Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Hezog stares into the abyss of the World Wide Web
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016)
Directed by Werner Herzog
If you ever get to hold one of those fantasy dinner parties—the kind where you can magically invite any famous figure, living or dead—you might want to consider Werner Herzog for your short list. The notoriously existential German filmmaker—the man behind such cinematic classics as Aquirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo—has always been a strange, interesting cat. And he’s taken on a certain probing, philosophical curiosity in later life that, I’m sure, gets absolutely fascinating with a brandy to two in his system.
Ever the questioning acolyte of humanity, Herzog has long been attracted to documentaries. Since the ’90s, however, he’s worked almost exclusively in the genre, eschewing the fantasy of fiction and churning out quirky, borderline obsessive examinations like My Best Fiend, Wheel of Time, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss. His latest is Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, in which the 74-year-old master filmmaker ruminates on the technology and philosophy of the internet.
Like all of his documentaries, this unpredictable probe into Herzog’s subject du jour is languid, meandering and artful in its telling. And like the other nonfiction outings on his résumé, this is not really an attempt to educate viewers in all the finer points of the subject at hand. With his dolorous voice, Herzog narrates the story like the world’s eeriest bedtime story reader. He’s not trying to edify viewers, though. He’s trying to work something out for himself, turning over ideas in his mind, advancing half-formed theories and speaking out loud as the mood strikes him. His current existential conundrum: What is this internet thing, how did it come to be, what does it do, and will it ultimately prove to be humanity’s downfall?
Herzog starts, appropriately enough, in the bowels of the UCLA campus where a tiny, decidedly unglamorous computer lab birthed the first direct computer-to-computer communication—an interaction we now know as the internet. From that scholastic hookup was birthed the World Wide Web and the 24/7 social media smartphone interconnectedness we alternately enjoy and loathe today.
Over the course of 10 small chapters, Herzog and his stationary camera probe various aspects of this interconnected world in which we live. Some chapters are bemused, some are ominous, some leave us with more questions than answers. Herzog interviews pioneers in the computing field. He sits down with the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick. He visits an internet addiction camp in Oregon. He talks to a family whose daughter died in a 2006 auto accident, only to suffer horrific online harassment when a photo from the accident scene leaked online. He chats with SpaceX founder Elon Musk about the feasibility of setting up the internet on Mars. There are moments that pass far too quickly. The internet addicted campers flash by in seconds. A discussion with one of the early internet pioneers, showing off his far different “cut and paste” solution to data searches is tantalizing, but incomplete in its content and context. But with so much passing in front of Herzog’s lens, it’s really a matter of quantity over quality.
Ever the oddball, Herzog finds his biggest inspiration in the strangest people and places. In rural West Virginia, for example, Herzog stumbles across the massive Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope—a technological wonder so sensitive to electromagnetic waves that cell phones, computer networks and electronic devices are banned within a certain radius. This has given rise to a bizarre sub-community of people who believe the internet is making them sick, all of whom have flocked to this curious pocket of Appalachia to live technology free—ironically in the very shadow of one of Earth’s most advanced technological devices.
Along the way, poking his nose fruitfully or not into various computerized pockets of society, Herzog locates a few well-spoken men and women. Bob Kahn, who helped write the protocols that would create the internet, provides a down-to-earth voice about the past and the future of our increasingly digital species. But Herzog is as interested in the indefinable philosophical questions as in the concrete scientific ones. In one amusing sequence, he talks to Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell, two brain researchers at Carnegie Mellon. Herzog begins by quoting the Prussian war theoretician Carl von Clausewitz, who proposed that “war dreams of itself.” He asks the researchers, in all the seriousness his iconic German voice can muster, if “the internet dreams of itself.” Obviously amused by his own pretension, Herzog allows the interviewees to sit stunned and confused for several seconds before formulating an answer.
Lo and Behold is filled with meanderings, dead-ends and cut-short visitations. (At one point Herzog looks in on the floor of the notorious Las Vegas computer hacker convention DefCon while tables are being set up ... and then leaves.) And yet, in the end, this impossibly broad conversation seems to mirror the distracted, hyperlinked, attention-deficient, endlessly fascinating, never satisfying world of the internet. As this amusing, thoughtful, perplexing, visually placid inquiry winds toward its end, it becomes increasingly philosophical. Ruminations of whether this tool is good or bad fade away, replaced by questions of how radically the free exchange of information and the interconnectedness of technology will affect our very evolution as a species. This is, of course, the sort of unanswerable, existential question that most tantalizes a man like Herzog. Talking about the possibility of artificial intelligence, Herzog asks one scientist, “Can machines fall in love?”—to which the man answers, “Would you want them to?” See, that’s the exact sort smart, witty repartee I expect Mr. Herzog to be a part of at my dinner party.