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Lo And Behold: Werner Herzog considers the internet

Lo And Behold

Werner Herzog is known for the diversity of his work above all. A director since 1962, as well as a writer and actor, his work includes numerous documentaries, feature films in many genres, and even a few which straddle the line between history and fiction. At times innovative to the point of eccentricity, he gives a distinctive flavour to even his most mainstream subjects, and a feeling of alternate reality to some of his more experimental, perhaps most notably the strange, fact-based 1974 drama The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

For his 2016 documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog takes a quieter approach, presenting the history of the internet, its potential and its effects on society, in a deliberately understated way that allows the information to speak for itself. It is information which is carefully curated by the director, however, giving the impression of simply presenting the facts, when in fact his choices as director subtly alter the entire tone of what we see and hear. Herzog, unseen behind the camera, conducts interviews, asks questions of key sources, and narrates background footage, but without stating, or even clearly implying, his own opinions. This is not indecisiveness, as eventually becomes clear, but a deliberate choice. He allows the facts and their implications to develop on their own, seemingly unforced. On the one hand, this makes for a slow-paced documentary, feeling at times a bit aimless without the viewer’s opinion receiving the expected guidance, or even coercion, from the filmmaker. On the other hand, the approach allows the data to gather in a seemingly effortless way, the experts on the internet and cyber-connection at once defending the technology, and at times unconsciously implying its inherent risks and complications. Herzog seems to be simply observing, never challenging the subjects of his questioning. If he is manipulating the content, he is doing so in the most carefully furtive way possible, unsuspected by either the subjects in the film or, for the most part, the viewer. 

The film is divided into ten parts, each dealing with one aspect of the internet’s development or impact.

Part 1, The Early Days, looks at the earliest development of what came to be the internet, beginning in the late 1960s. Herzog visits the California University where the prototypes of the elements necessary to a functioning internet were developed. The university keeps a sort of shrine to the invention, including a record of the first message sent via the proto-internet: the partial word “lo” (intended to be “log in”) which suggested the film’s title. This segment of the film is a straightforward historical account, providing little-known information about the origins of digital connection. By today’s standards, Herzog comments, this seems like remote pre-history; the technology displayed does appear crudely primitive to modern eyes, bringing home how far digital communication has come in a comparatively short time. 

Part 2, The Glory of the Net, acknowledges the promise of computer advancement, from medical research to global communication. At this point, Herzog moves from the familiar optimism about the promise of digital technology, to consideration of its risks and drawbacks.

Part 3, The Dark Side, explores some of the negative impacts of the internet, leading off with an interview with a family whose daughter’s violent death was displayed and cruelly ridiculed online. Herzog takes on the difficult task of bringing home the viciousness the anonymity of the internet has somehow elicited in millions of people, in spite of the phenomenon has become almost too common for notice. Some of his unusual visual approaches comes through here, as in the vaguely odd scenes of the bereaved family, seated at their kitchen table behind the hospitable array of baked goods in the foreground. The close, intimate filming emphasises the pain random online attacks have caused the family and introduces the misuse of the internet to a formerly upbeat discussion like a snake creeping into the garden.

Part 4, Life Without the Net, goes in an unexpected direction. It visits Greek Bank, West Virginia, the remote site of a massive radio telescope, by which scientists study the cosmos. The location is chosen for its distance from typical signs of civilisation, such as radio signals and computers, which would interfere with the telescope’s accuracy. Nearby are the homes of several people who have chosen the area specifically, who live like hermits due to alleged illnesses resulting from proximity to certain forms of radiation, including all cellular technology. As throughout the film, Herzog takes no position on the validity of their health claims, but makes it clear that the supposed victims are sincere and that their lives have been disrupted. The film then moves to a more uncomfortably plausible health problem, with a visit to a clinic which treats internet addiction, including some startling and horrifying stories from the staff of the devastating effects of compulsive internet use.

Part 5, The End of the Net, takes an odd detour into the subject of solar flares, these being one possible way in which the internet could be seriously disrupted. News report-style footage implies the precariousness of services which have become central to modern life, and the possible effects of a long-term internet crash on people who have become utterly dependent on them.

Part 6, Earthly Invaders, attends DefCon, a convention of hackers, held at a hotel in Nevada. Herzog interviews “a demigod among hackers,” Kevin Mitnick, who cheerfully describes his imprisonment for hacking into a cell phone company, thereby accessing FBI intelligence. Mitnick and others freely acknowledge the relative ease with which hackers can access personal information, or even corporate or government data. Brief interviews with security experts make clear the complexity of online security, and the conflict between individual freedom and the constantly increasing risks to internet users, whether personal, corporate, or political, presenting frightening data in a deliberately calm and understated way. This includes a strangely casual discussion about an event which is considered the ultimate security breach, known as Titan Rain, which threatened the security of NASA and the World Bank, and the potential for future “cyber wars.”

Yet another unexpected digression is taken in Part 7, Internet on Mars, which discusses the ongoing plans to establish colonies on other planets, including Elon Musk’s efforts through SpaceX, including extensive interviews with Elon Musk. Herzog explores the esoteric subject of maintaining human communication once human populations have been transported off the planet. This chapter becomes largely fanciful, pointing out online oddities, from a group of Zen monks seeming to be gathered for prayer but actually studying their cell phones; to speculation about communication with distant worlds; and culminating in Herzog’s question for various subjects: can the internet dream? The final question merely hints at the possibility of technology gaining consciousness, which experts are surprisingly willing to address, one of them inevitably bringing up the Philip K Dick novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ which explored (pre-internet) the possibility of technology becoming self-aware. This discussion leads naturally to the next chapter…

Part 8, Artificial Intelligence. Both the purely practical aspects of AI, such as the invention of functional robots to serve as rescue personnel in dangerous situations, and the philosophical, revisiting the possibility of AI sentience, are explored here. Opinion ranges from the robotics developer who acknowledges that even an insect is infinitely more complex than the most advanced robot; to scientist and author Daniel Hillis, who happily speculates that computer sentience may well have already occurred without our noticing. Multiple views offer the many ways, some of them very prosaic and all too likely, in which technology could become a threat to human society, making the present day, as one subject commented, “an interesting time, not only technologically, but morally and culturally.”

Part 9, The Internet of Me, looks at the possible changes the internet could affect on personal life, beginning with “smart homes” and expanding to what one subject calls a “magical world” in which objects respond and interact with humans. At the same time, the negative effect on our ability to observe and the reason is deplored, and some of the ironies and deficiencies of internet data noted.

Part 10, The Future, interviews experts on where internet technology might lead and how it might affect our lives in the long term, their statements chose to balance hope with alarm.

The carefully ambiguous approach to the subject matter is one thing that makes this film intriguing. Rather than simply refusing to take a position, Lo and Behold makes room for the enigmatic nature of the subject matter. The glories of the technology are acknowledged, even openly admired, allowing the internet’s complexities and dangers to emerge from the discussion gradually and, it would appear, spontaneously. The risks and pernicious effects of the technology appear all the more sinister for emerging quietly, without being forced or overtly highlighted by the filmmaker, without his even seeming to take a position. It gradually becomes apparent that the subjects being interviewed are sometimes being manipulated, their views implying more than what they actually say, through simple placement and context by the filmmaker. Eventually, the expression ‘lo and behold’, which was at first presented with innocent admiration, begins to take on the same cynical, ironic overtones as titles like Brave New World.

Herzog’s choice of careful restraint, combined with precise editing to place each shot and each line of dialogue in its most effective context, gives the film more impact than any open rant might ever have done. It is a perfect conversation starter, and one film that gives this subject matter the serious consideration it deserves.

You can watch the film, here: