The doc We Live in Public, which never really had a shot at Oscar this past year, is currently on my cable company’s On-Demand and I don’t mind saying that it freaked me out more than just a little, and for a variety of reasons. I thought the film was going to be about how public and scary our lives are now, what with Facebook and Twitter and video chat or chat roulette (what is worse than chat roulette, though?). But it isn’t really so much about our lives now — except as an artist’s prophecy. In a way, we do live in public. Where the prophecy goes slightly wrong is that we don’t really live our actual selves online: we are inclined to live as avatars, or our fake selves. I think. I never believe that the blogs I’m reading are the real lives of those people. They show a segment of their ideal selves – even when their ideal selves are failures at life — that is still entertaining. And of course it doesn’t tell the whole picture. How could it.
We are more than our language, which is really what the internet about. Our languge. Our lives are so much bigger than what we write.
Anyway, the film is really bizarre. The artist who created the We Live in Public experiments, first with a bunch of lab rat volunteers, and later with himself and his girlfriend, the notorious Tanya, was Josh Harris. Ondi Timoner is the film’s director. The film sifts through all of the footage of both experiments.
The Quiet: We Live in Public was the first one. It didn’t seem to prove anything beyond what we already know: if given the chance, human beings exhibit the best and the worst of themselves. Probably holed up together like that, with lots of drugs, food, sex – no law and order, no sunlight — they might have gone crazy.
Another few months and they would have killed someone or broken a law, I feel sure. Either way – interesting. But not nearly as interesting as Harris’ next experiment – where he lived in public with his girlfriend. They were watched by an audience. But at some point it becomes like a Greek chorus type of situation, where the commenters begin interacting with the couple, influencing them, taking sides. And the couple responds to them, anticipates what they might say, reacts to them. So they aren’t really living in public so much as they are living under the judgment of a group of people willing to sit and judge. Kind of interesting, non?
As someone who disappeared into the net around 1994 or 1995, I can tell you that much of it WAS this idea of living in public. Not necessarily public, as in, anyone can peer in. But public, as in, living your life in front of other people. But even then it was about censoring. It is always about that. It has to be. It is our ability to censor that keeps things almost civil. Now that there are so many commenters out there you see how nasty human beings are behind an anonymous name. That is weird. This year I’ve gotten two death threats already for something I wrote and thought. That has never happened before. So, I’ll toss this out there for you to ponder – “this” can exist in a relatively sane way until we lose our ability to filter what reality really is. When we can filter, we are still okay.
I won’t ruin it for you. You must watch the movie. But I will say Harris was at least thinking about what the future was going to hold. He doesn’t do the net stuff anymore. In some ways, it has become too much a part of our DNA (final outcome, still to be determined). But what he did was interesting. Even though I was online at the time I had no idea this was going on. I kind of wish I could have poked my head into that world for just a second. I must say, I’ve never been into the whole video thing, though. I like the writing stuff. Who wants to be on camera? Not me.
I hope that Harris has decided that life isn’t so bad overall and that art is still worth creating. Even if it isn’t going to change the world.