I finally got around to watching Ondi Timor’s “We Live in Public,” a documentary that was actually released to high critical acclaim back in 2009. I met the director of the film, Ondi Timor, in March of 2009, very briefly. Somewhere on the internet, there’s a brief record of our meeting.
Meltdown on the Set
We met on the set of #theCube’s precursor, the “SAM, Live from the Belmont” during 2009’s SxSWi festival. At the time, we had an obscenely large number of viewers on UStream, and Leo Laporte was joining virtually his live broadcast of Amber MacArthur’s Net@Night show with ours. I was elated to finally get on the same stream with one of my tech heroes, even though I was dog tired and brain fried from a week of go go go-ing in Austin.
Within my circle of friends, what happened that day is something of legend. Michael Sean Wright was directing the shoot, and had enlisted the help of Brad Hunstable (one of the founders of UStream), Lucas Hendrickson (a freelance music columnist from Tennessee), Jeff “the Dude” Dowd (the basis for the character “the Dude” in the Cohen Brother’s legendary “Big Lebowski”), Robert Scoble (whom you probably already know), myself and many others to put on the week and a half of live streaming. It was a gruelling shoot, where we were all on camera for nine hours a day, managing a set where discussion was going on, and a live music set simultaneously. Nerves got frayed, tempers short, and egos bruised.
By the last day of the shoot, we were, amongst the chaos, ripe for some sort of catastrphe. All things considered, when the shoot finally started unraveling, it’s amazing it didn’t end worse than it did.
For those who’ve never met Lucas – he’s a big man (he goes by the twitter handle @largelandmammal). I’m 6’5” or so, and the man towers over me. He was acting, at this point, as a combination of engineer and bouncer, since The Belmont wasn’t doing a real great job of adhering to the guest list we provided them.
So I’m up on the stream, live, conversing with Michael Sean Wright, Robert Scoble, as well as Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur live via Skype. There’s probably a combined total of around 20,000 to 30,000 people watching at this point, and into the studio bounces the Dude with Ondi Timor in tow. He’s absolutely insistent with Lucas that he must go on the air at that precise moment.
Lucas, of course, says that he must wait until his timeslot. The Dude will not be swayed, though, and literally knocks over Lucas Hendrickson (though how he managed this, I will never understand!), and barges onto the set.
Ondi Timor squeezes in on my left, and The Dude squeezes in on Robert’s right. Michael has the cameras pull in on tight shots, and I’m desperately trying to maintain my composure with the chaos around me. I don’t remember saying too much or even making much sense, but I do remember not cracking or acknowledging their existence… until they made that, too, impossible.
At some point, The Dude ignored Michael’s protestations to keep quiet and off mic, and interjected himself into the conversation. He squeezed into the tight frame and urged Ondi to do the same. As Ondi did so, she closed my laptop, so that more of her face could fit into the frame.
Though she didn’t know this, this was also the laptop responsible for keeping the connection together between Leo Laporte’s broadcast and our own. Once she closed the laptop, the computer went into hibernate mode, which severed the Skype connection. There was no getting the moment back.
At that point, Ondi, Robert and The Dude yammered on for ten or fifteen minutes about “We Live in Public,” while I tried to stop (through sheer force of will) my brain from melting out through my ears in rage.
All That to Say: Ondi Didn’t Make a Great First Impression on Me
Yes, the whole point of that self-indulgent introduction is to say that I’ve held a private grudge against Ondi for the last two years that’s prevented me from actually making the effort to hit the play button on “We Live in Public,” despite that it’s been in my Netflix queue for almost as long.
It’s also a bit of a disclosure. I’m going to try to say what I have to say about this movie divorced from the fact that the director came off, to me, as a totally clueless about technology in general and fairly presumptuous when it came to invading our set and taking over.
As a film, though, I have to say that this film is a must watch for anyone in the industry I exist in, if only for the reason that it’s necessary to know our history. As Karina Longworth said in her NewTeeVee review of the film, “the fact that Harris isn’t a household name for a new generation of web exhibitionists says more about the longevity of Internet fame than most of us would like to admit.”
In that vein, it’s as important to watch this film if you’re in today’s tech industry as it is to watch (as a citizen of these United States) film, cartoons and newsreals showing the 9/11 attacks, or just how common racism was, or the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch WLiP because it brings back painful memories of the dot com bust and just how damaging the actions of folks like Josh Harris actually were.
Josh Harris is billed by the movie’s tag-line: “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” Strange, really, given the amount of press he received and how familiar I was personally with this guy and what he did in the early days of the web and web video. Josh was one of the early dot com executives behind Prodigy’s chat technology, Pseudo.com (an early ‘90s web video entrant), and the movie follows both his businesses and his legendary excesses.
The largest focus of the film was the most well known of these excesses, an ‘art project’ called “Quiet: We Live in Public.”
…an Orwellian, Big Brother type concept developed in the late ’90s which placed more than 100 artists in a human terrarium under New York City, with myriad webcams following and capturing every move the artists made.The pièce de résistance was a Japanese-style capsule hotel outfitted with cameras in every pod, and screens that allowed each occupant to monitor the other pods installed in the basement by artist Jeff Gompertz.
The film’s website describes how, "With Quiet, Harris proved how, in the not-so-distant future of life online, we will willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire. Through his experiments, including another six-month stint living under 24-hour live surveillance online which led him to mental collapse, he demonstrated the price we will all pay for living in public."
The experiment ran for five weeks. To see it described, in practice and built reminded me of the premises of a thousand hack-y SyFy Channel big brother-esque stories.
The underground bunker was stocked with free guns, drugs, food and New York City artists addicted to all manner of illicit substances and activities. Jason Calacanis described the project from his perspective:
Back in the late ’90s, one of my best friends was a guy named Josh Harris. He formed a company called Jupiter Communications which wrote all those crazy research reports in the Web 1.0 days that said Internet advertising, broadband and e-commerce would shoot to the moon like a rocket over the first decade of the Internet. And they were right.
Josh had a front row seat to the Internet Revolution writing those reports, and he made around $80 million when Jupiter went public. He lost it just as quickly when he started experimenting with technology.
Josh had a couple dozen folks in a bunker for 30 days living in “pods” (bunks) that included cameras watching their every move. He tried to get me to move into the “hotel,” but I knew it wasn’t a good idea when I saw the people running around naked on psychoactive drugs, firingsubmachine guns. That’s not an exaggeration–that was happening in the basement of this Tribeca building.
Quiet was shut down by Giuliani’s nightclub task force as a millennial cult 18 months before 9/11–the milestone by which most New Yorkers, including myself, mark our lives. For me, everything in my memory is either pre- or post-9/11. Quiet, Silicon Alley Reporter and my adolescence are all pre-9/11. Adulthood, gravitas and the fallout from the undiagnosed PTSD are all post-9/11.
Jason goes on to describe Josh’s work as “groundbreaking” and tries to canonize something called “Harris’ Law.”
“At some point, all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person.” – Harris’ Law (as coined by Jason Calacanis)
Not only is this not a law, to try to deduce anything poignant or useful from the life and efforts of Josh Harris is, in my view asinine and irresponsible. I knew that Josh was the posterboy for all that is wrong and destructive about the dot com boom in the ‘90s, this much was clear. When I watched Ondi’s on-screen documentation of a rape (or attempted rape, it’s actually a bit unclear) while Josh looked on seemingly unmoved, it became clear what a sociopath the man actually was.
His sociopathic delusion is celebrated in “We Live in Public” as vision and prescience by friends, relatives and the filmmaker herself, it seems.
There’s a quote from Josh at the beginning sequences from the segment on Quiet in the film where he gives the pitch on why artists would want to live in his fishbowl: “Don’t bring your money with you. Everything is free – except the video we capture of you. That we own.”
It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The parallel the movie and Ondi attempts to draw is that Josh was so darn smart that he predicted this world of Facebook, Google and MySpace … all trading on our desire to live in public, would take our data, own it, and try to give us everything else we want for free. Not only did he predict this, the movie insists, but he’s such a freakin’ genius that created this insane experiment as some sort of artistic demonstration of the world of slavery we’d all exist within.
It sounds good, if you’re looking at the reality of social media without any sort of basic understanding of, you know, sociology. Or technology.
Most People Don’t Obsess Over Internet Flamewars
Based on the closeness between him and Ondi throughout the production and release of this film, it’s clear that Jason Calacanis’s viewpoints had a direct impact on Ondi’s interpretation of Josh’s life work.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate Jason Calacanis. I’ve always enjoyed his contrarian position on things, though I haven’t always like the folks he chose as business partners. There is no long-standing grudge between me and Jason when I say this…
… but Jason loves to make waves. It’s a fact. He likes to be a magnet for controversy, even when it attracts the ire of his friends. I can admire that to a certain extent, but it creates for a myopic viewpoint on his part when he tries to take his personal experiences and relate them to the how the rest of the world interacts with their digital tools and each other. When you make yourself a digital lightning rod online, you can’t be surprised when every single post you put up on your blog attracts a large number of detractors or “haters,” as Jason calls them.
You’re essentially saying “Hey! Conventional wisdom! You’re wrong!” and then being surprised when people obsessed with debating online come in and debate you online.
What Jason is ignoring, Ondi appears to not even know, and Josh isn’t well rounded enough to realize is that technology exists to service and better aid our own communication. We use tools like email, IM and Skype because they’re cheaper, quicker and more convenient than walking across a continent or dialing someone up across long distance land lines. Tools like Facebook and Twitter exist because they are able to faciltate communication better in group settings when individuals are offset by time or space constraints.
If you look at how the mainstream uses these social media tools, it contrasts starkly with what you see folks inside the tech bubble doing. Your average Twitter users accesses it via short messaging or a WAP browser, or perhaps a speci
alized mobile client. Their short messages aren’t typically engagement in conversation, links to blog posts or self-aggrandizing bits of short media.
In general, they look more like these:
Digital is living in their lives instead of their lives living digitally.
I’m curious if anyone involved in this film, from Fred Davis to Jason Calacanis to Ondi Timor to Josh Harris himself, ever stopped to ask themselves why it was, they think, that Pseudo.com failed.
I doubt Josh ever did. He still tells everyone it went away because it was simply an extended art project. Jason theoretically should be analyzing the death of Pseudo.com since he seems bent on recreating the Southern California equivalent with the “This Week In” franchise. Fred should understand these things himself pretty well, since he’s lead venture financing for companies like Twitter and Foursquare.
Pseudo.com failed because, amongst other things, the tech didn’t seek to make life easier for the intended consumers. Pseudo was all about being better programming than you can find on the traditional media channels. In the end, though, the quality of the programming wasn’t good enough to drive millions of consumers away from their living room television sets to their computers to consume that content.
That is exactly what technologies like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare seek to do, by leveraging communications technologies already in the hands of billions of humans. Instead of trying to force people to come to them, they go to where people already are. They, as Mark Zuckerberg and Paul Buchheit say, reduce friction for communication.
Quiet was the logical perception of what an always on world would be like when technology forced every individual to be radically transparent on technology’s terms. Facebook, Twitter and other modern social networking tools show us the opposite: what an always on world looks like when people network on their own terms, sometimes using technology.