A number of noteworthy public figures, such as Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, believe that digital technology will, one day, surpass us as the dominant form of intelligence on this planet. Among them is Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who believes that this technological takeover, known as the “Singularity,” could happen (or at least, begin to happen) as early as 2022. Cloud&Co. spoke with Harris recently, who told us how the future of media will create the environment for this event and what we can do about it.
Like a lot of people, we had no idea who Josh Harris even was. Then, the opportunity to interview him for this publication presented itself; and the first impression Harris gave at that time was rather mixed. Is he a technological genius? Is he a performance artist or outright exhibitionist? Is he just another eccentric conspiracy theorist?
A bit of background research on Harris revealed that he is not to be so readily dismissed. Harris has been involved in the online world since as early as the mid-1980s. He started and became president of Jupiter Communications, a company which did online surveys and statistics; and when Jupiter went public on NASDAQ in 1999, he became a multi-millionaire on the percentage of the company which he still owned. Meanwhile, Harris had actually left Jupiter in 1994, and soon founded Pseudo Programs, considered to be the first Internet television network—this was over a decade before the start of YouTube.
A documentary on Harris, entitled, “We Live in Public,” showed his more creative (i.e. more avant-garde) side, with him hosting wild parties in order to meet other creative people, who would ultimately provide online content for his projects. His own online persona, “Luvvy” the clown, was also shown in the documentary; and Harris’ 1999 “detachment” from Pseudo was largely attributed to his portrayal of that character.
Shortly thereafter, Harris began an “experiment” called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” wherein a small community of volunteer artists lived in seclusion in a specially outfitted warehouse for a month. Josh told the guests “everything is free, except your image. I own that.” The dormitory, dining hall, shooting range, interrogation room and public shower were all rigged with cameras that streamed every moment live online. Even the participants were given access to the stream through TVs hooked up in their sleeping pods. Anyone could watch the most intimate moments from romance, to hygiene, to secret confessions.
On the surface, such an undertaking might well be seen as mere performance art or some sort of publicity stunt; but in reality, this was nothing less than a sociological study on par with the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner and others, who wanted to understand human nature in controlled (and observed) environments. Harris may not have conducted this experiment under any scientific parameters or conditions; but he managed to pull it off, just the same. Yet in the end, what started as a free-loving social performance and voyeuristic dream devolved into nasty clashes between guests and Harris getting shut down by the NYPD on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Harris then did a similar experiment some months later, involving only himself and a new girlfriend he’d courted on a fishing trip. With a more normal setting of a NYC loft apartment, they embarked on another adventure, also entitled “We Live in Public,” where they streamed their entire lives to a captive audience, 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, the relationship suffered a similar result, being unable to survive the stresses of spending six-months under constant observation. He and his girlfriend each became more connected to their respective online audiences as they became disconnected from each other.
According to Harris, Andy Warhol was wrong in saying that people only want fifteen minutes of fame in a lifetime. He said, “People want fifteen minutes of fame every day.” Perhaps Harris’s experiments went on for as long as they did because this theory is correct. After all, the way people use social media today would certainly support such a theory, if nothing else.
In Harris's view, our lives will become only more like the extreme examples in his experiments. Thousands of hours of reality TV already emulate nearly all of the territory he covered in 1999-2000. Harris said that even the things we do in the bathroom, like using the shower, the shaving mirror, toothpaste and the toilet itself, as well as what we do in the bedroom, the kitchen and so forth, will become “gratifying moments to share with other people… There will be a market for it.”
He goes on to explain that the advent of the “home studio” would provide a platform for this type of market. “The next thing is the home studio. At certain times on any given day, you’re going to be reporting as a CNN reporter would, on your particular area of interest. Or the average person would be able to broadcast his/her day-to-day activities as a ‘paying gig’, and everybody will do that.”
However, Harris also said that participants (particularly those in the upcoming generation, which he refers to as “Cybers”) would lose their sense of individual identity as a result of having to juggle so many different public identities (i.e. their “toilet identity,” their “CNN identity” or their identity on any number of other home-studio networks). He calls this loss of identity a “psychic fracture,” saying that, “That’s when we enter the hive,” and that 2024 is when people will start having these fractures “en masse.”
Once the hive is realized it’ll be like “this other thing that’s above us,” interested in “harvesting the best creative signal that humans can create collectively.” Indeed, we can see this happening now, as the “curation” of what’s already going on around us (in the everyday world) continues to replace the “creation” of anything purely artistic.
Continued in Part 2