Somewhere in 1983 Revelle College alumnus Joshua Harris’ collection of life possessions exists a videotape of himself taking a shit.
Lucky for whoever’s currently bunking in Harris’ second-floor Discovery Hall dorm room, the camera that recorded the epic event wasn’t installed in his college digs. The footage was taken much later, in a typical moment of Harris’ life work: expensive surveillance projects that push privacy norms to the limit.
That’s not to say Harris didn’t get some practice in shock-value entertainment during his five years at UCSD. In Spring Quarter 1981, he was disqualified from the A.S. presidential election for spending 93 cents over his $50 campaign budget. Additionally perturbed by then-Chancellor Richard Atkinson’s decision to sell the land between UCSD and Black’s Beach, Harris decided he’d exact revenge by founding fraternity Phi Delta Theta and a little publication known as the Koala.
“I got ripped off,” Harris said. “I was so pissed off, and I knew that Atkinson did not want fraternities on our campus. So I said ‘well, because he doesn’t want that, I’ll start one.’ And then, I made the first Koala. I got the money for it, and I got them the office space.”
Harris was a natural starter-upper. A year after graduating in 1983, he moved to New York and got a job at a market-research company. Soon after, he founded Jupiter Communications — a company that collected data on how people would use media to connect in the future.
Eventually, Harris grew tired of predicting the Internet’s future through data reports. In 1994, he tried his hand at a video-chat Web site — a makeshift creation he dubbed Pseudo.com.
According to 1984 UCSD alumnus Marc Geiger — Harris’ college buddy and business associate — Harris was a visionary in the dot-com industry, though a little ahead of his time.
“You’d get two frames, then buffering,” Geiger said. “Audio, then buffering — and that was the world. Just like a really bad experience you have today when you’re like ‘Shit, I have to reload the page.’ That was the best experience.”
Despite technological limits, Pseudo bumped Harris into a crowd of young, elite millionaires who ran the dot-com scene in an area of downtown Manhattan dubbed Silicon Alley.
“In New York or Silicon Valley or Israel or Boston or Seattle, it was like bands: You had real scenes,” Geiger said. “Like the grunge scene in Seattle. Except in Palo Alto, it was Yahoo and Excite, eBay. Microsoft was up in Seattle. New York had a whole different set of stuff.”
As money poured in, Harris began throwing extravagant, future-themed parties to collect young, creative recruits who would help him build Pseudo. Media orgs flocked to profile the dot-com bubble’s twisted leader, and Harris didn’t hold back. He was known for showing up in creepy clown attire to magazine shoots and corporate parties acting like Luvvy, his emotional alter-ego.
Harris’ bold personality didn’t mesh well with potential investors though, and as the antics continued, Pseudo began to slip from his grip. The two parted ways in 1999, and with piles of money to spend, Harris set his sights on a social experiment he named “Quiet: We Live in Public.”
He rented out an underground bunker in New York City, gutted it and filled it with a dining area, a kitchen, a church, a firing range and rows of “pods” (sleeping chambers modeled after those in concentration camps). Surveillance cameras were hooked up in every crevice. Each pod came with a monitor and a camera, so capsule residents could keep tabs on their neighbors. Harris also employed Stasi-like psychologists to interrogate participants and further invade their privacy. Those who volunteered to participate were forced to wear uniforms and live in the quarters for 30 days. In all, the project cost about $2 million.
The results were frightening. People had sex in the shower, crapped together, unloaded powerful firearms, stomped stark-naked — like a marching band — on the dinner table and listened to Harris’ cultish sermons at the altar of the “We Live in Public” pseudo-church. The occupants’ energy fluctuated from giddy to angry, impatient to psychotic — that is, until the project was shut down by the NYPD on New Year’s Day of Y2K.
Hungry for more, Harris asked his girlfriend, a show host on Pseudo.com, to live with him in a spacious New York loft. The catch? It was wired with loads of cameras — installed in the fridge, the litter box and the toilet, among more obvious places — and 72 hypersensitive microphones. Users watched and chatted with the couple online as if they were close friends.
The invasiveness of surveillance, coupled with the dot-com stock-market bust, ate away at Harris’ relationship. Once his girlfriend left him and he’d gone broke, he fled from the city and bought an apple farm.
Since then, he’s had a number of failed projects, and moved to Ethiopia a few years back in search of total isolation — so much isolation, in fact, that even his creditors can’t find him.
While Harris was soul-searching, Ondi Timoner — a participant in Harris’ capsule experiment — directed and produced a documentary of the dot-com millionaire’s life, fittingly titled “We Live in Public.” The film won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2009.
“I didn’t realize while filming the bunker that this was Josh’s physical prediction of how life online would be, “ Ondi Timoner said in the film.
Now, Harris is back in LA, crashing in his friend’s pool house while pitching his latest commentary on technology’s pervasiveness: “The Wired City.” It’s a cross between World of Warcraft and “The Truman Show,” and Harris hopes to unleash it upon the public as soon as he can find funds.
Though he’s kept his distance from his alma mater during the media journey, Harris says his time at UCSD helped him conceive of his social experiments.
“What I figured out when I was at UCSD, I really had a chance to think through everything that I’m manifesting right now,” Harris said. “I dreamed the dream. The fundamental thinking was done there.”
Readers can contact Alyssa Bereznak at [email protected]