Jonathan Harris: Only Connect

In his review of the Flash on the Beach festival in December’s issue of CR, Andy Polaine reported that US designer Jonathan Harris had caused quite a stir.


We Feel Fine trawls blogs for statements from people describing how they feel

In his review of the Flash on the Beach festival in December’s issue of CR, Andy Polaine reported that US designer Jonathan Harris had caused quite a stir. In his inflammatory talk, Harris bemoaned the lack of emotion in digital and online work, concluding that “there have been no masterpieces”. Later, Polaine got a chance to talk to Harris about his FOTB provocations, but also about how he believes the digital world can do much more to connect with people…

I am sitting by the window with Jonathan Harris several floors up in a hotel in Brighton writes Andy Polaine. The people in the streets below are laughing and chattering on their way out for the night. It is a view from a distance yet strangely intimate, much like Harris’ work that draws the human experience out of the noise.

“I am always amazed – no matter how upset or overwhelmed by life I may be – the moment the plane lifts off and you look down at the city shrinking below you, it’s just like you are drinking an elixir and your whole perspective changes instantly,” he says.

Over the past few years, Harris has made the journey from artist to designer (he was design director at global news service, daylife.com) and back again. He had studied painting at High School, but felt “smothered by the burden of the past in traditional arts.” Somewhat of a hybrid, he took a liberal arts degree at Princeton but majored in computer science. The emerging world of interactive media offered the chance to say something new.

Since then, Harris is most well-known for his project with Sep Kamvar called We Feel Fine (images shown, above), which trawls millions of blogs to find sentences from people describing how they feel. It is one of my favourite pieces of interaction design, not only because of the interface, but also because it takes the mass of information out there and makes it personal and moving.

In the December issue of Creative Review I mentioned the controversy Harris ignited after his talk at Flash on the Beach in which he said “there have been no masterpieces” in interactive media: nothing that would move you to tears.

“The only thing that will ever move me to tears are human experiences,” says Harris. “Pretty much every person has something in their life history and experience that has the power to make other people cry.

“But very few people tap into that and even fewer end up encapsulating that in some sort of format that other people can witness. One of the things that really inspires me is to try and build a system that everyone can use to try and expose those really powerful moments in their own life.”

Surely, as We Feel Fine demonstrates, blogs are about personal experiences, about intimacy?

“Blogs are messy and all over the place – there’s no context,” he says. “Software is great at taking the macro aspects and the statistics and finding out all these hidden secrets. What is hasn’t figured out how to do very well yet is how to do the micro very beautifully.

“How to take the experience of a single person and convey it with the warmth and humanity that can equal a photo album or a movie.

“Blogs don’t feel warm and human, they feel like a branded template that you’re slapping your words into and its just completely lacking sensitivity. There’s no context – and context is very powerful.”


Touchscreen interactive installation, I Want You To Want Me, shown at MoMA

Yet the snippets from blog posts in We Feel Fine or from dating website profiles in another Harris-Kamvar project, I Want You To Want Me, remind me of the beauty of found objects and notes (see foundmagazine.com) that are usually removed from their context.

“The reason why that touches is you is because micro is beautifully done. A found object is powerful because you found it in the gutter. If you saw a digital representation of the picture with the text in 12pt Times New Roman it wouldn’t have the same nostalgia, it would be like a blog post.”

Harris has gone beyond the digital with his later projects such as The Whale Hunt documenting an Eskimo whale hunt with 3,214 photographs taken at five-minute intervals, spanning seven days. More recently he travelled to Bhutan – a country that measures its success by its Gross National Happiness – to document the wishes of local people there.

Both these projects were testing the waters for a much larger project starting on the 1 January 2009. Harris will travel alone for 12 months through 27 countries using only local transportation. The journey will take him from the Southern point in Africa to the Eastern point in China. “I will be collecting stories from local people in a very specific way,” he says, not wishing to reveal more until the project is complete.

“This will be a kind of rite of passage. I think a lot of this macro-micro stuff is trying to make sense of the chaos of the world in some way,” he says. “The ultimate way to control something ugly is to reveal the hidden beauty in it.”

We will check back with him in a year’s time and see just what he has found out there on his travels.

Andy Polaine is an interaction designer, writer and Editor of The Designer’s Review of Books. More of Harris’ work can be found at number27.org.


The Polaroid Project. Harris, along with Elizabeth Weinberg and Joseph Holmes,
created a giant Polaroid picture out of 150 normal sized exposures

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