Monday, October 19, 2009

"People know each other there"

I was struck by the final few paragraphs of this review by Roger Ebert of We Live In Public, a documentary about (previously unheard of by me) internet pioneer and visionary Josh Harris. Harris ("a myopic visionary, a man who saw the future more vividly than his own life") cashed in for $80 million in the 1990s for his, which apparently anticipated the world of YouTube and other streaming content, and then he crashed and burned, with a massive project in which he paid people to live their lives under constant surveillance. The review ends like this:
By then, Harris had spent most of his $80 million and become disillusioned with living in public. He bought an upstate New York apple farm, and Timoner followed him there to find him having returned to the earth. His friends lost touch. He became forgotten as quickly as he became famous. I wonder, and the film doesn't tell us, what he thinks of YouTube. At the end of the film, he's living in Africa.

He did, however, fly to Sundance 2009, where "We Live in Public" won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. Sundance has become a place where the visitors can barely tear their eyes from texting, surfing, e-mailing or tweeting to actually watch at a movie. What did he make of this? Harris saw it coming in the days when a Tandy 100 transmitted text much more slowly than I could read.

This is a remarkable film about a strange and prophetic man. What does it tell us? Did living a virtual life destroy him? When Harris had a nervous breakdown after the "We Live in Public" Web experiment collapsed, was the experiment responsible?

Remember Jenny Ringley? She was the pioneer of Webcams. From April 1996 until 2003, she lived her life online, getting, it was said, tens of millions of hits a week. She never discussed why she shut down Jennycam. Today, she says she doesn't even have a MySpace page. And Josh Harris says Sidamo, Ethiopia, is the best place on Earth to live: "People know each other here."


Unknown said...

I suppose it's my job to point out how tired the old "escape to Africa where life is real" cliche really is. Or it would be if I didn't feel the same kind of nostalgia for living in TZ, where life and people are real. ;)

Richard said...

Heh, yeah. Thanks for commenting, Aaron. I'm wary myself of buying into "back to Africa" or otherwise uncritical back to nature type moves, yet one does yearn for something missing.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I suppose it's my job to point out that, while I was never in the town of Sidamo, Ethiopia is a very, very cool place in a lot of ways.