TERRY GROSS, host:
As all of us try to figure out our place in the changing age of new media, our critic at large, John Powers, considers how two new works, a documentary and a novel, grapple with what is public and what is private.
JOHN POWERS: Near the end of 1910, London had its first big exhibition of post-impressionist art. Viewers were startled, even shaken by the paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh, which threatened and sometimes shattered their sense of the world's solidity. The show prompted Virginia Woolf to make her famous claim that human character changed on or about December, 1910. After Cezanne, not to mention Freud and Einstein, people in the West never saw themselves in the same way. Woolf's words came back to me again recently, when I put aside a very entertaining Brazilian novel in order to catch a prize-winning American documentary — only to discover that they were both struggling with the same vast, if elusive, subject.
They're both concerned with another major change in human character, one happening almost exactly a century after Woolf's great turning point. Ondi Timoner's "We Live in Public" is a breathless film about Josh Harris, an early dot-com millionaire with aspirations to being an artist in the Warhol vein. Harris is known for two projects. The first was a hugely ambitious 1999 be-in called "Quiet", in which dozens of people spent a month living in a communal bunker where every piece of behavior — even going to the toilet — wasn't merely caught on surveillance cameras but could be watched on TV by everybody living there. The result of this totalitarian exercise was a collective freak out.
Harris himself was the one freaking out in his second project, called "We Live in Public." He and his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, lived in an apartment where everything they did was broadcast over the Internet to viewers, who then commented on what they saw, including the couple's inevitable breakup. Harris' projects raise all sorts of fascinating issues about how digital technology is redrawing the boundaries of the self. As its possibilities enter people's heads, they redefine what belongs to me, what is me, and what belongs to the world. Here, Harris indulges in a bit of big picture speculation.
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Mr. JOSH HARRIS: As time is going by, the world of "Quiet" and "We Live In Public" in the public is going to become more and more real. The virtual version of that is where Google and Facebook are heading, turning the cameras…
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Mr. HARRIS: …on to themselves, the way they gauge their self-worth is how many MySpace friends or how many YouTube views they have.
Unidentified Woman #1: Facebook currently has 10 billion photos uploaded to the site and 30 million more are uploaded daily.
Unidentified Woman #2: It's just people shouting out, hey, notice me, notice me. I'm here, I'm here.
Unidentified Woman #1: People don't look up any more. They're all walking around like this - clicking. We're slaves to these little digital boxes. And he was saying, this is the way it's going to be.
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Unidentified Woman #1: And he was right.
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Unidentified Woman #1: I mean he was right.
Mr. HARRIS: Google, Facebook and MySpace are training people to automate themselves.
POWERS: Harris would get no disagreement from the unnamed hero of "Anonymous Celebrity," a sardonic new novel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, a writer I've admired ever since I lugged his novel "Zero" around Brazil 20 years ago. While that earlier book was about military dictatorship, this new one dissects a subtler new form of present-day authoritarianism. It's our media culture that divides the world into celebrities - whose every movement is thought worth reporting - and the anonymous herd, who mean less than nothing. Zippily translated by Nelson H. Viera, the novel tells the story of a little-known actor who dreams of killing a superstar, so that he can take over the man's roles and, more important, take over his fame.
He prepares himself to be famous by studying how 24/7 media culture colonizes our psyches, from the products we buy to the buzzwords everybody suddenly starts using. This wannabe killer is training himself to be as perfect a celebrity as Angelina Jolie, who he considers a genius at crafting her persona. You see, for him, the self is not something private and interior. It's a construction, whose worth only comes from public consumption. Now, like so many people dealing with the emergence of huge cultural changes, both Timoner and Brandao get hyperbolic and overheated. "We Live in Public" prizes voyeuristic pizzazz over analysis, while "Anonymous Celebrity" is, at bottom, a series of manically entertaining riffs.
Neither offers the historical or cultural perspective that might illuminate shifting ideas of the self. That said, both Brandao and Timoner are onto something real. Although it's hard to nail down, information technology is transforming our whole image of the self. It's also whittling away old notions of privacy; from those surveillance cameras that now follow us everywhere, to the unnerving algorithms that let Amazon predict our tastes, to the friends I've had to yell at to keep them from quoting my indiscreet jokes on their blogs. Like it or not, we all do live in public more than we ever dreamed we would even 10 years ago. And the question is, do we embrace this new world or do we run away screaming, even knowing that someone may post our screams on YouTube.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the film, "We Live in Public" and the novel, "Anonymous Celebrity." You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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I'm Terry Gross.
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