We Live in Public

I saw a strange & thought-provoking documentary this evening: We Live In Public (2009).

This documentary profiles Josh Harris, who I suppose we could consider an Internet pioneer. His kooky-at-the-time ideas have met reality. The documentary is as much a look at the evolution of technology & privacy issues as it is a look at how those issues changed Harris. His most fascinating endeavor was “Quiet: We Live in Public”. He recruited over 100 New Yorkers for a 1999 experiment…living underground with cameras following their every move. I mean everything. Cameras captured participants sleeping, eating, showering, having sex…everything. The idea was that, in the future, this is what our lives would become as technology grows. We would willingly sacrifice our privacy for the attention others’ eyes would give us.

For the brief time the experiment was allowed to run (NYPD shut it down, under the impression it was a doomsday cult), it actually provided interesting perspective on the issue of technology and privacy. We complain today about Facebook saying they own our information. During Quiet, Harris commented that the participants were free to do whatever they pleased, but video of their antics belonged to his group. This, really, is how modern social networking works. It’s hard to cry “I want more privacy” when you choose to put all of your photos and thoughts online.

Harris was a bizarre character in all of this. He went from Internet millionaire to social experimenter to orchard farmer to…Ethiopia? His life is disappointing. You end up feeling sadly about him because of the decisions he made. You know he brought about his own condition and he remains detached from all that has happened. You kind of wonder how a person could have such innovative ideas, yet, be such a strange fellow.


It’s easy to sit here and think it’s crazy people would sign up to have every aspect of their lives documented on cameras for all to see. What Harris predicted & eventually saw is that people become either oblivious to the cameras or they soak in every opportunity to be filmed. Within the sleeping quarters, participants could change the channel and watch what other people were doing. I thought that was really weird, but then I thought of Facebook and Twitter. We do the same thing, just without video most of the time…for now.

Where are we going with networking? Are we headed toward a Truman Show existence, just that it will be of our own choosing? I’m not sure I’d want to see people in the act of living their lives, but five years ago I’d never have thought I’d share mundane thoughts in a medium like Twitter.

As Harris learned, it’s sometimes hard to foresee where technology is going and what the world is ready to see & use. Five or so years ago he pitched an idea that sounds kind of like UStream to a MySpace executive. The executive rejected the idea, saying he wasn’t sure that was the direction the site wanted to pursue.

Will we become a more voyeuristic society? Are we already there, sans cameras?

Overall, this was a very intriguing film. At some point during the Quiet experiment you see the participants start to break down. At first they enjoyed the liberation (oddly enough) of being exhibitionists in front of complete strangers. Then they kind of devolved into various chaotic behavior. I highly recommend watching it.

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