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Lives Wired

We Live in Public (2009)

Donna Ferrato/Interloper Films

Well-known investment advice says never to put your money with the early adopters. The first company to break into a new sector will make mistakes that the second or third company to do will avoid, so that's where your money should go. In the same way, the initial idea for new format or style of doing something usually doesn't go mainstream without being watered down or changed in some way (think reality TV shows or anything shown on a fashion catwalk). But without the early adopters, where would we be?

Josh Harris was exactly this sort of early adopter. He was one of the original dot-com kids who made their money on the Internet's infancy in the long-ago days of the mid-1990s, who could see how technology and the ability to interact personally with technology was going to change us and the world in which we live. He made millions at a very young age, and started throwing colossal parties in New York at which no expense was spared. Director Ondi Timoner met Mr. Harris at one of these parties, where she was assigned the role of documenting the whole scene. And it was out of these parties that the ideas for his two truly revolutionary projects grew.

First was "Quiet," a precursor to "Big Brother" in which a few hundred or so people were sequestered in a bunker beneath New York for the month leading up to the millennium. There were cameras everywhere, and computers enabling people to connect virtually as well as physically within the space. In the most open nod then or since to the type of fascism this level of control requires, there was an interrogation room where the participants were placed under tremendous additional psychological pressure to see if they would break. There was even a shooting range. Mr. Harris wanted to see what would happen, and didn't much care what did. And every second of all this was recorded. Its disintegration was shocking at the time, but we're all more jaded now. The idea of voluntarily opening oneself up to surveillance is — as Ms. Timoner takes pains to remind us in her voice-over — passé to anyone with a page on a social networking site. But in contrast with "Quiet," those Web sites work hard to come across as benign presences. And after Abu Ghraib, it's hard to feel too sorry for people who signed up for this, even if they didn't know what they were letting themselves in for.

But what does that say about us and our current inability to respect other people's feelings as we properly should? The movie opens with a video that Mr. Harris sent to his mother on her deathbed. Refusing to visit her in person, he sent a tape in which he said he didn't much care whether she lived on not. This divorcement from all human feeling — the sensibility that there are certain things that one just does not do — seems to be the impetus behind all of his choices. This meant that the next step, "We Live in Public," was entirely logical.

Mr. Harris rigged his whole apartment with cameras — including one in the toilet bowl — so every moment that he and his girlfriend (Tanya Corrin, who seems then and now amazingly grounded and normal) spent in the house was streamed live on the Internet. Again, this is an idea we’re all jaded to now, but in 2001 it was revolutionary. The way Ms. Timoner, with Joshua Altman and David Timoner, edits together the mountains of footage, combined with her analysis of what was going on, paints a clear picture of their relationship and why things worked out the way they did.

The ultimate early adopter, Mr. Harris was right about almost everything in how we currently use technology and the Internet to interact. Therefore, when we learn what he is currently up to, it's both incredibly surprising and not surprising at all. They say it takes a sliver of ice in the heart to be a writer; therefore it must take even more ice to exploit other people's actual lives for entertainment purposes. And to be the person who realized that people were happy to exploit themselves under the aegis of machines — well. Mr. Harris doesn't want to be considered a human being. Ms. Timoner's well-crafted and intelligent film is a cautionary tale about the unthinking way we are living in public now. To use the cliché and call it thought-provoking is an understatement.


Opens on Nov. 13 in Britain.

Written and directed by Ondi Timoner; narrated by Ms. Timoner; directors of photography, Ms. Timoner and Vasco Nunes; edited by Josh Altman and Ms. Timoner; music by Ben Decter and Marco d’Ambrosio; produced by Ms. Timoner and Keirda Bahruth; released by Dogwoof Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is rated 15.


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