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Werner Herzog

With Lo And Behold, Werner Herzog Offers Up A Humanist History Of The Internet

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What does a humanist history of the Internet look like? Though it isn’t a documentary in the journalistic sense, Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World paints a unique picture of the bones and skin of our technologically interconnected universe.

I’ve seen and read countless documentaries and histories of the Internet’s creation and proliferation, but that didn’t stop Lo and Behold from feeling fresh, with a clear but curious perspective that had me looking at familiar events and listening to people well known to me with a different level of intensity.

The film, which is debuting at the Sundance film festival this weekend, is presented by Netscout, a firm that specializes in network monitoring. Netscout’s Jim McNiel, who executive produces here, saw Herzog’s texting and driving doc From One Second To The Next and thought that he could perhaps examine the infrastructure and underpinnings of the web, exposing questions of reliability and, yes, likely crafting some nice synergy for Netscout’s core business.

When we spoke about the movie, Herzog was incredibly clear to me that he is not a journalist. Indeed, he frequently interacts with the subjects, asking them viewpoint questions designed to provoke a reaction.werner_1

The choice of ‘nodes’ to focus on was an interesting one. Herzog speaks to Silicon Valley luminaries like roboticist and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun and Elon Musk (whose fears about the future of Artificial Intelligence make an appearance), but he also talks to pioneers like Ted Nelson, whose Xanadu concept would have created a far different Web than the one we know today — many argue a more stable and sustainable one as well. To a creator and Internet worker, Nelson’s ideas about more durable linking that allowed you to always see the source material for a cited passage and to follow its provenance always felt like a missed opportunity to me.

Herzog certainly seems to feel a connection in the segment with Nelson. He tells me that Nelson was a filmmaker when he was younger, which led to a common language.

The film bounces around, with connections between topics that feel more fibrous than a well-ordered shot list. Indeed, Herzog says that he let himself be led from topic to topic by his discussions with subjects. Some of those connections are surprising to Herzog, as well. It’s not called out in the film, but an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium displays tattoos derived from Herzog’s seminal documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The experience of following a strange hyperlink to a familiar destination made physical.

These connections led Herzog to explore the darker sides of the Internet, as well.

One segment in particular, about people who claim to be hyper-sensitive to the radio signals that are given off by mobile devices like smartphones, was a matter of serendipity. Herzog came to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and its accompanying National Radio Quiet Zone because it was completely devoid of mobile Internet signals — so as not to interfere with the powerful radio telescope on the site. When he arrived, he discovered a loose commune of people who found some sort of peace there after being tormented by what they believe to be reactions to the signals that permeate most places where people live now. No judgment is passed in the film on their conditions, but it is clear that they are in distress, and that this ‘hole in the Internet’ is the only place they feel at peace.

Another moment, antipodal but still as surprisingly affecting, comes when Herzog asks a roboticist whether he loves “Robot 8,” his team’s favorite soccer-playing cylinder. “Yes, we do,” he replies, earnestly.

Thematically, the darker shades of the Internet are represented, including trolling and harassment. And some focus is put on the infrastructure of the Internet and its vulnerabilities — both in terms of logic traps and abuse. The growing pains of a system originally designed to be open, yet having to take on the trappings of privacy and civilization as it entered the larger world.

The poster for the film features monks who appear in the film underneath a particular Herzog-ian voiceover.

“Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting.”

This transition is brought into sharp relief for Herzog, who owns a mobile phone only for emergencies, and then turns it on so rarely that it is rendered nearly unusable by requests for updates when he does so.

If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow of how the Internet rolled out and participation from each and every one of the technological pioneers responsible, Lo and Behold will not give you that. But it’s absolutely worth watching when this hits Netflix or Amazon (ideal landing pads for this) if you’re interested in an examination of how the Internet is both incredibly robust and yet brittle at the same instant. If you relish a dissection of how it creates both wild interconnectedness and yet can foster isolation or even exile, this is your bag.

It’s a film about the Internet made by the most genuinely curious of all documentary filmmakers, and what could be more human than that?

Read my full interview with McNiel and Herzog about the film here.