We Live in Public: Crave reviews the dotcom documentary

Crave reviews We Live in Public, a new documentary on dotcom self-destruction, exhibitionism and the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read

If you think Twitter exposes you to the world, how about broadcasting video of your every moment to the Internet's gaze? That was the vision of Josh Harris, self-destructed dotcom millionaire and "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of". He's the subject of We Live in Public, Ondi Timoner's documentary that won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Award for its discussion of Harris' fifteen gigabytes of fame.

Timoner, director of rockumentary DiG!, was there when Harris made -- and lost -- a fortune in the first dotcom bubble. He was so far ahead of the curve with video Web site Pseudo.com that he lost sight of the curve and then fell off the curve completely, blowing his fortune on Quiet: We Live in Public. Quiet was a demented performance art take on the concept of Big Brother that self-destructed under the weight of the end of the century.

Quiet: Hipsters, drugs, guns -- and cameras

Harris made millions in the care-free 1990s. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was over, the pervasive paranoia of imminent nuclear destruction had lifted. Technology added fuel to the fire of liberation, narcissism and decadence. Harris used his fortune to set up Quiet: We Live in Public in December 1999.

Quiet was nominally an all-expenses-paid 'capsule hotel', but it was in fact a cross between the pervasive surveillance of the Big Brother house and the crazed artistic energy of Warhol's Factory. Every inch of the bunker had a camera trained on it, from the single, public shower to the racks of bunk beds. And the gun range. Yes, the the gun range. What could possibly go wrong?

We Live in Public

In the UK, we had Ecstasy and Britpop and girls who do boys like they're girls who do boys. In New York, Giuliani was taking the credit for cleaning up the streets. In cyberspace, technology was opening the doors to a bright new century -- but a new spectre, Y2K, and accompanying technofear loomed.

According to WLiP, Quiet was a microcosm of fin de siècle decadence going nuts, building towards participant breakdown and authority smackdown -- with grim synchronicity, the millennium apocalypse never happened, but the world ended for Quiet, as cops busted in on 1 January 2000. Then the dotcom bubble burst, Wall Street crashed, and finally the Twin Towers fell. It was 9 September 2001 and the bright new future was tainted with fear and paranoia, homeland security and globalised turmoil.

We self-destruct in public

All this is paralleled in Harris' own life. After Quiet imploded, he set up a two-person version, filling his New York loft with webcams and streaming himself and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin to the fledgling Internet, 24 hours a day. The cameras rolled even as his fortune disappeared and his girlfriend left him, until eventually his viewers deserted him too. Then he disappears, and proves himself capable of reinventing himself and surprising everybody.

Who lived in public?

Harris' time in the spotlight is discussed by his friends, family and colleagues, including Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis and assorted ex-Quiet denizens.

Quiet attracted performance artists, exhibitionists, ravers, politicians, sane people and not-so-sane people, dancing, fighting and having sex on camera. It's all fun and games at first, but then devolves into excess and psychological recrimination with nowhere to hide. It didn't help that a staff psychologist attempted to draw out participants' traumas in interrogation rooms complete with faceless, uniformed guards. Just watching the irritating 'look at me' theatrics and tantrums is exhausting, like being stuck at a music festival for months on end.

WLiP lets you draw your own conclusion about how dreadful many of the people in Quiet were. You can't help wondering, as you watch the chaos unfold, whether people went too far because of the constant surveillance, or whether the idea of constant surveillance attracted people with a propensity for going too far. It's a question that's troubled telly viewers in the age of reality television: it surely can't be a coincidence that although WLiP doesn't mention the show, Big Brother premiered in the Netherlands in September 1999, narrowly predating Quiet.

Who is Josh Harris?

Harris is an odd figure among all of this hedonism, performance and general trying-too-hard: he's a gauche, average-looking guy whose own attempts at performance art -- a clown-painted persona called 'Luvvy' -- embarrassed his friends, family and colleagues. He bankrolled the craziness at Quiet and at big-name New York parties, but was never part of it.

He's quite endearing onscreen when he isn't claiming his actions as artistic statements, a big lug with an obsession for Gilligan's Island, which was perhaps the blueprint for his vision of an isolated, constantly watched future. He clearly marches to a different drum though: the film opens with the video message he sent his dying mother by way of a goodbye. Saddening as it is, he clearly thinks sees this as an acceptable way to communicate on a human level.

Crave verdict

We Live in Public is a shocking and enthralling look at the beginnings of the age we live in. It's a history lesson for the nerds and a fascinating look at human nature for everyone.

Perhaps we are all Josh Harris' children... compare that video message for his mother to Penelope Trunk's confessional tweet. He was certainly right about the potential of streaming video -- just look at YouTube. But We Live in Public considers the personal cost of exhibitionism. A decade beyond the shock value of always-on exhibitionism and end-of-an-era craziness, we balk at the kind of surrender of personal space -- and of self -- seen in Quiet. Facebook and Twitter may be criticised for encouraging users to overshare, but they still allow the user to mediate themselves. Perhaps Josh Harris and friends lived in public so we can live where we like.

We Live in Public is showing at most Picture House cinemas tonight, Tuesday 17 November 2009. Screenings continue at selected cinemas into the New Year. For more on the dotcom bubble, here's our greatest defunct Web sites and dotcom disasters.