Werner Herzog has created magnificent reveries on the natural world (Encounters at the End of the World), on a lone man venturing out into the natural world (Grizzly Man), and on exploring traces of the long dead inscribed into the natural world (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Modern technology and its history is uncharted territory for Herzog, which is perhaps why he chose to dive headfirst into futurism and the Internet (though we are discovering that he has insight into all kinds of modern things). The Internet and technology might be new subjects for Herzog, but in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World Herzog explores them with the same visual panache and philosophical insight that we have come to expect from him.
Herzog could not find a better, more enthusiastic champion for the wonders of the Internet than Leonard Kleinrock, one of the people directly responsible for the existence of the Internet as we know it. Kleinrock gives us an enthusiastic guided tour of the room where the first message was sent on the network that would become the Internet. Kleinrock shows off the space and the machines with the infectious vim and practiced delivery of an impresario. The entirety of that first message was the letters L and O, the beginning of LOG(in), before the system crashed after that O. Kleinrock sets the tone of the film with his ecstatic reading of that first message: “The first message ever sent over the Internet was LO as in lo and behold.”
Lo and Behold brings our attention over and over again to the complex knots that arise in our wholehearted embrace of digital connected. Herzog’s philosopher’s eye is frequently trained on wild possibilities, that are nevertheless tantalizingly close to a reality that few of us are intellectually prepared for. Herzog introduces to experts on concepts that are barely coherent whose consequences we can only wildly guess at. Will the connected network of self driving cars become the first truly artificial intelligence? Why does one “soccer” playing robot perform so much better than others that the researchers call it RoboMessi? What would the Internet look like if we could physically see and explore direct expressions of intertextuality? These are truly exciting and inspiring stories and it is easy to get swept up in the glorious optimism of such reveries.
But a reverie can encompass thoughts that are dark as well as pleasant. Herzog also engages in the ever instructive exploration of the damage this hyper speed level of technological connectedness can cause, either directly or in the form of its sudden removal from our lives. For instance, he seeks out those who worry about the consequences of another Carrington Event, a massive solar flare that set telegraph wires on fire in the 19th century. It would do a lot more damage than that today. He explores the dark sides of Internet addiction and those who need to remove themselves from the machines that make the Internet possible. Herzog introduces us to the surprising community of people who take shelter from the ever presence of radio waves (a resource so abundant that people are trying to figure out how to power cell phones or other wearable kit with them) in Green Bank, West Virginia, site of a National Radio Astronomy Observatory radio telescope looking for waves with one billionth of one billionth of the energy of a cell phone, where all forms of electromagnetic radiation are suppressed in a 10 mile radius in the name of science. And of course, there is the darkest side of the Internet, the home of trolls and anonymous cruelty transmitted at the speed of thought. Herzog shows us the costs of that dark side through the story of a family victimized by the Internet’s thirst for bad news with such rhetorical precision and visual grace that I can’t bear to spoil it.
Lo and Behold is at its absolute best when Herzog engages with deeply speculative philosophical questions that are so out there that they feel like they belong in science fiction, despite being rooted in the hard sciences. In thinking about what we are capable of doing, one is forced to contemplate the terrible (“sometimes war dreams of itself”) and the sublime (what would a robot dream, does the Internet dream). The notion of dreaming is at the heart of the film as Herzog talks to human experts who are attempting to understand what we do not even know. Lo and Behold is Herzog himself participating in the collective act of dreaming of the Internet-enhanced humanity, a dream that encompasses the past we think we know, the bright, pulsing present we think we understand, and the hopes and fears of what the future might be, both with and without the Internet. Conceiving of a future without this miraculous technology might seem like a nightmare hellscape (where are all the cat videos?!) but Herzog leaves us with the sights and sounds of the delightful camaraderie of that community built in the shadow of a radio telescope where there is no Internet at all, reminding us that we still know how to connect to each other when the Internet is nothing but a distant memory after all.