Ever since there has been an internet, there has been a dark side to the internet. But, I'm a technology optimist. While some were warning early online shoppers of fraud and privacy concerns, I embraced e-commerce with enthusiasm, buying whatever I could online. While many feared that the internet would ruin personal relationships and de-humanize our social structure, I viewed digital communication as a new and effective way to connect with family, friends and and customers.
Not that I don't appreciate the whistle blowers. Some of them not only warn of the very real dangers of technology, they help us see what the future could be if we don't act responsibly and intelligently. Maybe that's why I liked this movie so much.
As regular readers of this column know, I am a passionate supporter of the Seattle International Film Festival, even though it takes place at just the time of year that the sun starts to appear in Seattle. Every year for the past several years, there has been at least one film in the festival focused on retail, e-commerce or internet technologies, and I always look forward to seeing and writing about the films. Even when they paint a picture of the internet's dark side like this one did.
This year's selection, We Live in Public, is thought provoking and well constructed. If you are intrigued by the dot com boom/bust, the fascinating people at the center of it and social media's impact on our lives (good and bad), don't miss this film.
We Live in Public is a documentary centered on a social outcast and internet pioneer that you've probably never heard of: Josh Harris. Those of you who've been around a while might recognize him as one of the founders of Jupiter Communications, and later Pseudo.com, a strange early days pre-cursor to YouTube, Facebook and other forms of internet broadcasting. Harris became a rich man at a young age in the dot com boom, but what happened after Jupiter and Pseudo is the real story.
The majority of the film focuses on two bizarre and sometimes disturbing events in Harris' life:
a) a social experiment called Quiet, which took place in 1999, in which Harris and dozens of fellow "artists" lived in an underground bunker commune while dozens of cameras recorded their every act, and
b) a subsequent experiment in which Harris and his girlfriend filled their New York apartment with over 30 cameras and streamed every intimate detail of their daily life over the internet 24X7 while observers chatted and commented on their every move. (Hardly shocking in today's world, but keep in mind, this was well before Facebook and YouTube.) No shock, the relationship crumbled on camera and ultimately Harris' fortune was gone too.
Footage in the movie spans 10 years of Harris' life and boils over 5,000 hours of film into a tight, fast paced 90 minutes. What you get is an intensely compressed view of Harris that will leave you wondering whether he's a visionary genius, a drama queen or a disturbed social misfit. You also get a glimpse of how Harris viewed the future, and how very frighteningly close to right he was.
Regardless of how you feel about Harris in the end, it is hard to watch this movie without seeing eerie parallels to the behaviors we see regularly on social sites today, a decade after Harris' online broadcasts of his life. As we watch Harris and his girlfriend withdraw from one another in favor of their collective online audience, we see Harris' self worth increasingly defined by the number of people watching him as he goes about the mundane activities of living. Anyone out there ever felt the addictive rush of Facebook updates or proudly watched their number of Twitter followers ratchet into the triple digits? If so, you'll squirm in your seat.
In the end, as I watched Josh disappear from the online world that he so passionately helped to build (he's now living in Ethiopia of all places, in just about as unplugged place as possible), I was reminded of the "too much of a good thing" cliche'. I wished that he had been able to find a balanced, productive way to channel what he had learned in order to keep going. But then, I also wondered if he had chosen to quit and go to Ethiopia for dramatic effect, knowing that the cameras and voyeurs would eventually find him. Like I said, you're never quite sure if you're watching a genius or a drama queen.
I'm still a technology optimist. I still love the internet, e-commerce and social media. But the 90 minute trip to the dark side was an entertaining reminder of how intelligence and practicality need to prevail. We can't let the bad guys win.
If you want to read more, there's a great interview with the director here.