From trekking through the remote Amazon, to wallowing in a Cameroon jail, to scaling a volcano on the verge of eruption, Werner Herzog has a penchant for going to extreme lengths in search of an image. Just skimming the surface of the legends surrounding the director reveals his belief in physical daring as vital to the creation of art. A paragon of a certain kind of brutal romanticism, Herzog has an incorrigible spirit of adventure that at times likens him more to Bear Grylls than to his fellow pioneers of New German Cinema. It is surprising, then, that in his latest documentary feature he has foregone exotic locales, deciding instead to broach an overtly prosaic topic: the Internet.
Or so I thought – but Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World is a portrait of the Internet (past, present, and future) imbued with the heroism of a typical Herzog enterprise. After all, there is certainly bravery in a septuagenarian’s attempt to chronicle something so notoriously hostile to older generations. And surely the Internet, which is evolving and expanding at an alarming rate, is the most mysterious and unpredictable territory available to the contemporary explorer. As one featured commentator notes, we are still in the “Digital Dark Ages” – and Herzog intends to beam light into the technological morass.
We begin (as the Internet did) in an unremarkable little room in UCLA. A plaque near the door quietly affirms it to be the “Birthplace of the Internet, 1969”, its décor frozen in the fashion of this historic juncture. Engineer Leonard Kleinrock tells how here, he and his team enabled two computers in different locations to communicate for the first time. Herzog then skips ahead to the Internet’s infancy, which is nicely captured in a chuckle-inducing clip of a newscaster introducing the revolutionary notion of reading the morning paper on a home computer. “Well,” she informs viewers, “it’s not as farfetched as it may seem.”
Such relics of the not-too-distant past are rich in dramatic irony, inviting the viewer to reflect on, and laugh at, the vast disparity between the primitive novelty that was the Internet several decades ago and its (seemingly inevitable) ubiquity today. They also function as a sly caveat, foreshadowing the rate at which the cutting-edge technology featured in Lo and Behold is likely to appear hilariously outmoded – and, for better or worse, Herzog’s film with it. Post-orientation, we segue into some of more feel-good material on offer, which showcases a few scientific advances made possible by whimsical, Internet-based technologies: Carnegie Mellon University’s Adrian Treuille discusses his invention of an online game where users “solve puzzles for science”; Joydeep Biswas (of the same institution) shows off the robot soccer team he helped build, professing his love for the particularly talented Robot XIII. It’s geeky and exciting stuff, expounded by some geeky and excited researchers.
Herzog jumps between interviewees and innovations, guiding viewers with his lilting voice-over. About a third of the way into the film, however, the introduction of the Catsouras family marks a shift in tone: a mid-shot frames the parents and three daughters, arranged in an oddly formal tableau around their kitchen bench. They gaze intently at the camera as mother Lesli describes how their fourth daughter died in a car crash. When the gruesome crime scene photographs found their way online, the family started receiving anonymous emails with the images attached. Victims of a shockingly cruel (and seemingly random) form of online harassment, the Catsourases hold the web accountable for their trauma. The Internet, Lesli solemnly states in a close-up, is a “manifestation of the Antichrist”.
I couldn’t shake the creepy, tabloid-fodder vibe of this segment – the tragedy under discussion made lurid by the ugly wealth of the family home, the baked goods awkwardly staged on the bench, the heavy make-up worn by the Catsouras women. The stillness of this scene is profoundly unsettling. Although the pace is restored as Herzog moves on to bigger, more sensational topics – Driverless cars! A.I.! Colonies on Mars! – shades of the apocalypse invoked by Lesli Catsouras colour the rest of the film: glimpses of the dystopic underbelly of the utopian dream of connectivity.
What is the significance of the fact that the Internet is a breeding ground for such random acts of sadism? Are we aware that the more dependent we are on technology, the more destructive power it holds over us – both on an individual and a collective scale? Because of the omnipresent connectivity many of us enjoy, we forget that the Internet is a physical thing, vulnerable to attack by natural and human forces. And yet it is so integrated into the fabric of society and our systems of governance that its collapse could plunge us into a new, literal Dark Age. Lo and Behold explores these scenarios – although it is by no means an exercise in technophobic doom and gloom. It is rather invested in the idea that a better understanding of the net’s metaphysical properties can help us make better decisions about how to use it. Herzog wants to know: “Does the Internet dream of itself?”
Never one to miss an opportunity to wax mystical, Herzog clearly relishes asking his interviewees this question, and it’s meant to be funny. It is not, however, a joke. He is making a point about how our failure to sufficiently consider the Internet’s intentions – its capabilities, its limits – constitutes a giving-over of the future, from the human community to the technology it has created. The Internet has already fundamentally reshaped the ways in which we access both other people and information. It has probably reshaped the ways in which we think. Now we need to reshape our ethics accordingly.
Herzog – stoic, meditative, mischievous – is an ideal tour guide in a realm that is often alienating to the non-digital natives among us. He deftly handles material that could easily become dry, and draws some very tender and bizarre moments from his interviewees. The scope of Lo and Behold is dizzying, which is unusual for a director who tends toward exploring the epic resonances of very defined subjects. Perhaps the almost scattershot approach he adopts here, zigzagging between incredibly complex innovations and theories, is a reflection of the atomised nature of our “connected” world. Or maybe there was just a lot of ground to cover. Either way, the resultant film is an exhilarating, fascinating, and somewhat terrifying meditation on the consequences of connection.
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