on interconnected futures / internet
interview by XERXES COOK
portrait by SKYLAR WILLIAMS
Some people consider him a savant of our interconnected futures, one of the most important people in the history of the Internet. Others see him as the “kook” who claimed to have cast a “fake girlfriend” in an experiment that saw both their lives broadcast online around the clock from a New York loft. He was born Josh Harris, and in the 1990s he founded Jupiter Research and Pseudo.com, a live-broadcasting website of two-way video, audio, and text that pre-dated YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Yet you probably would only have heard of him if you had lived in New York in the late 1990s — when his Y2K party was described by MoMA as the city’s best since Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball (naturally, it was live-streamed for the world to see) — or have seen the 2008 documentary We Live In Public. That film revisits his anarchic parties, during which dozens of artists, eccentrics, and attention-seekers slept in capsule pods and had their every action broadcast online as an experiment. Or if, in the past year, you happened to notice an incredibly complicated pitch floating around crowd-funding sites for something called The Net Band Command.
At his peak, Harris was worth $80 million; he spent it all in just a few years by creating content for his livestreams — broadcasts that ranged from group DMT sessions and fancy-dress orgies, to scenes of hot girls firing AK 47s and Eminem free-styling for a hip-hop broadcast. Harris would later describe these happenings as an “art project” that exploited — and highlighted — the pyramid structure of the venture capitalist investment that characterized Web 1.0’s boom and bust. Called QUIET, these live-streams took place in a cavernous Broadway loft that attracted queues of thousands. Josh was dubbed the “Warhol of the Web,” though Mayor Giuliani was less impressed and closed the space on the night of the Millennium.
Lacking a loft filled with a cast of exhibitionists, Harris turned the cameras on himself, broadcasting his and former girlfriend Tanya Corrin’s lives non-stop in the project We Live In Public — leading to what he describes as a “psychic fracture” from the stress of constant connectivity. Harris fled to an apple farm on the shores of Lake Awassa, Ethiopia, returning nearly a decade later with the intention of launching a revamped version of his experiments for a 4G generation. Titled the Net Band Command, Harris’ vision can be described as a hierarchically ordered version of the website Chatroulette, in which anyone with a computer and a camera can become a live television channel in a globally connected network. The endeavor would offer as many opportunities for members of the general public to become celebrities as it would for large corporations to monetize our minds — an investment vehicle Harris likens to the sale of mortgage derivatives.
I first met Josh in January 2011. I had tracked him down to the art dealer Gavin Brown’s summerhouse in upstate New York, where he was at work on a novel. I invited him to Manhattan to film a discussion between himself and the author Daniel Pinchbeck for POST, the digital magazine I edit. A week after we had finished filming, Harris applied to take over MIT’s prestigious Media Lab with the aim of studying the “Singularities Effect” — the weaving together of billions of human brains in a vast data net to form a new, higher form of intelligence. It is a concept he likens to “a highly advanced human chicken factory” à la the hive in The Matrix.
In Josh’s application, he stated, “There was a time in the 1990’s when I was one of those hot, rich Internet entrepreneurs everyone talked about and envied. Some people argue that my ability to see the future is downright preternatural, others would say that I am the ‘Warhol of the Web,’ but I would just argue that art-wise Andy is simply my (m)ad man who promotes the factories I build. My special gift is really the ability to use technology to create the future in the present. And of course I do it with great showmanship.” One year later, Purple tracked Harris down to Las Vegas to discuss his vision of our interconnected future, whether our minds are being harvested for the nutrition of another dimension, and how Louis Vuitton would behave in the hive.
XERXES COOK — Why are you in Las Vegas?
JOSH HARRIS — I got to Vegas sometime in early February 2012, and since then have been playing poker. Now I am professional, which is defined by the fact that I can make a living playing poker. Like anything with me, there’s been a gestation cycle of nine months. Now if you sit down at a table and see me coming, it is not good news. I am sure I am the best player of the main daily tournament in Vegas, which is the Aria. Now, I am working up to the bigger games, the weekend tournaments.
XERXES COOK — What kind of money are you bringing in?
JOSH HARRIS — I mean, little money. I am playing tournament poker pretty much exclusively because I don’t have enough of a bankroll. I’ve got like 20 grand in cash and all my bills paid.
XERXES COOK — Would you see this as a way of raising money for the Net Band Command?
JOSH HARRIS — Really, I’m buying time. Oddly enough, I’m represented by the William Morris agency. I have the head of the TV and music departments setting me up around Hollywood. One of my best friends, an old college buddy, Mark Geiger, walked me into the Sean Perry TV department and within four minutes the guy totally got the concept and was way ahead of every single VP I have talked to since forever. In the meantime, there is something about Vegas that is resonant with the Net Band Command. It’s part of my process.
XERXES COOK — You have some powerful people behind you. Back in 1999, while being interviewed on CBS about your We Live In Public project, you quite bullishly said the plan was to supplant network TV. Around this time last year, YouTube announced all of these deals with people, such as Madonna and Jay-Z, to have their own hip-hop channel or their own fashion channel. I know the Net Band Command is not a one-way communication channel like YouTube, but do you see them as being competition in any sense?
JOSH HARRIS — The thing is, when I think of Google making television, it is almost like a telephone company producing television. Hollywood is interested in Google only for their money, not because they have true respect for their ability to make entertainment. It is just not in their DNA. If I were Larry Page, I would buy a studio, but that is just me. What I am proposing is essentially people chatting back and forth on webcams. Then those conversations get recorded and their highlights are broadcast. If you have a million hours of people talking back and forth, statistically things will distill out of that, like news, weather, and sports. That distilled to an hour a day is the formula. The idea is that if you get a network like NBC, FOX or CBS picking up what I am talking about, then it is much more compelling programming than what you find on YouTube for all kinds of reasons. At that point, the only thing YouTube becomes good for is being a library.
XERXES COOK — Could the Net Band Command be considered a democratic project that gives a voice and a television channel to anyone with a computer and a camera, in that it offers them the opportunity to become a television star, as long as they are interesting enough? You once stated, “Warhol was wrong, people don’t want 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime; they want fifteen minutes of fame every day.” Having created We Live In Public, you are in a great position to answer this — why do people feel this need for fame?
JOSH HARRIS — I almost think it goes back to the days of Moses and the whole thing with the idol and idolatry. Well, the concept here is that people have been conditioned by the media to idolize the things they see in that same media. It creates a blatant demand from the audience to be the celebrities that they are seeing. The problem now is that even reality shows are extremely inefficient in enabling that. Essentially, what I am proposing is a much more efficient methodology for enabling people to find their celebrity level just like people do in real life — they can find their spot. The point is that in the Net Band Command world we are overt Big Brothers, meaning we are watching you and you are agreeing to allow us to watch you. The more you let us watch, the more gratifying it is for you.
XERXES COOK — Can you backtrack and say who is “we” and “you” in this analogy?
JOSH HARRIS — The producers and also the crew of the Net Band Command, which are really the audience. A hierarchical version of the audience is acting as an entertainment version of Big Brother. You are agreeing to allow us to watch you. So, I will give you a simple example. There will be a control room, and you are walking around with your mobile device listening in to us. Two blocks away somebody else is just walking around listening in to us. In our control room we see that both of you are walking and are two blocks away, and we will say that there is some reason that we want you to meet. We instruct you to meet up with each other in the middle and do something. Maybe it is a boy and a girl, and we think they would be a good match. Maybe they are miles away, and we tell them what to do and where to go. People are going to allow this kind of integration into their lives, because it is the new magic. There’s no magic in TV, there’s no magic in rock n’ roll or in theater. This is the new magic — this is how we enter the hive.
XERXES COOK — Would you consider that with the power of technology increasing exponentially, and the philosophy of human rebirth implied by the Mayan calendar, we are living at a time of renaissance? Not in the sense that the Renaissance looked back to the Hellenistic era in order to modernize European thought, but as a flourishing of new ways of thinking and looking at the world.
JOSH HARRIS — Well, actually, if you think about the Renaissance, most of their gigs were commissioned. The Net Band Command is sort of a commission-type deal, and I am hunting for someone to pick up my commission. The real work is when I get to do a pure artwork. When I get that done, I am going to go back to Africa or something. The idea is to “do” the commercial stuff, to do Hollywood, where I get to learn all of these expensive processes because there is an economy behind it. Once I get those processes down and develop a crew, then I can take over the Tate. The Tate Modern is interesting because it is a power company. So the idea for taking over the Tate is to create a power company in the human mind, to orchestrate and push everything together much the same as I did with QUIET.
XERXES COOK — Josh, this is really interesting because I look back at Web 1.0 and your time with Jupiter research and Pseudo, and you were worth a lot of money, but it didn’t seem to satisfy you. In theory the Net Band Command could become the largest corporation in the world, but you just said the ultimate goal would be to take it to the Tate. What motivates you?
JOSH HARRIS — My aim is to get into the Tate for a year and really manufacture Singularities. That is my motivation. It is not money; it is not about being recognized as an artist. If I can elegantly introduce the singularities to the world in a “fine art” context, then I am done. The money will come, but the problem with money is that if you have a lot of it you think about it too much.
XERXES COOK — Why — in your definition — does Singularity refer to a group of people?
JOSH HARRIS — There is not just one. It is not monotheistic or anything like that. I think there is an ocean of them. What happens to singularities is, when we say the collective consciousness, it is not that all minds are thinking the same thing at exactly the same time. As an analogy, it is more in the vein of television channels, where there is a stream of television channels, an infinite number of them, and they form an ocean. There is not just one overarching channel that everyone watches. Very simply because in the morning when you are brushing your teeth on a toothpaste channel, then at 7pm at night eating dinner, you are going to be on a different mindset channel at a different time. In that time frame, the derivative — what is being sold, i.e., the mind — changes.
XERXES COOK — When we’ve spoken in the past, you’ve been quite sure that human beings are being harvested. For what and by whom?
JOSH HARRIS — Well, you are what you eat. We’re eating manufactured food. We’re eating anonymous cows slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. And if you believe in a higher order of things, you’ll agree that we’re on an evolutionary cycle. So it’s taken four billion years for us to be prepared, to grow us, for our minds to be harvested. It is like that original Star Trek episode where these beings, the Talosians, used the crew as sort of food. The idea is that the beings are there to harvest people’s minds. There is another dimension out there, and that’s why we are here.
XERXES COOK — So, to recap, we have been conditioned by television to behave in a certain way, and suddenly we now have the Internet. We have interactivity and the ability to upload our thoughts and videos of ourselves to a mainframe. Is the notion of the harvest that we are giving ourselves to a higher mind, or is that mind a collective consciousness?
JOSH HARRIS — Our minds are becoming readable by a different dimension. They have been growing us. You’re going back to television; I am going back to the whole point of planet Earth. We are basically a greenhouse, and it has taken four billion years for them to harvest us. As time is going by, they are getting a more refined harvest. If I enter the slaughterhouse, at least when I go in, I won’t be a McDonald’s meal.
XERXES COOK — With the idea of the harvest, there is that famous maxim, “We shape our tools and therefore they shape us,” from the Marshall McLuhan acolyte John Culkin. The easy analogy is: we invented the car, the car invented the suburbs, and now we have suburban lifestyles and all that comes with it. From your perspective, the harvest is concerned with what guided us to make the tools in the first place, which is an extraterrestrial, outer-dimensional civilization like the Talosians of Star Trek?
JOSH HARRIS — My feeling is that my goal in life is to introduce that sentience to the world elegantly. Taking the Tate for argument’s sake, the original design of that building was to manufacture energy as electricity. In my case, the Tate is manufacturing derivatives of the mind. The advent of all this stuff is simply a manufacturing process. I don’t think in terms of good or bad. It is what we make of it.
XERXES COOK — Josh, what kind of advice have the guys at William Morris given you? You don’t behave like a typical CEO — do you feel because you have broadcast your life in public, people have seen you at your worst moments, as well as your best, and that that works against you when trying to find a backer?
JOSH HARRIS — Well, that is why I am dead in the venture capital market. The upside about the entertainment world, first of all, is that I am going to be asking the audience to do all kinds of crazy things, and that is something that I have also done. I need that under my belt. I know where the lines are drawn. A medium such as interactive television needs to have me be in front of and behind the camera. For the job that needs to be done, I can’t hide behind the cameras. So in the entertainment world, these are all things that work for me. In the finance world, there are all these things that work against me. The thing that hurt me is that it looks like I didn’t handle my finances well, which isn’t accurate. I mean, I ran companies… Yet part of being a fine artist is the detail within the detail within the detail. I leave no stone unturned in working my processes out, including being in Vegas. There is something here that is gratifying some need that I have to get to the Tate. The fine art world picks up that I am not an idiot. Those guys sort of understand what I am doing. The entertainment people understand it reasonably well, or well enough. I will make a really beautiful commercial product, I know how to play the game, I will play it, they will make a lot of money, and everyone goes home happy. I’ll get to the Tate with a lot of money, a lot of credibility and a very rich set of processes under my belt. By processes, I mean like one of the things I will do in creating the cyber ship at the Tate is, for example, if you are sleeping in your capsule, like how people live in capsule hotels, my personal installation is going to be the air. Everyone is going to have individual air, and different mixes of air ducted into their capsule. Maybe I will get air from the Arctic for the poor artist, and polluted L.A. air from the ghetto for the rich guy. That is a process.
XERXES COOK — By offering large corporations the chance to sponsor channels or certain parts of the day — like Crest sponsoring breakfast hour with Cindy Crawford, which you’ve given as an example in the past — does the Net Band Command give corporations more power over us and allow more intrusion into our privacy, rather than giving the public more power to communicate among themselves? What is the trade-off here?
JOSH HARRIS — The Net Band Command is its own government. You can’t get away from the fact that people have to buy and sell things. There has to be a commercial element in life, otherwise all the wheels stop. As this interview is for Purple, I will give an example from the fashion world. The other day, I walked into the Louis Vuitton store here in Vegas, one of the biggest in the world, and there were just four people inside — three employees and me. It just doesn’t make sense, right? Those three employees don’t really care if I show up in the store, because most of the time they are in the cloud communicating with buyers from a virtual world. In the Net Band Command, the store will be used as a runway, and people come into the store and walk down the runway. The professional employees in the store are really acting as engineers and anchors like we could see on CNN, guiding the programming. The people walking down the runway are being watched by, and are communicating with, people in the virtual world. As for the people in the virtual world, some of them are Louis Vuitton employees, but most of them are Louis Vuitton channel people, who are helping the person walking down the runway put a look together. At the moment when they are walking down the runway, the job of Louis Vuitton is to pick the right people sitting on the sides of the runway to help them dress and guide their purchase. Most likely, the people that are helping them put themselves together have already virtually communicated and know very well the person walking down the runway, even though they’re not physical friends. They are virtual friends.
XERXES COOK — They are telling them what looks best on them?
JOSH HARRIS — Yeah, how to put themselves together. It may not always be Louis Vuitton, but Louis Vuitton might be the place they do it because that’s where they have agreed to meet. And of course, Louis Vuitton will encourage you to buy Louis Vuitton stuff because the people there are Louis Vuittoners, and the reason they are Louis Vuittoners is because Louis Vuitton has the right staging and the right anchor people to set up the environment for those Louis Vuitton-style people. So now when you go into the retail environment, there is going to be a day that comes where you can’t randomly walk into a store, you have to be invited in, because you’re there to enhance the production process. So compared to when I walked into the Louis Vuitton store the other day, and I’m the only guy in there and there are three piranhas trying to bite me by giving me a hello that isn’t really heartfelt, now when I walk in, it’s like show time. I’m there for a reason; everyone in that store when I walk in knows me virtually or is there because they gratify me in some way. It is the new magic of retail.
XERXES COOK — What is the trade-off?
JOSH HARRIS — Louis Vuitton has more control over who you are. They mold you into Louis Vuitton in a more efficient way than television. They have much more control over your personal definition. They have much more control over your identify.
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