in December 1999, consisted of an underground bunker called Quiet, in which 100 or so brave souls in downtown New York agreed to live for a month under 24-hour video surveillance. That is, until the cops shut it down as a potentially dangerous millennial cult. Quiet featured free food, free booze, plentiful drugs and sex, and a well-stocked armory and firing range. It's a wonder nobody got killed, though several residents are shown on camera having what appear to be nervous breakdowns.

In the second experiment, called "We Live in Public," Harris outfitted the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, with dozens of webcams, including one drilled into the toilet bowl. How'd that work out? Corrin dumps him after he attempts to force her to have sex on camera, and Harris, nearly broke after the dot-com bubble burst, runs off to live on an apple orchard. When Timoner last checks in on her subject, he's teaching basketball to Ethiopian orphans.

What does any of this prove about privacy? Certainly not what Harris claims: that we're entering an age in which we will all willingly surrender ourselves to the scrutiny of others. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube aside, most people I know -- even, in the end, Harris himself -- still seem glad about one thing. All those gadgets and gizmos that connect us to each other still come, last I checked, with an off switch.

Contains obscenity, nudity, drug use and sexual activity. 90 minutes.