Arts & Events

Lo and Behold: Will the Internet Save Us or Destroy US?

By Gar Smith
Friday August 19, 2016 - 06:14:00 PM

Opens August 19 at the Shattuck Landmark

Lo and Behold is a magician's-trick of the movie. It is metaphorical, metaphysical, metawhimsical, and metapocalyptic. It's a film by Werner Herzog, which is to say it is thoroughly "meta."

Herzog's new film doesn't feature man-eating bears (a la Grizzly Man), demented conquistadors on self-destructive quests (Fitzcaraldo; Aguirre: Wrath of God), or spelunking through 30,000-year-old art galleries (Cave of Forgotten Ancestors). In Lo and Behold: Reveres of a Connected World, Herzog trains his camera—and his quirky curiosity—on the world of computers. And the Internet. And social media. And robots. And solar flares. . . . 


Werner Herzog seems an unlikely guide for a journey trough the realms of electronic escapism. Recently profiled in Wired magazine as a "flamboyantly dour Bavarian Luddite," Herzog has savagely scorned social media as a "massive, naked onslaught of stupidity." He only owns a single cell phone and uses it rarely. "I'm nostalgic for the days when there were no smart phones and no constant availability," he grumps. "My social network is basically the table in my home. Our social network happens across our dinner table." 

Herzog's interest in the "connected world" spiked in February of 2015 when "the Internet of things" dramatically fell apart in Arizona. Cell phones went dead, gas pumps wouldn't work, and ATMs froze in mid-transaction. If there's one thing that attracts Herzog's attention, it is the whiff of imminent, universal disaster. 

Not surprisingly, this is a hodgepodge of a film. In about a dozen episodic vignettes, Herzog hops from one setting to another, plunging into whatever electronic detour grabs his fancy and chasing it down with the focused intensity of a hungry foxhound. 

Once he has his interviewers cornered, he delights in sending them squirming with unexpected queries like: "Do you love your robots?" "Does the Internet dream?" "Does the Internet need us?" 

At one point, while listening to Elon Musk expound on mankind's first trip to Mars, Herzog interrupts to announce: "I would come along!" The unexpected comment leaves Musk startled, befuddled, and silenced. 

Meeting the Pioneers of the Internet 

The 28 people interviewed in the film are good matches for Herzog. Like the filmmaker, they are all somewhat strange—talented but otherworldly outliers. (The majority of the people interviewed hail from Carnegie Mellon University.) There is Ted Nelson, the pioneer techie who came up with the word "hypertext," Internet protocol honcho Bob Kahn, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee, and hacker-icon Kevin Mitnick (an author, activist, and a one-time fugitive who serve five years in a federal prison for various computer "crimes"). 

Herzog starts off with a walk down a dingy corridor at UCLA where Prof. Leonard Kleinrock unlocks a room that houses the refrigerator-sized proto-computer that gave rise to electronic forum that lead to the Pentagon's ARPANET and, ultimately, to the Internet. 

Kleinrock merrily pounds the historic hunk of metal with his fist and recounts the historic moment in 1969 when a computer in Los Angeles successfully sent a message to another computer at Stanford University. This first attempt was only a partial success, however, but it gave rise to the delicious "insiders' joke" that also provided Herzog with the title for his documentary. (I'm tempted, but I won't reveal the punch-line in this review.) 

Because the Internet is "all pervasive," Herzog observes, it inevitably "seeps into the dark side of human existence as well." And he provides a cringe-worthy example with a visit to a grieving family scorched by flames flung by Internet trolls. After losing a daughter in a horrific automobile accident, the parents and the girl's two sisters were forced to suffer further anguish after photographs of the young girl's mangled body were posted on the Internet and prompted a viral storm that generated a flood of cruel comments and merciless taunts. 

Facing Herzog's camera, the family stands defensively behind a kitchen counter. No one moves during their interview, they just stare, dull-eyed. Finally, the mother offers one of the film's most haunting lines: "I have always believed that the Internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist." 

Herzog provides more evidence that Google's mantra, "Do No Harm," is not the guiding principle in the world of electronic innovation. At one point, he visits a team of robotics engineers who are creating cyber-soldiers for the Pentagon. In another segment, he looks on as a gang of skinny twenty-somethings scrambles around a laboratory floor watching two teams of hand-made robots play a fierce game robo-soccer. (Looking at all these detached males "nerding-out" in security-clearance-level labs and cubicles, you may find yourself asking: Do these guys ever get outside and play real soccer? Do any of them have girlfriends or partners?) 

One of the few women in the documentary is astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. Dr. Walkowicz is made-to-order for Herzog's World—she is smart, she is critical, and (look closely) she has a scene from Herzog's Caves of Forgotten Ancestors tattooed on her shoulder. 

Walkowicz warns that the Internet, while "a manifestation of human consciousness, [is] almost a separate being—that's comprised of human activity but has a life of it's own." 

In Lo, Herzog includes several meta-episodes that circle the main theme in fairly wide orbits. Walkowicz covers one of them—the threat of Coronal Mass Ejections. Yep, it turns out that the powerful blasts of energy regularly released by solar flares can bring down the Internet. Also at risk: entire electric grids, thereby posing a threat to transportation, the delivery of food and water, and even risking the mass meltdowns of nuclear reactors. Herzog and Walkowicz discuss these possibilities against a stunning visual backdrop of massive electromagnetic storms erupting on the surface of the sun. 

Another of Herzong's distant-orbits revolves around a small community of electro-sensitive people who have fled their urban livelihoods to seek refuge in rural hinterlands far from cell towers, radiowaves, and the baggage of modern electric appliances. While the connection to the Internet is spotty, Herzog's interviews still capture some interesting personal histories. 

Finally, kudos are due to Jim McNeil and the folks at the Internet security firm NetScout for providing Herzog with the opportunity—and the funding—to exercise his curiosity over the course of a feature-length documentary. 

As McNeil has explained in various interviews: "We wanted to explore how the Web can be used for ill, as well as who might be trying to bring it down. What could happen if the connected world is interrupted? We didn't set out to scare the daylights out of people, but it would be quite easy to do." 

Recent examples are easy to find: The growth of the Dark Web, the spread of electronic organized criminal activity, the creation of cyberwar tools designed to attack critical networks in other countries, and the hacking of supposedly "protected" data controlled by political figures, the Democratic National Committee and even the National Security Agency. 

The Internet, McNeil notes, is "capable of doing so many wonderful things, and it's also capable of being used to do really horrific things. If we do not educate ourselves in a meaningful and intelligent way, we are all going to be very disappointed at some point in the future. It might stop working the way we wanted to." 

Issuing his own judgment on technological "progress," Herzog is more succinct: "It's doable, sure," he says. "But should we do the doable? That's my question. I think we should not."