Game for all seasons: the rise and fall of Josh Harris

A former dotcom millionaire who sees himself as a wired Warhol is the focus of an award-winning documentary on the all-pervading web.

The rise and fall of Josh Harris is a weird, wonderful and scary fable for our technology-addicted age. A pioneering American internet mogul who scored massive success during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, Harris was once said to be worth $80 million. But instead of collecting all the usual rich man's toys, he used his fortune to rebrand himself as a conceptual artist with a series of outlandish projects, some of them prophetic, others bordering on the insane.

Predating the rise of Big Brother, Harris built a bunker-style community beneath the streets of Manhattan in 1999, where 150 volunteer human lab rats lived their lives on camera 24 hours a day. Soon afterwards, Harris wired up his own apartment and broadcast online the messy ups and downs of his private life. Meanwhile, he lost almost $20m (Dh74m) in the dotcom crash, retreating to an apple farm in upstate New York in 2001. After blowing the last of his cash launching another doomed web television venture, he sank into a downward spiral of debt and depression.

Ten years in the making, Ondi Timoner's latest documentary We Live in Public holds Harris up as a cautionary tale about the perils of our increasingly virtual society. The film, which is released on DVD next month, won the 37-year-old director the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Festival. She returned to Sundance this month to serve on the jury herself. For Timoner, We Live in Public provides a worrying insight into a world shaped by Facebook, Twitter, confessional blogs and reality television. "It's the artificial society, the artificial family," she explains. "It's about the disconnection we are all experiencing now where we connect to 50 times more people each day, but we're connecting with 50 per cent less depth."

Timoner first met Harris in the late 1990s in New York, where he was running the online media network "I was attracted to Josh because he was spending his money, but he wasn't buying houses and cars, he was building bunkers," she recalls. "There are so many people who sit around and do nothing with their lives, but Josh really tries to make things happen. I didn't know if he was a buffoon or a visionary, but he's always trying to formulate what's next."

Harris is certainly a genius at something, if only self-promotion. "If you think of me as a conceptual artist, I make more sense," the 50-year-old Harris says. "I'm probably the world's best conceptual artist, I can say that with a pretty high degree of confidence. Some guys went to art school, but my art school was learning how the machine works." Although Timoner's film is far from a flattering portrait, Harris has embraced and endorsed it. He prefers to see We Live in Public as a validation of his self-image as the Warhol of the web, rather than a warning about invasive surveillance culture in the manner of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

"Andy Warhol was wrong," Harris tells me, "because people now want 15 minutes of fame every day. And Orwell was wrong because his key inference was that the government was putting those cameras in place. That is not actually the case. The audience demands the cameras." The film has a long and fraught history. Harris first hired Timoner in 1999 to document his millennial Manhattan bunker project, called Quiet: We Live in Public. As the documentary shows, the 150 volunteers soon began to act like some unhinged underground cult as Harris played sinister ringmaster from the sidelines. Perhaps fortunately, a raid by the New York Police Department shut down the experiment before it could get too ugly.

Meanwhile, Harris was already hatching his next experiment in surveillance art. He began dating one of his employees, Tanya Corrin. Rigging up their luxury apartment with cameras, they broadcast their entire relationship online, from giddy first love to growing tension and inevitable separation. In his version of the story, Harris now claims Corrin was "cast" to play the role of his partner, as in The Truman Show, but she mistook it for real life.

"She was a fake girlfriend," Harris insists. "I can send you video evidence to that effect. Don't confuse the fact that we were emotionally entangled with the fact that I cast her. We never said 'I love you' for five years; that to me is pretty good litmus. She was fabulous in the role, but as a girlfriend she was a nightmare, because she found herself falling in love with me." Long estranged from Harris, Corrin appears briefly in We Live in Public, contradicting his version of events. Timoner takes her side. "Josh is human, but he prefers to think he's not," the director says. "He is most comfortable when he feels like he's pulling the strings. He'd rather you see him through his perspective, which is that his whole life is a game, life is a show. He might say Tanya was a fake girlfriend, but he really did feel emotional for her, and it freaked him out that anybody could have the ability to hurt him in that way."

Even last year, when Timoner and Harris were promoting We Live in Public together at film festivals, they would publicly contradict each other. "At screenings, people ask if she was fake girlfriend," Timoner explains. "Josh says yes, I say no. But that's really hard for him to process. That was his one intimate relationship and he beached it on technology. That's part of the cautionary tale. Don't put your relationship in a blog."

Even so, Harris bristles at the implication that his attitude towards women is dysfunctional. "Yes, I had a fake girlfriend for five years," he says. "Yes, that is technically dysfunctional, let's face facts. Actually, at this point in my life it just hasn't cropped up. It hasn't made sense to fall in love with a woman. But at some point I'm going to find the love of my life and, I assure you, I will do it well."

We Live in Public opens with footage of Harris saying a cool, cruel goodbye to his estranged mother via video message. Timoner believes this helps prove her thesis that Harris has been psychologically damaged by television and technology, and can no longer forge normal emotional bonds. But Harris claims he cut ties with his family "for their own safety" following a "little incident at the World Trade Centre which has caused me significant long-term problems with my government".

This cryptic explanation sounds like some kind of September 11 conspiracy theory. In fact, it refers to a bizarre prank 18 months earlier, when Harris hired a helicopter to buzz an Austrian performance art group who were attempting to build a temporary balcony on the upper floors of the Twin Towers. This curious event is not in the film, Timoner explains, because no footage of it exists. For Timoner, We Live in Public is just the latest in a series of quirky, self-produced documentaries about charismatic and dangerously deluded characters. In the past she has embedded herself with convicted killers and cult leaders, sometimes following them for years on end.

Her previous Sundance winner was the 2004 smash Dig!, a kind of indie-rock Amadeus chronicling the bitter rivalry between two comically egotistical American guitar bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Anton Newcombe, the psychologically fragile singer with the latter, has not spoken to the director since. "There are incredible similarities between Anton and Josh," Timoner says. "Both are missing something from childhood."

Even so, she remains on friendly terms with Harris. "Josh is never going to be my ride home from the party, but he's not unpleasant to be with," Timoner laughs. "I don't think the idea of friendship that you and I have is the same as his idea. Everything he does is a competition. Everything is a game." But We Live in Public goes beyond painting Harris as a master manipulator. At various points in the film, he appears mentally unbalanced. "I had a nervous breakdown," Harris admits. "It was a controlled descent, I knew what I was doing, but it was still a nervous breakdown. It only took me 10 years to recuperate."

To complete her documentary, Timoner tracked down Harris in Ethiopia, where he was coaching schoolchildren in sport. She flew him back to the US for her Sundance triumph last year, but he never used his return ticket. Keen to cash in on the film's critical success, Harris is now in Los Angeles, shopping around for interest in Wired City, a large-scale TV version of his Manhattan bunker experiment. With typical ebullience, he talks as if the project were already a smash hit.

"It's sort of the Hollywood version of Orwell's Big Brother," he says. "I'm close to getting a production deal, on the cusp. It's a big deal, all in all at least $150m. Cash-wise, I've got nothing, but I have what Hollywood needs. I know how to produce internet television networks effectively, and Hollywood desperately needs that." But after such a roller-coaster career, Timoner is not so sure Harris can rebuild his reputation as an internet media mogul. "In a way this movie helps him, he considers it his calling card," she says. "But at the same time, it's quite clear from the film that he blew through $42m of investment money without batting an eyelash."

However fascinating and contradictory a character Harris may be, Timoner insists he is not the real subject of We Live in Public. This is a film about everyone with a Facebook page, a Twitter account or an internet addiction of any kind. "I wasn't motivated to complete this film before Facebook," Timoner says. "I wasn't dying to tell the story of an internet pioneer, but it became about all of us. That's why I think it's an important film for right now, because we are so motivated to put our lives online. There are wonderful things on the internet, but it has a dark side. I think we're at a tipping point where the virtual world is taking over."

We Live in Public is released on DVD on March 2.

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