WILL THE INTERNET ONE day dream of itself? That is among the questions posed by Werner Herzog to his interview subjects in his latest effort, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.
Herzog’s film discusses the internet from its birth in an unremarkable room at Stanford University in 1969 to its potential future as the next stage in human evolution and the philosophical questions that arise from that possibility.
For a man who does not even own a phone, Herzog is himself relatively optimistic about the internet and its future, and it is refreshing to hear a filmmaker of his stature dismiss the familiar concerns about the alleged superficiality of art and human interaction in the internet age. In Lo and Behold, however, Herzog is meticulously agnostic on the subject, training his camera not only on enthusiastic web pioneers and computer scientists, but the victims of one of the worst cases of online abuse in the young history of the internet.
What Herzog conveys so well in his film is a sense that we are living in an extraordinary time, and yet that few of us have any appreciation of this.
In the fashion typical of Werner Herzog Lo and Behold moves along unhurriedly, its scenes separated into parts and its conversations covering a broad range of areas including robot football, autonomous driving, and the potential for telepathy and destructive artificial intelligence in the near future. In one scene, Herzog asks his subjects if the internet might one day “dream of itself”. The answers are predictably fascinating.
What Herzog conveys so well in his film is a sense that we are living in an extraordinary time, and yet that few of us have any appreciation of this. In the opening scene of Lo and Behold, the internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock describes the sequence of events that led to the first computer-to-computer correspondence––the first use of the internet––which was an attempt to write “log”, as in “log in”, but due to a crash managed only “lo”, as in “lo and behold”. Mr. Kleinrock remarks that it was a fitting correspondence for what is surely one of the greatest moments in the history of the species. An orchestral track composed by Mark Degli Antoni accompanies these words, and the resulting feeling is not too far removed from that which comes from the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in which the monkey first discovers tools against the musical backdrop of the triumphant twenty-two-bar-opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Herzog chooses a compelling cast of subjects staged for the most dramatic effect. From his houseboat, the eccentric IT innovator Ted Nelson gives his alternative to the World Wide Web and a more-than-a-little defensive explanation of the difference between insanity and determination.
Herzog chooses a compelling cast of subjects staged for the most dramatic effect. From his houseboat, the eccentric IT innovator Ted Nelson gives his alternative to the World Wide Web and a more-than-a-little defensive explanation of the difference between insanity and determination. Then there is the charismatic hacker Kevin Mitnick, who cheerfully describes leaving a box of doughnuts in his fridge for the sole purpose of letting the FBI agents attempting to track him down know that he knew they were coming. Equally the interview with the brilliant Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, who Herzog later described as having an extraordinarily shy and thoughtful demeanour, is utterly compelling cinema, in part due to the intellectual depth of the exchange, but also because in a broader sense it represents a temporary alliance between two masters of two very different crafts.
There are omissions which might strike you as glaring. For instance, Herzog mentions not once either social media and its consequences for psychology and for companionship, or online pornography and what it means for human sexuality. In the question-and-answer session which followed the film, he merely said that he had many hours of footage and included that which he found most interesting.
Lo and Behold is standard Werner Herzog fare, which is to say that it is very good and very thorough and because the boundaries of the ostensible focus of the documentary very quickly begin to blur, the resulting footage precipitating in the minds of its viewers a desire to consider more deeply what is perhaps the crowning achievement of the species.