Jonathan Jennings Harris was born on August 27, 1979 in Burlington Vermont, and spent his early years at High Acres Farm in the nearby town of Shelburne.
He attended St. Bernard’s School in New York City — then studied painting (with Tim Engelland) at Deerfield Academy, computer science (with Brian Kernighan) at Princeton University, and interaction design (with Andy Cameron) at Fabrica.
After focusing on drawing, painting, and sketchbooks for many years, he was robbed at gunpoint while traveling in Central America in 2003 — prompting a shift away from physicality and into the digital world.
His early data visualization projects (such as Wordcount, 10x10, We Feel Fine, and I Want You To Want Me) helped to establish that burgeoning field by rejoicing in the beauty of the newly-nascent Internet from ~2003–2008.
These projects explored the ways in which humanity was evolving into a single planetary ‘meta-organism’ — which could be probed and represented in real-time through the troves of Internet data that we were all producing.
They resonated with the zeitgeist of their time, leading to two TED talks, five Webby Awards, a book with Simon & Schuster, an exhibition at Le Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the acquisition of two works by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. For these data-based works, the World Economic Forum named him a ‘Young Global Leader,’ and AIGA named We Feel Fine one of the most influential design projects of the last hundred years.
In 2007, he began to re-incorporate the physical world through a series of experiential documentary projects that helped to establish the field of ‘interactive storytelling.’ These projects (such as The Whale Hunt, Balloons of Bhutan, and I Love Your Work) utilized rigid rule sets to govern data collection in the physical world (in much the same way that his computer programs were instructed through algorithms to gather data online). Through this process, he was interested in gaining a degree of empathy with the machine.
His documentary works were featured at Sundance, Tribeca, and other film festivals around the world — eventually receiving a full retrospective at the 2017 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where he was invited to be Guest of Honor, giving a Master Talk and writing the essay, Powers of Ten.
Today evolved into Cowbird — a free (and ad-free) storytelling platform for anyone to use, providing a more contemplative alternative to existing social media environments. It grew into a ‘public library of human experience,’ amassing nearly 100,000 stories from 15,000 authors from 185 countries, leading TIME Magazine to name it one of the 50 best websites of 2012.
In 2017, as our collective feelings about the Internet began to shift — shaped by screen addiction, attention economies, fake news, and filter bubbles, Jonathan decided to close Cowbird to new contributions after five years of operations, while keeping it online as an historical archive. He’d explored these dynamics in his 2012 essay, Modern Medicine, comparing software to a new kind of drug.
His dawning ambivalence around the medium he’d been using for more than a decade led to a difficult period of creative block, which he described in his 2014 essay, Navigating Stuckness. He also explored the limitations of so-called ‘Big Data’ in 2013’s Data Will Help Us, commissioned by The New York Times.
Working at New Inc in 2015, he and Gregor Hochmuth created Network Effect — a portrait of the psychological effects of widespread Internet use on humanity. Using the familiar aesthetics of data visualization, the project questions the ultimate utility of data, while gesturing at what might lie beyond it — and received a 2016 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography.
Working with life
On March 5, 2016, Jonathan moved home to Vermont — where his mother died that same day, after a long illness.
Following her death, he faced the complicated inheritance of her ancestral home, High Acres Farm, which harbored a difficult family history of alcoholism, divorce, and depression. Haunted by its patterns of suffering, yet inspired by its future potential, he began to explore the embodied technology of ritual as a way of transforming the life situation at High Acres Farm.
His ritual process ended up taking six years — encompassing an arduous glass-making project using the cremated remains of his mother; transforming her nightmare journals into paper kites; purging the ghost of his grandfather’s alcoholism; shattering his reflection in nine body-length mirrors; re-assembling the broken pieces into a new mosaic; seeding the mirror shards in the lake to become future sea glass; and finally installing a new energy grid on the land to power its future, through a network of twenty-seven ‘lightning transformers’ spanning around forty acres of land in a star-shaped quilt pattern, as a kind of Earth Acupuncture.
The results are presented in the 2022 work, In Fragments — an exploration of ‘Life Art’ through a series of 21 rituals, documented through 21 short films.
Alongside the ritual work, he’s been practicing other kinds of ‘Life Art’ as well — transforming the old main house of High Acres Farm into a popular hospitality offering, designing and building a creative retreat on the land, making insignias and websites for local nonprofits, prototyping social practices for community gathering, and hosting collaborative workshops to envision the future.
In 2022, he retired the ‘Number 27’ pen name he’d been using since 2003, shifting to his original birth name of Jonathan J. Harris, with a new JJH symbol to match. He now splits his time between High Acres Farm and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s evolving a new project called Sunlight.