If you dig the deeply cynical TV series Black Mirror, you’ll love this documentary profile of businessman/artiste/madman Josh Harris. Love, hate, or pity him, Harris is undoubtedly a fascinating individual who succumbed to information-age and surveillance state delusion back during a time when we still used terms like “cyber-surfing the information superhighway” to describe the arriving networked world. Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public argues the point that however mad and irresponsible Harris may have been, he was definitely a visionary who saw what was coming over the horizon.
Of particular interest to me was the story of his venture Pseudo, where I worked for a few months in 1999-2000. This was after Harris left the company and launched his underground hotel project, so the doc necessarily omits this interesting phase in the company’s history. Going by this film alone, you’d get the impression Pseudo continued operating as a non-stop orgy right up to the end. But in actual fact, it did receive a large investment, followed by a major effort to mainstream itself as a serious company. When Pseudo finally burned through this cash infusion and went out of business, it was considerably a more sober and normalized operation than the wild bacchanalia it may have been in its early period.
As a footnote, I found it amusing that a documentary about the destructive effects of technology on society and the individual psyche would ship on a DVD encoded with a form of DRM (Pixeltools) that prevented it from playing on my totally run-of-the-mill DVD player.
Bringing new meaning to the phrase “get a real job,” I now learn that my last full-time gig was for a “fake company.” Years after the fact of its demise, Pseudo.com founder Josh Harris has pronounced to Boing Boing that Pseudo Programs Inc. was in fact a massive performance art piece, aided and abetted by the since discredited New York Times journalist Jayson Blair.
What is Harris up to? Is he, as my former colleague Jacki Schechner puts it, “Batsh*t Crazy“? Has he been retroactively inspired by the literal definition of the word with which he chose to christen his venture, and now remembers things the way he wants to? To give him the benefit of the doubt, this pronouncement itself may be the performance piece. Or, he may indeed just be batshit crazy.
Regardless, wow! All of this comes as some surprise to me, as I drew a regular paycheck at the time. I was there, so I can attest that Pseudo was “real” insofar that it had regular employees, sitting behind desks, computers, cameras, and studio mixing desks. We reported every day for actual work, for pay, with benefits. We produced countless hours of audio and video programming for exclusive broadcast over the internet, years before technology and bandwidth made such things commonplace and trivial. If I was a pawn in someone’s conceptual art piece, well, it’s still a bullet point on my resume, man. But it may explain why I’m having trouble locating most of my past colleagues on LinkedIn.
Some of the comments on the Boing Boing piece are more amusing and insightful than anything I could attempt here, but I thought it might do the public record some good for a former employee to contribute a few thoughts and memories about the tiny corner of Pseudo I was briefly involved with.
I joined the company in November 1999, right at the precarious peak of the infamous dot com bubble. Countless startups were all trying to figure out how to make money on the internet (wake me when somebody figures that one out). Pseudo was one of the first and most notorious, with a rough-and-tumble reputation of hard partying and drugs. Worse than all that (at least in the eyes of Wall Street) was how it excelled at its true forte: burning money in spectacular fashion (and speed). Old-media executive David Bohrman had been recently brought on as CEO in an effort to steer the chaotic company into profitability. To illustrate how much old-world thinking was driving Pseudo at the time, Pseudo’s disparate programs were fractured and reorganized into “channels,” an amusingly quaint metaphor ill-suited for the internet.
One of these new ventures was the Politics Channel, still remembered now for its groundbreaking online coverage of the 2000 Democratic National Convention. But I was to be part of another channel no one, not even Wikipedia, now remembers: The Quarterback Club Channel. The Quarterback Club was a collaborative venture by several NFL players (including Warren Moon, Kordell Stewart, and Boomer Esiason) to consolidate their various moneymaking and charity ventures. Yes, that’s correct. This I, who couldn’t possibly care less about professional sports, and in fact often disdains them, took a job working for football celebrities. To my family at the time, I was working for the NFL, but to me, I was right where I wanted to be. To a former film student also interested in web design, making short animated films for the internet looked like the perfect job.
It was pathetically easy to get hired with the dot com bubble was at its apogee. As is my policy, I was utterly frank in my interview. I had used the then-new and trendy web animation tool Flash for a few projects by then, but was hardly an expert. What they had in mind for me was to execute Flash animated cartoons, then a radically new thing, from the writing, directing, and art by Kevin Ross (with whom I still have beers). Here’s a rough transcript of my interview:
MY FUTURE BOSS: “Do you know Flash?”
ME: “Well, yes…”
MY FUTURE BOSS: “You’re hired!”
That was easy! But the humiliations started early. One of my first tasks was to tote Warren Moon’s briefcase around after him on a visit to the Pseudo offices. I had never although I had never heard of him, but I was informed he was far too famous to carry his own shit. I have clear memories of it being made of orange basketball rubber, which makes no sense but that’s what I recall.
The Q.B. Club, Politics, and Comedy teams were housed catty-corner to the main Psuedo building, on the north side of Houston & Broadway. If Pseudo’s legendary partying was still going on under the reign of grownup-in-charge David Bohrman, we saw none of it over at our depressing digs. The confusion over the two locations was always a problem. Once, Boomer Esiason mistakenly showed up at our place, and was clearly unimpressed as we tried to give him directions to find the main office (I didn’t know who he was, but my meeting him really impressed my sports-fan cousin). There was everything to be read into our placement; the Pseudo veterans hated how Bohrman was mainstreaming the company.
Despite its justified reputation for profligate spending, Pseudo could be petty, cheap, and wracked by turf wars. Our NoHo Pseudo annex was viewed as intruding on the old skool’s SoHo territory, and they let it be known by delaying our computer and software orders for weeks. We were effectively crippled, but Kevin Ross and I produced the first and part of the second episodes of Q.B. Toons on my own personal PowerBook G3 (it could handle the animation, but didn’t really have the processor oomph for the multi-layered audio tracks we needed). The situation was so dire, and we were so obviously unwanted that I know many of us considered quitting (not a single one of the Q.B. Club team ever did). Speaking for myself, I was convinced Pseudo was the wave of the future, and the best possible place for a former film student to be.
Many of the “new-skool” employees came with little understanding of the medium in which they were to work: the internet. But to be fair, at the time, who did? Our boss was a former Navy Seal, and some of the rest came from television and video production. Time and time again we came up against a frustrating inability to write and communicate clearly. Kevin and I coined the phrase “purple puppy” to describe the kinds of random requests we would receive, as in, “Can you put in a purple puppy?” I still amuse myself with the in-joke to this day.
All told, I was there for a little more than half a year. The rest of Pseudo had some success promoting the film American Psycho and selling the SpaceWatch Channel to Space.com for a chunk of change. Meanwhile, we only able to produce four episodes of Q.B. Toons. The first was little but a crappy teaser, featuring a holiday greetings from Warren Moon (what Scrooge would not be moved by that?). The second episode told the full, fleshed-out tale of li’l Moon in his first-ever game. The third starred Bernie Kosar and was a disaster, in my opinion, taking ages to produce and looking the worst. But our fourth, and what turned out to be our last, is our masterpiece. Reportedly our supervisors, and Kordell Stewart himself, were not amused and it remained unaired. We were inspired by the cut-out animations of the Monty Python genius Terry Gilliam, but the visual allusions were lost on everybody.
We labored under an air of impending doom throughout, and the only ray of light was the daily visit by an enterprising (and very cute!) girl that sold homemade sandwiches door-to-door. I still have copies of some of the internal emails that circulated after each new article predicted Pseudo’s demise. So with the writing on the wall, we tried to diversify with two new projects for the Politics Channel: Klik-a-Kandidate and Campaign Dope. We were finally put out of our misery during the first round of layoffs in June 2000. The day began with an almost comical omen: as we were all called to assemble in the main Pseudo offices, I scraped my arm against the rusty grille of an old truck while crossing the street. There was not a single Band-Aid to be found in all of Pseudo, so I clutched a paper towel to the stubbornly bleeding wound for the rest of the day.
About half of the Quarterback Club staff was called into a brief meeting with Bohrman (like being picked, or not, for a dodgeball team). Our burden relieved, we dragged our pink-slipped asses back to our offices to hurriedly copy our files onto Zip disks (remember those?) in time to grab a few pints at the local pub (which I recall being a really good, authentic Irish pub, actually… I wonder if it’s still there?). I spent the rest of the night in the emergency room for a tetanus shot. The next day I got a call from ABCNews.com, but I declined to comment, thinking I might hurt my chances at finding a new job (but I was working again within days). A second round of layoffs only a few months later put the rest of the company to its definitive end. The domain Pseudo.com appears to live on as a some kind of patchwork of affiliate music links.
Even if it took some wild pronouncements by Josh Harris for it to happen, it’s nice to see Pseudo back in the news. It was a great talking point for me in job interviews right after it imploded, but these days it’s hard to find someone who’s even heard of it. I now work for Warner Bros., and I certainly hope that the original Warners (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) donâ€™t someday rise from the grave and say â€œPsyche! Just kidding!â€