Jonathan Harris

 
The journey through
Jonathan Harris’s Universe—the website, that is—begins
with a single word. Type in that word, and as you mouse over the browser
window, a series of constellation-like icons appears in the deep blue
sky. Click on one of them and the sky clears, leaving another word
orbited by a series of smaller icons. Choose one of these icons and a
news snippet appears in the form of a quote, a photo, or another
keyword. With each choice, the news of the world is one click away,
connected by six degrees of visual (and virtual) separation.

Sound
surreal? It’s actually straightforward. “The user is
essentially getting a string of simple moments that add up to a complex
sequence of experiences,” says Harris, who explains that he
strives for a balance of “universal concept, simple execution,
and playfulness” in all of his work.

Harris first began
experimenting with websites-as-mediums during a 2004 fellowship at
Fabrica, Benetton’s design think tank. There he developed 10×10
(Tenbyten.org), a site that displays the world’s top news
headlines in a clean grid of 100 words and images. 10×10 struck gold in
media exposure and served as a template of sorts for other projects that
use layers of variables to create word-image pairings that reveal
piercing statements.

His sites serve as filters of the web’s
continuous data sources, assimilating bits and pieces of information
from news sites, blogs, and social networking sites to project their
shared connections. WeFeelFine (Wefeelfine.org), for instance, gathers
an average of 7,000 feelings expressed around the globe per day and
displays them in a user-selected set of categories; the same content can
be read as cultural musings, a statistical dossier, or a candid piece of
poetry.

Despite his dexterity with using web technology to create
streamlined interactive experiences—not to mention a degree in
computer science from Princeton—Harris still views technology as
just another tool for telling stories. Indeed, he has kept sketchbooks
for years and was an avowed devotee of comic books while growing up in
Shelburne, Vermont. His newest projects reveal his interest in moving
beyond topical data manipulation and into a realm of creating deeper
human narratives and connections. Whale Hunt (Thewhalehunt.org), a
project he released last December, marks the beginning of this new
frontier.

The Whale Hunt is an interactive documentary composed of
thousands of photos Harris took while accompanying a whaling expedition
with Inupiat Eskimos off the northernmost tip of Alaska; when action
during the hunt accelerated, so did the rate of his picture-taking. For
Harris, it was a way to share information about a culture and tradition
that’s often misunderstood. “There’s a whole
population who aren’t connected and are not part of the
conversation—but their stories are just as relevant,” he
says.

John Maeda, the current president of RISD and former associate
director of research at MIT’s Media Lab, sees Harris’s gift
for creation as something unrestrained by any specificity:
“Jonathan’s strength is that he’s neither a
technologist nor an artist. . . . He thinks out loud in a variety of
mediums.” As the media landscape shifts, we can only assume that
his voice will soon be resounding.

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