Wednesday, 16 June 2010

We live in public

I really would love to begin this post with a Brave New World quote or some borrowed Orwellian imagery. But the concept of comparing technologically-ruled 21st century life to the police state described in dystopian literature has by now been cliched into oblivion.

However, last night's Channel 4 broadcast of We Live In Public, Ondi Timoner's Sundance-winning documentary about the internet pioneer Josh Harris, left me tweeting slightly more reticently than before.

The image painted of Harris is that of a man emerged in the world of technology. He talks about spending so long in front of the television as a child that he was brought up more by Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island, than by his own parents.

As an adult, Harris developed an alter-ego to mask his social difficulties. This resulted in him attending business meetings and public appearances dressed and acting as a child-like clown named Luvvy.

In 1999, after various online ventures had made him a fortune in the boom, he embarked on a new project, this time tainted by his sadistic tendencies. More than 100 volunteers were locked into a bunker wearing matching uniforms, while they were filmed eating, sleeping, showering, having sex and using the toilet, as well as being subjected to emotionally tortuous interrogations.

These were deeply disturbing scenes to watch. The volunteers had been stripped of all dignity and individuality, monitored and experimented with like lab rats by a millionaire visionary with a God complex.

When this project came to an end (in January 2001 the NYPD raided the terrarium), Harris decided it was time to put himself under the same scrutiny and he and his girlfriend moved into an apartment rigged with motion-sensitive cameras and all-hearing microphones. Their life would be broadcast online and viewers would be able to chat to each other, as well as to the couple.

Watching their relationship deteriorate further and further before reaching intolerable levels of dysfunction is a harrowing experience. You feel the urge to shout at them to get out of the game and live real life, where they might have a chance at fixing what seemed like a loving relationship at the beginning. But they don't, as ultimately the experiment was more important and Tania walks out.

I am aware that many celebrity couples have since decided to document their lives for the benefit or E4 and MTV viewers. But I always assumed that this was for the purpose of furthering their careers, or at the very least for the cash. Then again, what about those millions of people whose Facebook relationship status goes from 'in a relationship' to 'single' to 'it's complicated' every few weeks? What are they getting out of making their relationship a public affair?

What about tweeting that you've just had a fight with your girlfriend or blogging about your husband's affair? I wonder how many relationships around the world are being put under unnecessary pressure by our obsession with making our lives a free-for-all.

These matters have, of course, been pondered upon by much more authoritative voices than my own, and I doubt I would have anything new to add to the debate. I would encourage a bit of self-reflection, though. Watching the documentary made me realise how disturbing I find situations which I purposely put myself in on a daily basis.

I'm not suggesting that anyone quits their social networks, blogs, photo albums, youtube videos, podcasts or chatrooms. But perhaps we would al benefit from distancing our online actions to those of real life. Otherwise we may make the step from living in public to barely living at all.

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