Think of this post as the science of drawing the space between the pumpkins, while observing human behavior.
For my social media class, I needed to watch the documentary, We Live in Public, which is all about the ongoing developments in Josh Harris’ life in how he helped build a portion of where the internet has gone. In fact, people believe that Josh Harris predicted where the internet has gone, with his many projects. He predicted that we would constantly watch and be watched by the internet. His ideas were that we would essentially program each other. And, interestingly, he was able to see something of how the programming of people can work. Even the movie suggests that Harris’ work and philosophy predicted how the internet works, today.
While he made a few correct predictions, I think they’re wrong. There are things that Harris just didn’t take into account about the internet. His perspective was based more on the scary environment we see in works such as 1984, from Orwell, but it is not really what we have now, at this point.
To begin, I should probably talk a bit about my experiences as a webcam model, not too long ago. Once upon a time, as I was navigating the adult industry, I found that doing work as a phone sex actress and cam girl, in the depressed economy of Eastern Oregon, was the best option that I had that could both answer my curiosities about human sexuality and could also earn me money. Making money while learning things seemed like a great idea, especially for someone who’s sexuality had suffered from the extremely biased conditions she grew up in. This exploration not only paid the bills and gave me the information I wanted about human sexuality and the adult industry, in a way that no academic persuit ever could have, it also led to me learning a lot about self-exposure. It was there that my understanding of things like consent, boundaries, privacy and performance were more finely developed than any of my anthropological, sociological or gender studies courses ever could have done.
I lived a life that, for at least 8-10 hours per day, was exposed. While it wasn’t a 24 hour exposure experience, like the experience of Harris and his wife in their wired house, living in public, the time I spent being watched did show me some interesting things. Not only was I in public view for several hours a day, I was also in public view in some of the most intimate forms, much like the people in Harris’ Quiet experiment. There are few places that are an experience of greater exposure while being intimate than the experience of masturbating to a shared fantasy, on camera, while you’re watching someone else masturbate.
But, there is a very dramatic difference between what I did, and what happened in the underground bunker of the Wired City and these things are precisely the reasons why some of Harris’ predictions missed the mark. When it comes down to it, I had control over my experiences, I had the power of ongoing consent, my behavior was tied to my ongoing well-being and ability to support myself and I could have a private moment any time I wanted.
I write about consent quite often. I speak about the topic at events, I train people on consent and ethics and I’m an activist that is known for being an advocate of consent culture. When it comes to the topic of consent, I am generally considered an expert. One aspect of consent that people have some trouble with is linked to the problem that was faced by people in the Quiet experiment, featured in the film, We Live In Public. While the people who went to live in this small city of chaos did so willingly, their ongoing consent wasn’t necessarily respected or even checked on. Instead, their consent was a matter of a social expectation. As happened in the Milgram experiment, the effect of authority, on the situation, led to people being completely willing to do awful things and to let awful things happen to themselves and others. Authority, in this case, can even include the pressure from the peer group. Nobody outside the situation approached these people and checked to see if their consent to be there was still really ongoing and enthusiastic. Instead, it was simply assumed that the consent was there – the consent to be watched, the consent to losing privacy, the consent to be vulnerable and risk victimization. Of course, nobody checks on our consent in most of our every day lives, one could argue, but most of our everyday lives aren’t spent locked in a bunker with cameras on them at all times. (This is the thing that makes many reality shows on TV exist in a very hazy ethical area). Harris’ wife suffered the same fate. She consented in the beginning of their project, “We Live In Public,” but, her consent was clearly not ongoing, and she had no power to turn it off, until she left the relationship. When I was working on webcam, I was able to turn it off anytime I wanted to. I could choose to be public, or I could choose to re-establish my privacy. I could set my boundaries and I could take a day off from the internet, whenever I liked. The participants in these experiments simply couldn’t do that. But most people on the internet, as we experience it, today, have the power to turn off their cameras and we’re developing social norms surrounding privacy, so that they can continue to do just that.
Harris’ experiments also meant that the people involved didn’t really have a lot of control over things that were going on, even when he was the subject, himself. They didn’t know when another person would invade their privacy, unexpectedly. They weren’t able to decide when and where a camera was following them. Their decisions were often driven by the cameras and the viewers. Constantly under the pressure of others, their decisions generally were not about themselves or their own well-being. When I spent time on webcam, my decisions were mostly about me. I had the control, and I enjoyed that. When animals or people are exposed to situations that they feel trapped in, they often learn to remain in those situations, without recognition of ways to get out. They learn to respond helplessly, termed “learned helplessness.” One of the key elements is the perceived absence of control over things that are going on around them or the results of a situation. The theory of learned helplessness implies that many mental illnesses are the result of this problem. So, it is literally the case that my control over my situation led to a very healthy relationship with the interactive media I was producing, in my personal experience, in live pornography. People who felt trapped in Harris’ experiments, however, did not have that control. They were taught by the situation that they were not in control. Harris’ philosophy failed to predict that cameras might have an off button and that society may learn to accept and encourage its use.
Another element of what I was doing is that I was highly motivated to do what I was doing because it helped me to survive in the healthiest way I could, at the time. That isn’t to say I was doing well, as my early days in the adult industry were not financially lucrative, but it kept me alive and kept me from having to do more degrading work (bidding for long-distance office jobs for pocket change, per hour), and I had the bonus of learning something interesting about a subject I felt was important. While the participants of Harris’ experiments were certainly surviving in their environment, their survival didn’t necessarily rely on their behaviors and interactions. Their food was provided for them, their basic needs were covered and they were allowed to be creative and do as they wished. I’m not sure if supporting oneself is really very closely tied to one’s mental well-being, but boredom certainly is and someone considering one’s own survival actually prevents boredom. It also means that the motivation behind my work, as an entertainer, was sometimes more basic than the motivation that these people, used as entertainers for each other, had. And my experience did teach me something very important: Sometimes, you don’t want to be an entertainer. There were times when I wasn’t into my work. Sometimes, I had to turn off the camera, because I needed time for myself. Sometimes, I had to hang up the phone, because I needed time for myself. I never had to feel like that option didn’t exist.
Part of the the message that we get from the documentary on Harris is that he felt that our technology forces us to abandon our sense of privacy. Indeed, many people have expressed that same concern. In a World where people seem to think that we’re always public with everything, now, privacy is the white space in-between. Much like how we make our lives very public, we also need to make our lives very private. As humans, we need social interactions, but we also need the ability to withdraw and make decisions, especially when we’re uncomfortable.
That’s where Harris’ predictions are not as prophetic as people seem to think. He considered people’s desire for exhibitionism and played out his own exhibitionist fantasies, but he didn’t understand the behaviors we have surrounding that. Harris didn’t account for social media to naturally fit into people’s needs for both social interactions and attention and love, but also to fit into people’s needs for privacy, for control and for some sort of sense of security.
Harris was also misguided in how the internet is controlled by us and controls us. He seemed to believe that the internet would somehow shape us in some homogenizing fashion, and his animation, that depicted people with TV sets for heads, being all uniform and such, saying “Come form with me, conform with me,” suggested this very thing. But, that doesn’t appear to be what the internet is doing. Perhaps this is part of my life that is colored by my activist work, but the internet seems to share information so rapidly, that people are beginning to more efficiently create social change and create environments of greater acceptance for those who used to be rejected by society for not conforming. The internet seems to also foster creativity, so that new things are being invented and introduced to us, constantly. Acceptance of diversity is not a conformist stance, and neither is the drive to create new and exciting things. So, while Harris may have been right that the internet would drive our social lives, he was wrong about the degree to which it would and the directions it would take. He was wrong about how we would adapt to it.