By: Daniel Reynolds
First you have to wonder: Does director Werner Herzog find these perfect anecdotes and images or do they find him? Early on in his new documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, we are taken on a tour of a room housing the first Internet-capable computer. It’s a solid hunk of metal at rest in the corner of a quaint little room. Dr. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA explains how it sent this first message; it’s a story that ends with the perfect Herzog-ian flourish. The sent message was supposed to be LOG (as in, login), but the machine crashed on the ‘G’. Thus, with the world on the precipice of unimaginable change, the Internet was born not with a bang but with: LO.
That’s part one of Herzog’s latest film, a journey through the light, dark and as yet unknowable sides of the Internet, the applications of it development, and its relationship with humanity. Broken into ten sequences, Lo and Behold begins in that small room on the UCLA campus before travelling to laboratories, research facilities, forest retreats and even a little house boat. Herzog’s intent isn’t to decide if our connected world is good or bad, but to get a sense of where we are along the curve — and to plot possible paths as to where we’re heading next. To that end, the film’s first third is dedicated to the positives. We learn about the Internet’s invention, how engineers and scientists gradually built the first network and then watched it expand, as per the theory of large numbers, by the input of larger and larger swaths of humanity. This could be dry, but Herzog never quite lets the seriousness of the subject matter get in the way of his playful and curious sense of filmmaking. Herzog does gently prod these thinkers to dutifully document history and excitedly chart the future; but by the time he finds some soccer playing robots and asks their maker if he loves them, it’s hard to suppress an impressed chuckle at how Herzog ever arrived at this moment. Of course the maker loves them.
Conversely, what Herzog finds in the drawbacks of this rapid expansion of technology begins on the fringe — with people battling things like radiowave sickness, extreme gaming addiction, and the pervasiveness of online abuse — before settling on even more fearsome existential problems. That same idea of strength (or at least predictiveness) in numbers that the Internet was founded on, becomes, upon reflection, also something of a weakness. It’s a juxtaposition that Herzog, here merely heard on a few occasions, is clearly intent on understanding. There’s the issue of security, for example; a more predictable system becomes one that can be more easily manipulated. (Herzog wonders if we may be in a cyber war even right at this moment.) This is to say nothing of the inherent weakness of that same system being predicated on human input. And what about our ability to think deeply and critically? Could the Internet be replacing humanity’s command of its higher philosophical brain functions as our thinking adapts to the machines we produce? Perhaps more fundamentally: What would happen if the Internet were to blink out one day? How would society, now reliant on the connectedness of machines to survive, continue to function? In this, Herzog’s interview subjects struggle to find an answer. Some assume a doom and gloom approach, while others figure by then it will just be the new norm of life, free of any moral designation.
Herzog’s documentaries have all sought to understand what human beings are thinking and feeling. What delights him (not that you can tell, really) is the unknowable core of this idea. In something like Grizzly Man we come to see a man who had been rejected by society, but we (along with Herzog) can’t quite come up with an answer to the question: Why bears? Herzog, like his subjects, is driven by this kind of obsession too — be it emotional, or theological, or as is the case here, technological. There are scientist, engineers and thinkers (like Elon Musk of SpaceX, for example) who very much want to push computers, robots, and the Internet to some next theoretical level. Each has their own reasons for doing so — robots can help in crisis situations, advanced technology will be needed for travel to other planets, we might be able to cure diseases with input from a broader mix of humanity than we thought possible. As with those soccer playing robots though, the true why of some of it remains unclear. And as Lo and Behold goes on to illustrate: We have no idea where this will all end up.
The final images of Lo and Behold return to the approximate ten mile radius around an NRAO-run radio telescope in Charlottesville, Virginia. Because of the interference created by cell towers and the like, technology is at a minimum in the area. The telescope is attempting to detect signals from deep space. Who knows what is out there? Despite being adjacent to some of the most advanced technology on the planet however, the people living around the telescope get along with much less of it. One of the astronomers proudly shows off the old checker cab-style cars they use because of their relatively low radiowave emissions. In this strange dead zone, the film’s thesis is revealed, as are Herzog’s own constant obsession with man vs. nature. Will humanity be able to transcend its most basic and earthly problems through technology? Will we be able to navigate the increasingly complex landscape we’ve created for ourselves? Will we leave the Earth all together? Or, on the flip side: will, say, a random sun flare wipe everything away and drive us back to the pre-Internet age of 50 years ago (or worse)?
Those last scenes centre on a bunch of men playing bluegrass music, fingers flying up and down the frets of guitars and banjos. They sit around a campfire. No one has a cell phone out. Herzog finds modest wonder here, in the brief seconds we see these musicians go. But then again, he also marvels at the astounding visual of a robot cautiously opening a thermos, pouring out a cup of soup, and presenting it to a woman. Which one of these depicts the true trajectory of humanity? In true Herzog fashion, we’re left only to behold and divine an answer for ourselves.