Jonathan Harris was born on August 27, 1979 in Vermont.
After keeping elaborate sketchbooks for many years, he was robbed at gunpoint in 2003, which prompted a shift away from paint and paper and into computer programming.
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. The projects explored the ways in which the human species was evolving into a single planetary “meta-organism,” which could be probed and represented through the troves of Internet data that it was producing. These projects resonated with the zeitgeist of their moment, leading to five Webby Awards, two TED talks, a book with Simon & Schuster, an exhibition at Le Centre Pompidou, and the acquisition of two works by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 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 century.
In 2007, Jonathan made a shift back to the physical world through a series of experimental 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) explored the ambiguous relationship between humans and technology. In these projects, Jonathan designed “algorithms” for himself to follow while “collecting data” in the physical world, in much the same way that his computer programs would collect data online. These projects were featured at Sundance, Tribeca, and other film festivals, and later led to a full retrospective at the 2017 IDFA festival in Amsterdam, where he was invited to be the guest of honor, and for which he wrote the essay, Powers of Ten.
In 2009, Jonathan began to document his own life experience more directly, through a regular practice of taking a photograph and writing a short story each day, and posting them online each night before going to sleep. He called this daily ritual Today, and continued it for 440 days. His friend, Scott Thrift, made a short film describing the project.
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. Cowbird was a kind of “Wikipedia for human experience,” with nearly 100,000 stories from 15,000 authors from 185 countries. TIME Magazine named it one of the 50 best websites of 2012.
As our collective relationship with the Internet began to change from one of utopian possibility to one of attention economies, fake news, filter bubbles, and widespread screen addiction, Jonathan decided to close Cowbird after five years of operation, leaving it online as an historical archive. He further explored these dynamics in a 2012 essay called Modern Medicine, comparing software to a new kind of drug.
This dawning ambivalence around the medium that he had been using for more than a decade produced a difficult period of creative block, which he described in his 2014 illustrated essay, Navigating Stuckness.
In 2015, he created Network Effect (with Greg Hochmuth), which explored the psychological effects of widespread Internet use on humanity. Network Effect employed the aesthetics of data visualization to question the ultimate utility of data — and to gesture at what might lie beyond it. The project received the 2016 Infinity Award in New Media from the International Center of Photography. He also explored the limitations of data in 2013’s Data Will Help Us, which was commissioned by The New York Times.
In early 2016, Jonathan returned to his family’s ancestral land in the small town of Shelburne, Vermont, where he has been living and working to evolve High Acres Farm into a creative center for human culture and the natural world.
In 2018, he released A Silent Place, a sparse meditation on one of the earliest art forms, based on a series of pictographic rock drawings that he created in the Utah desert.