Only a filmmaker like Werner Herzog could make a documentary about the internet and articulate the same existential angst he vehemently expressed over 30 years ago about nature. In what would become the documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of the feature film Fitzcarraldo (both from 1982), Herzog rants in the middle of the Peruvian jungle: "Nature here is vile and base […] The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain."
And so it follows that only Herzog could take a gig for a branded film for something called NetScout (he himself calls it an "infomercial" in the production notes), and turn it into a harsh evaluation of our times.
Herzog’s 98-minute documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is divided into ten parts, featuring a narration by Herzog in his famous German accent, along with highly sobering perspectives from an array of internet experts, scientists, and even the co-founder of Tesla Motors and CEO of aerospace company SpaceX Elon Musk, who admits to Herzog in the film that he rarely remembers any good dreams, only the nightmares.
Lo and Behold launches squarely at "ground zero" of the modern internet's beginnings on the campus of UCLA, when on October 29, 1969, the first ARPANET message was sent some 400 miles away to the Stanford Research Institute. Fittingly, that message was "Lo," which is as far as the machine got before it crashed. On a subsequent attempt, it managed to successfully deliver its full message, "login.”
As internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock enters the birthplace of the internet—room 3420 in a nondescript UCLA science building —Herzog narrates amusingly: "The corridors here look repulsive, and yet this one leads to some sort of a shrine reconstructed years later when its importance had sunk in." A bulky machine full of CPUs, modems, logic units, and memory is lovingly preserved as what Kleinrock describes as the "first piece of internet equipment ever installed."
In the next segment, "The Glory of the Net," Herzog interviews Stanford roboticist and educator Sebastian Thrun, who built the company Udacity to offer free education to all. Thrun recounts two separate experiences: one teaching an online class to 160,000 regular people, and the other teaching the same class to 200 Stanford students. He then ranked them side by side and discovered that the top 412 students were from the former class, the one taught to the "open world," with the highest achieving Stanford student being number 413. "That kind of opened my eyes and I realized, 'My God, for every great Stanford student, there's 412 amazingly great, even better students in the world," Thrun says.
But things quickly turn dark as Herzog interviews the Catsouras family, including three daughters and a couple who lost their fourth daughter in a car accident. Nikki had a brain tumor as a child and was scheduled to see a doctor about it, but left in a rage in her dad's Porsche, which she totaled in a fatal crash in 2006 at age 18. A first responder snapped a photo of Nikki's nearly decapitated body, prompting a series of disgusting, evil-spirited memes. An anonymous person eventually emailed an attachment of Nikki's badly disfigured body to her dad, who up till then had believed the coroner's report that only a portion of her thumb was missing as a result of the accident. Mrs. Catsouras says in the film, "I didn't know such depravity existed in humans, and I think dogs treat their kind better than humans treat their kind. It's just, there is no dignity or respect on the internet because we're not held accountable."
Herzog then travels to the off-the-grid town of Green Bank in West Virginia, home of the sophisticated radio telescope that discovered the black hole in the Milky Way. There, natural earth-bound radio signals need to be absent in order for the telescope to pick up the faintest sounds from space. Satellites, cell phones, radios, and even microwave ovens can interfere. So within ten miles of the observatory, wireless technology isn't accessible, thus attracting a commune of hermits who say they get sick from wireless signals.
Then we move to Washington state at a rehab center where internet addiction specialist Hilarie Cash recounts a true story about a couple in South Korea so obsessed with an online game about taking care of a little girl that their actual baby starved to death in neglect. "It is not uncommon that in South Korea, teenage video gamers put on diapers. This way, they avoid losing points by going to the bathroom," Herzog quips.
Things turn really dark when Herzog speaks with Adler Planetarium astronomer Luciannne Walkowicz, who describes a huge solar storm in 1859 called the Carrington Event, which blew up telegraph machines. "We've been fortunate that nothing as large as the Carrington Event has happened in these times of modern technology," Walkowicz says in the film. "But even the smaller solar flare events that we do see do disrupt our communications and create outages in our power grid and disruptions for our satellites." Arizona State University cosmologist Lawrence Krauss adds: "If there's a solar flare, if you destroyed the information fabric of the world right now, modern civilization would collapse […] If the Internet shuts down, people will not remember how they used to live before that."
The juggernaut of interviews continues with the likes of "the world's most famous hacker" Kevin Mitnick, who was in federal prison for five years, as well as the aforementioned Elon Musk. Soon, Herzog turns famously existential and asks everyone, "Does the internet dream of itself?"
After segments on artificial intelligence, critical thinking, and the future of the internet, it's apparent that Lo and Behold is not so much a film about the internet as it is about technology in general, with stories loosely related to the theme of digital interconnectivity. Still, it's eye-opening and definitely worth the watch, if for no other reasons than the range of perspectives of its numerous subjects.
Lo and Behold is now in theaters nationwide, On Demand, on Amazon Video, and on iTunes. Click here for more information.