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Werner Herzog Has Met The Internet and It Is Us

In his new documentary "Lo And Behold," Werner Herzog explores the cave of never-forgotten dreams.

by ALEX PASTERNACK
Aug 22 2016, 2:00pm

Werner Herzog. Photo by Raffi Asdourian / Flickr

Look, the internet is so many things, everywhere and nowhere, necessary but often completely obscure to us. Talking or thinking about it is, like a sign-on screen, practically an invitation to get lost. The so-called "network of networks" now represents digital culture, new media, new war, the global commons, a digital Times Square, the world's economic engine, increasingly, everything. It is also arguably a kind of work of art—is it the greatest masterpiece of human civilization? It's what William Gibson imagined it would be, after wandering around Vancouver, listening to his new Walkman for the first time: "A consensual hallucination," he wrote in Neuromancer about cyberspace,

experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation...A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...

The metaphors for the internet that I think of first—a series of tubes, a cloud—aren't even mentioned in Lo and Behold, Reveries Of A Connected World, Werner Herzog's new ten-chapter, two hour documentary about cyberspace. That word isn't mentioned in the movie either—in a way it sounds as ridiculous as tubes or clouds or superhighways, and doesn't get us closer to really confronting what it is—but the tension these words suggest, between the gutter and the stars, the profane and the sacred, the sublime and the absurd, the virtual and the real, has long been a part of Herzog's adventuring. Usually he's climbing over hard and specific things—a mountain, a glacier, a volcano—but here the terrain itself is nowhere and everywhere.

He ranges through it like a web browser, never lingering very long, delighting in links and tangents, sometimes doubling back, sometimes landing on something truly strange. None of the stuff he finds should be too surprising for those of us who live in the consensual hallucination or who follow the news of the future. But it should also come as no surprise that those of us living on the internet probably aren't often sitting down for two hours, phones on airplane mode, and simply confronting it.

Where to begin then? At the very first node, in the actual room at UCLA where the first message was sent:

After majestically gliding down a corridor that Herzog describes as "repulsive," we are with Leonard Kleinrock, the engineer who helped work out the math for the protocol of the internet, in front of the refrigerator-ish modem responsible for first contact. (The title comes from that accidental but too-perfect initial message: only the first two letters of LOGIN made it through before the system crashed.) The room feels alienating and dismal, but "we are now [in] a sacred location," "a holy place" centered around a machine "so ugly, it is beautiful." Kleinrock bangs on the thing to demonstrate its military-hardened strength.

It's a reminder that while the internet may pass as godly and god-given—think of its ubiquitousness, its inescapability, and the bowed-head devotion it inspires—at its heart and at its origin is actually a very hard human thing: evolutionary, faulty and ugly, as complex and problematic as its forebears in road and train and electricity networks were. It is actually made of tubes.

And yet, this crude Mecca is just the shell of a more ethereal dream. "The internet has yet to evolve to that goal I was hoping for," Kleinrock admits, in the stranger second section of the movie, sitting in front of that giant old modem, "of being invisible."

It's moving there. Already we are encoded and have encoded ourselves in the imperceptible networks that sit atop the internet and classify us, rank us, follow us. We are "targeted," in marketing speak, or military speak, by spies or drones if need be, though usually by hackers and advertisers.

Fittingly, Lo is itself a product of an internet marketing campaign. It began as a project of short videos, sponsored by the network application and performance management company NetScout. Herzog is apparently a savvy master not only of film but of new sponsorship models: AT&T sponsored a 30 minute PSA he made about the deadly dangers of distracted driving, and a documentary about the band The Killers backed by American Express and VEVO, but this time he realized there was something more here, and he convinced NetScout to pony up the budget for a full length documentary, on which Herzog would have final cut. (He says NetScout requested one change, that Herzog excise some of the more abhorrent troll comments, a choice the director agreed with; more on that below.)

The movie's many characters (mostly older white males), sit and recount and prognosticate in front of the camera about a lot of interesting things: this also somehow feels of the internet. He's not so interested in what these people have done specifically or their business or political interests—we are mostly left to intuit or google that, or seek out films like Adam Curtis's All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Herzog is more interested in engaging people in a conversation, and in the sometimes Herzogian things they say and think. After the legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick regales the director with the story of one of his masterful computer thefts—his tool little more than "the gift of gab," Herzog blurts out, "but you didn't sell it— it was curiosity, it was sport!" Mitnick concurs. "No! Trophy!" Hacking is like filmmaking is like the internet. It's about fun, lulz, fascination, curiosity, adventure. The internet is people.

It was a visit to Ted Nelson on his houseboat that reportedly convinced Herzog this was more than a piece of sponsored content and was deserving of a full length film about this human dimension. Nelson, who is credited with coining the term hypertext (as well as hypermedia, transclusion, virtuality, and intertwingularity), was an early dreamer with an alternate model for the web's architecture, Project Xanadu, in which the links between webpages are far more visible. But as the web took off instead, Nelson's pursuit of the idea led some to dismiss him as crazy. "To us," Herzog insists on camera, "you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane."

Nelson is so relieved to hear this that he collapses into his chair. "No one has ever said that to me before," he says with a big grin. Herzog thanks him and shakes his hand. Nelson pulls out his camera and snaps a photo.

*

Point being, the internet didn't have to be the way it is. Too easy to forget that about all technology really. For all of the cloud and water metaphors, the internet is not actually fluid or free: it's physical, often with a heavy carbon and monetary footprint, and based on decisions made mostly by white men working with significant government funding, or venture capital funding, with good and sometimes gracious motives, and sometimes not necessarily good ones.

In principle it's an un-owned entity, but there were moments there, for instance, where the internet or parts of it could have been patented or owned. (Imagine if the world wide web had been founded not by a researcher at a big government physics lab but by a precocious kid in his Harvard dorm room?) Think about that, and then remember that these days, the big companies that didn't get to invent the internet are still grabbing, consolidating, and walling in pieces of it.

The internet (note the lowercase 'i', at last) sometimes is as fluid as air or water. We surf it, we breathe it, we dive in, maybe we drown. In Green Bank, West Virginia, Herzog meets the radiation-averse people who have come to live in the federally-mandated National Radio Quiet Zone, where wi-fi and cellular and radio signals are largely banned to keep the airwaves quiet for the magnificent Green Bank Radio Telescope. There's a sweetness to their offline activities in nature, reading, playing guitar, playing banjo, even if they are living far from their families. These are also the sorts of things that Internet addicts do by force of will as part of their recovery routine in a treatment center in the woods near Seattle, where Herzog also goes to chronicle the risks of humans having access to too much information.

Leonard Kleinrock with the first IMP. UCLA. Photo via Magnolia Pictures

In the one-scene section titled THE DARK SIDE, a mourning family describes how their daughter died in a horrific vehicular accident, and how photographs of her mangled body--taken by a first responder and later sent to friends--leaked onto the internet, became a global meme, and led lulz-seeking trolls to harass and mock the family. "I have always believed that the Internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist," the girl's mother says.

The internet can be terrible, like humanity, and Herzog approaches its black holes the way we all may find ourselves doing online: half gawking, half turning away. He's in awe of its glory too. Preventing automobile deaths, educating the masses attacking disease—these are all motivators for a subsection of innovations Herzog learns about. There is also beating the World Cup champions at soccer—a proxy goal for a global community of roboticists designing autonomous machines. Increasingly, there is real affection and companionship too. Herzog pops the big question to a student researcher at Carnegie Mellon's robotics lab about his team's prized Robot 8. "Yes, we do," he replies. "We do love Robot 8."

For now, it's not a Love Story kind of love, and it's an unrequited one. Robots are still pretty dumb, as another roboticist admits ("It'll be great when we have anything resembling the intelligence of a cockroach"). But it's possible and even likely that robots and the internet at large will make its own decisions, and more. In the movie's coda, Herzog cites the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Klausowitz, and his notion that "sometimes war dreams of itself," and asks: "could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?"

This may be the ultimate philosophical question about computers, hitting up against our own understanding of what dreams are, how brains work, what consciousness is. But as Herzog has said, "I do believe that asking a deep question is sometimes more important than getting a straight answer."

My favorite answer to this is from the ever-clear-eyed Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain. "Sir Tim Berners Lee could conceive of something called the World Wide Web, and choose not to copyright it, not to patent it, to allow some people to speak server, and speak client, and now you've got websites. The web is the internet dreaming of itself."

Once again, that seemingly miraculous turn of events wasn't a miracle of silicon but an evolutionary process guided by carbon-based life forms. And yet, given the pace of computing and artificial intelligence, there are hints that, cockroach or not, the pace of that evolution is well beyond our own. After a car accident, only the driver can learn from his mistake, Thrum points out. But a robot car could share valuable lessons with every other robot car instantaneously, and they'll never make that mistake again. The internet already allows humans to do something similar, and it will only get better at that. One of the dreams of the connected world is everything and everyone connected, all the time, through an internet not only of things but also of brains.

But when we can tweet our thoughts, as one scientist in the film imagines we will, edging closer to that global brain, the hive mind, a frictionless fantasy, will the real world become the final source of friction? In an age where every need and wish might be met and perhaps even anticipated instantaneously, what happens to the soul, to empathy, to community? An internet of things that knows our feelings and bends to our wills would lead, not just to self-driving cars and even self-aware robots but, one of Herzog's talking heads imagines, to an even more self-centered world. Every need could be catered to; most ills remedied; instant gratification made ever more instant. By then, in any case, we may be able to escape to Mars.

Before they say much else to each other, Herzog interrupts Elon Musk to sign up for the one-way trip. Soon, we see the skyline of Chicago from the shoreline, devoid of people. In a counterfactual digression, Herzog imagines that a mass exodus from Earth has taken place, and then he spots "some stragglers," a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks ambling about, many of them looking at their phones. "Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying?" Herzog asks. "They all seem to be tweeting."

Kids these days, Kleinrock laments at one point, "they look at numbers instead of ideas and fail to understand concepts, and this is a problem." The man who helped create the internet and who laments that it's not more ubiquitous now is also regretful about some of the effects of its use. "Computers—and in some sense the Internet—are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking," he says. As skimming and mercurial as its approach is, Lo and Behold is an ode to that kind of thinking, specifically about that thing that is shaping our thinking.

At one point, Herzog asks Musk about his own dreams. "I don't seem to remember the good dreams. The ones I remember are the nightmares." He doesn't say what those nightmares are, but he does describe one of his danger scenarios. Musk isn't concerned that a future AI will establish a rule on its own but rather will follow the will of people who establish its optimization function. Even a benign intention could lead to a bad outcome." For example, "if you're the head of a hedge fund or an equity fund, what I would want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio. The best way to do that is to short consumer stocks, go long defense stocks, and start a war. And that," he adds, "would obviously be quite bad."

Herzog is not a journalist, compiling a comprehensive picture—he doesn't touch on such essential internet concerns as sex or social media or labor—or even a documentarian as much as a poet. He builds these bits of reality and zooms in so close, pushing metaphors and languages to their limits, if that's what it takes, that we can see them in a new light. What we see is repulsive and weird, confusing and stimulating: a place we live now and a place we may even love. The thing to be concerned about isn't super smart computers or the internet itself: it's us.

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