For all his accomplishments, filmmaker Werner Herzog might not be anyone's first choice to direct a documentary about the internet. It's not that he lacks vision or skill. Herzog's body of work includes early art-house classics such as Woyzeck and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, award-winning documentaries such as Grizzly Man and oddly insightful genre pictures like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. He has put his singular stamp on films of every imaginable kind. But the famously tech-averse director refuses to carry a cellphone and uses the web only for email so he can live in the U.S. while maintaining his production company back home in Germany.
In typically eccentric style, Herzog manages to turn that liability into an asset with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. Bringing a fresh eye to the subject of the internet is something few of us could hope to pull off. We are too immersed in the digital world to see it clearly as it permeates every aspect of our lives. The director seems to have no trouble leaving all preconceptions behind as he explores the past, present and possible futures of the internet — like an inquisitive alien who just fell to earth and hopes to understand what all the fuss is about.
Herzog's secret weapon is conversation. He "cast" his film with theoretical scientists and specialists in various aspects of the web but chose not to interview them in the conventional manner. He did no preparation or pre-interviews; instead he engaged each for a one-hour, on-camera chat almost like a chance encounter at a neighborhood bar. Edited down to their essence, the conversations reveal what the subjects care about most and put the humanity of each on full display.
That humanity is exactly what's required to put the internet in perspective. Lo and Behold addresses particulars of technology as needed, but only to serve its long-overdue examination of the internet's profound effects on our consciousness and our lives. The film explores internet addiction and the shockingly cruel behavior inspired by web-based anonymity, but it also looks at the evolution of autonomous, soccer-playing robots expected to defeat a world-champion human team by 2050.
The film is divided into chapters like "The Dark Side" and "Life Without the Net." Archival footage balances all the talk and makes abstract ideas easier to grasp. It begins with the internet's 1969 origin story, showing us a small room at the University of California at Los Angeles that still houses the first computer ever to communicate with another, remote computer. No one involved in that historic event had any concept of the internet as we know it today. As data has increased exponentially, predicting how the internet will evolve has only gotten more difficult.
That uncertainty makes Lo and Behold essential viewing, especially since we have rapidly made the internet an integral part of life-sustaining activities such as food distribution and basic financial transactions. Though not alarmist by nature, the film makes clear that we are now one highly skilled hacker away from catastrophe.
Natural phenomena, such as large solar flares that occur regularly every few hundred years, are more than enough to take down the web — along with our lives as we know them today. A Plan B for the internet sounds like a very good idea, and a deeper understanding of the web in all its permutations seems an essential first step.