Kerishma.

Blogging for HONS 201: Feminism, New Media, and Health at Hunter College.

Putting the “Pan” in “Panopticon:” Josh Harris and the Rise of Internet Surveillance

Still from “We Live in Public,” via We Live In Public, Fair Use

In the documentary We Live in Publicfilmmaker Ondi Timoner chronicled the meteoric rise of the dot com industry and Internet surveillance through Josh Harris, “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” Harris rose to fame as the founder of the first Internet television network, Pseudo.com, during the dot com boom of the 1990’s. He gained notoriety as the orchestrater of the social experiment titled “Quiet,” which, in my mind, can only be described as bizarre, disturbing, and borderline deranged.

At the end of the millennium  Harris staged “Quiet” in an underground bunker he designed himself. He rigged with cameras and television sets surveying every nook and cranny of the space, from the dining areas to the showers. He outfitted the bunker with a fully-equipped shooting range and capsule sleeping spaces. He provided free food, shelter, and utilities, guaranteed for the people who wanted them. All they had to do was forfeit every right to privacy that they had. And forfeit them they did; people clamored for a chance to take part in the project, which seemed to them exciting and daring, and 100 people happily signed away their personal privacy to Harris.

The surveillance of them was total. Anything and everything that was done in the bunker was broadcast on the television screens; from sex to showers, nothing was exempt. The participants were subjected to mandatory “interview” sessions with a CIA “interrogation artist,” in which they were questioned about their personal histories. In the painfully white bright lights of the interrogation room depression, sexual histories, drugs, suicide – any dark memories the participants may have harbored – were brought anew to the surface. Though the experiment seemingly started out as one big party, the constant surveillance and interrogation sessions took their toll, breaking down participants mentally and emotionally.

“Quiet” raises a lot of questions about surveillance and the flow of information in the Digital Age, but one that stood out to me most was the issue of informed consent. Almost everyone had simply clicked the “I Agree” box when purchasing something or signing up for something on the Internet when given the prompt “Confirm read the Terms of Agreement” (hello, iTunes and Facebook). Looking at the jubilation and excited anticipation of the participants of “Quiet,” I wondered if they knew just what they were getting into when they signed their consent forms. Did Harris let them know about the invasive interrogation sessions? Did he warn them about the complete lack of privacy they would have? If he didn’t, it brings to light misinformation and the abuse of rights. If it did, it brings to light the troubling extent to which people will forfeit their own rights for fame and recognition.

After the end of “Quiet,” Harris installed cameras in his own apartment, putting his and his girlfriend’s life on display to anyone who wanted to watch. The surveillance eventually took its toll on their relationship, leading to nastier fights and a disturbing occurrence of what could have escalated into sexual abuse. Harris’s partner, Tanya, admitted that their actions belonged more and more to the viewers of their lives and less to themselves; their fights, their insults, and their decisions were a “performance,” complete with the egging on of spectators.

What “Quiet” and Harris’s personal project at home didn’t allow for the creation of identity; that is, the constant surveillance and highly visual nature of the projects did not allow the subjects to pick and choose what they wanted to be revealed about them and what they wanted to hide. For many feminists around the world, the Internet can be a safe space in which they can escape the embodiment that limits them in the physical world. If the Internet moves in the direction of Harris’s projects, escaping embodiment becomes impossible due to the total openness of information.

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2012 by in Blog Assignments and tagged , , , .

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