One part computer science, one part anthropology, and one part visual art, his work seeks to explore and understand the human world through the artifacts people leave behind on the Web. He has made projects about human emotion, human desire, modern mythology, science, news, and language, and created the world's largest time capsule.
One project of Harris's, on which he collaborated with Stanford University professor of computational mathematics Sepandar Kamvar, has become a particular obsession of mine and the students enrolled in my senior seminar on post/human literatures. It's titled We Feel Fine: An Explorating of Human Emotions, in Six Movements, and this is how Jonathan Harris describes it:
Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world's newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.
The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 - 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their 20s? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? What were people feeling on Valentine's Day? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.
The interface to this data is a self-organizing particle system, where each particle represents a single feeling posted by a single individual. The particles' properties – color, size, shape, opacity – indicate the nature of the feeling inside, and any particle can be clicked to reveal the full sentence or photograph it contains. The particles careen wildly around the screen until asked to self-organize along any number of axes, expressing various pictures of human emotion. We Feel Fine paints these pictures in six formal movements titled: Madness, Murmurs, Montage, Mobs, Metrics, and Mounds.
At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, what's in our hearts, what's in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life.
To give you a foretaste, here is how the first movement, "Madness," works [in Jonathan Harris's words]:
Madness, the first movement, opens with a wildly swarming mass of around 1,500 particles, emanating from the center of the screen and then careening outwards, bouncing off walls and reacting to the behavior of the mouse. Each particle represents a single feeling, posted by a single individual. The color of each particle corresponds to the tone of the feeling inside – happy positive feelings are bright yellow, sad negative feelings are dark blue, angry feelings are bright red, calm feelings are pale green, and so on. The size of each particle represents the length of the sentence contained within. Circular particles are sentences. Rectangular particles contain pictures.If you follow the link to We Feel Fine above and start playing around with it, you will quickly get hooked, I promise. To see a short video where Jonathan Harris explains his work, go here:
Any particle can be clicked at any time, revealing the sentence and/or photograph inside, along with any information about the sentence's author. As the particles careen around the screen, they lose speed and eventually freeze as they approach the mouse cursor, allowing them to be captured and clicked. As the particles approach the We Feel Fine heart in the bottom left corner of the screen, they become attracted to the heart and swarm around it, drawing the eye. As the mouse passes over the heart, a menu appears, revealing access to the other five movements of We Feel Fine.
The Madness movement, with its network of many tiny colorful particles, was designed to echo the human world. Seen from afar, Madness presents a massive number of individual particles, each colored and sized uniquely, each flying wildly around the screen, proclaiming its own individuality. At this level, Madness presents a bird's eye view of humanity – like standing atop a skyscraper and peering down at the street. People bustle to and fro, darting in and out of shops, hailing taxis, falling in love, laughing, handling personal crises. From the skyscraper, the people below are like ants – their words cannot be heard, their facial features cannot be seen, and the notion of individuality is hard to recognize. At this level, each particle seems insignificant. Were one particle to disappear, one would hardly notice. However, once a particle is clicked, it explodes into its constituent letters, which then form its sentence, and that particle becomes the center of attention. At this moment, the viewer sees the open sentence as the only one that matters. Like people first seen from afar and then encountered in person, the open particles attain an individuality and depth of character that is striking when compared to their relative insignificance in the skyscraper view.
Jonathan Harris: The Web's Secret Stories
Universe, an even more recent project, is described by Harris this way:
Whether we live in a city, where the night sky bleeds orange with the glow of cars and buildings, or whether we live in the country, where the night sky is pitch black, punctured by myriad tiny points of light, we have all, on a dark night, tilted our head back and looked up. Most of us can spot the North Star, the big dipper, and the three-star belt of Orion the Hunter. With some more practice, we can see Pisces, Pegasus, and the Gemini twins. Each night, the great stories of ancient Greek mythology are played out in the sky — Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster; Orion faces the roaring bull; Zeus battles Cronos for control of Mount Olympus. Most of us know the sky holds these great myths, immortalized as constellations. Slightly less well known are the newer constellations, largely added in the 18th and 19th centuries. These more modern constellations reflect a different sort of mythology — a commemoration of art and science, expressed through star groups representing technical inventions like the microscope, the triangle, the compass, the level, and the easel.I share this with everyone today because Myra Seaman [College of Charleston] and I are working on a National Endowment for the Humanities "Faculty Humanities Workshop" grant [to be submitted in late September] that would allow us to create a collaborative "reading" and "workshop" group between our two campuses comprised of scholars working in the premodern humanities [mainly in ancient world and medieval studies, with coverage of both western and eastern areas], cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, experimental physics, philosophy of evolutionary science, robotics, and computational biology [chimp and human genome sequencing], and to also include both visual and literary artists. The idea will be to use the grant money to extend the work of the BABEL Working Group's "premodern to modern humanisms" project into the area of faculty and cross-disciplinary curricular development, with the task, as always, of seeking to explore together, however possible, "new humanisms" and "new post/humanisms" that would embrace new collaborations between scientists, humanists, and artists. It strikes me that Jonathan Harris's work would fit perfectly with our project and we will likely make it part of our bibliography. It's positively addictive--follow all the links above and you will have some fun plus much food for thought.
As humans, we have a long history of projecting our great stories into the night sky. This leads us to wonder: if we were to make new constellations today, what would they be? If we were to paint new pictures in the sky, what would they depict? These questions form the inspiration for Universe, which explores the notions of modern mythology and contemporary constellations. It is easy to think that the world today is devoid of mythology. We obsess over celebrities, music, movies, fashion and trends, changing madly from one moment to the next, causing our heroes and idols to come and go so quickly that no consistent mythology can take root. Especially for those who don't practice religion, it can seem there is nothing bigger in which to believe, that there is no shared experience that unites the human world, no common stories to guide us. Because of this, we are said to feel a great emptiness.
We can imagine that people first made constellations to humanize the sky, to make the infinite darkness seem less foreboding. Now that we live in cities of light, bathed in the glow of televisions, headlights, shops, signs, and streetlamps, our battle with darkness seems to be won. But the things that darkness represents — the unknown, the unconquered, and the endless — live on as ever, and we continue to need mythology to help us reconcile that which science and technology cannot answer. So, what is the mythology of today? What are the great stories? What are the great journeys? Who are the heroes and villains? When we step back and look at life, what are its overarching themes? We could ask a panel of experts, or as before, we could leave it to a few ambitious astronomers. But those approaches no longer seem right. Even as we participate in the human world, each of us experiences life differently. We have our own interests, perspectives, opinions, tastes and beliefs. We have our own heroes, our own favorite stories, our own rituals and traditions. In many ways, what we have today are personal mythologies, practiced by a world of individuals.
Universe is a system that supports the exploration of personal mythology, allowing each of us to find our own constellations, based on our own interests and curiosities. Everyone's path through Universe is different, just as everyone's path through life is different. Using the metaphor of an interactive night sky, Universe presents an immersive environment for navigating the world's contemporary mythology, as found online in global news and information from Daylife. Universe opens with a color-shifting aurora borealis, at the center of which is a moon, and through which thousands of stars slowly move. Each star has a specific counterpart in the physical world — a news story, a quote, an image, a person, a company, a team, a place — and moving the cursor across the star field causes different stars to connect, forming constellations. Any constellation can be selected, making it the center of the universe, and sending everything else into its orbit.
Universe is divided into nine "Stages", titled: Stars, Shapes, Secrets, Stories, Statements, Snapshots, Superstars, Settings, and Time. Stars presents a cryptic star field; Shapes causes constellation outlines to emerge; Secrets extracts the most salient single words and presents them to scale; Stories extracts the sagas and events; Statements extracts the things people said; Snapshots extracts images; Superstars extracts the people, places, companies, teams, and organizations; Settings shows geographical distribution; Time shows how the universe has evolved over hours, days, months, and years. In the top left corner is a search box, which can be used to specify the scope of the current universe. The scope can be as broad as "2007", as recent as "Today", as precise as "Vermont on August 27, 2006", or as open-ended as "War", "Climate Change" or "Happiness". The exact parameters of each universe are entirely up to the viewer, and unexpected paths unfold with exploration.
Universe does not suggest a single shared mythology. Instead, it provides a tool to explore many personal mythologies. Based on the chosen path of the viewer, Universe presents the most salient stories, statements and snapshots, as found in global news coverage from thousands of sources. Through this process of guided discovery, patterns start to emerge. Certain stories show up again and again, and they become our great sagas. Certain people start to shape the news, and they become our heroes and villains. Certain single words rise from the chatter, and they become our epic themes.
In Universe, as in reality, everything is connected. No event happens in isolation. No company exists in a vacuum. No person lives alone. Whereas news is often presented as a series of unrelated static events, Universe strives to show the broader narrative that contains those events. The only way to begin to see the mythic nature of today's world is to surface its connections, patterns, and themes. When this happens, we begin to see common threads — myths, really — twisting through the stream of information.