Student to Internet Pioneer: Josh Harris

Joshua Harris was a graduate student of mine in the early 1980s. My most memorable experience with him was in connection with a major paper that was assigned. Josh wanted to focus on the future of the personal computer. This was of course very early in the life of the personal computer, only invented at the end of the 70s. Josh said he envisioned what we would years later call a multimedia computer. He had clear ideas about how the technology would develop that were well ahead of his contemporaries.

The problem was that Josh did not want to do a traditional paper. Instead he wanted to build a model of his multimedia computer. I could not convince my colleagues to accept this proposal. It was shortly after this that he became disillusioned with the value of graduate school, and left to seek his fortune, which he soon did. In 1986, he founded Jupiter Communications, one of the world’s first Internet market research companies. He made millions went it went public. Later, in 1994, in line with his vision from a decade before, he founded the world’s first Internet-based interactive television network (Pseudo.com).

Called the ‘Warhol of the Web’, Josh was too constrained by academic institutions and processes. More importantly perhaps was his commitment to doing things – building models so that people could see what he envisioned rather than simply to read about it. This might be common in design and technology, but Josh personified this commitment.

Therefore, I can only celebrate his next creation – a world in which there would be no privacy. Surveillance was everywhere. Today, in 2010, most computer and social scientists who think about it are alarmed by the ways in which new technologies promise to erode privacy in society. One need not be a technological determinist to see how the technological capabilities are being developed in surveillance technologies, from satellite imaging to miniature cameras and sensors, to see everything. But also, and importantly, people want the technologies, whether security cameras or Webcams to check on the children at preschool. Josh saw this and built an environment in which he and 1000 other inhabitants lived for one month – a place with no privacy, branded ‘We Live in Public’ — created well before reality TV.

Josh is the best person to describe this vision and related projects. Take a look at this 2009 Sky Television interview with Josh or look at a trailer for the ‘We Live in Pubic’ documentary, which won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival.

Josh has kept in touch with me through the years as one of the professors who supported his proposal. Schools are hard to build for a Joshua Harris. We should have let Josh build the model, but we did not dampen the creativity of a budding Internet pioneer with a vision of the future that everyone should seriously ponder.

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