A new documentary entitled Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is being premiered at Sundance tomorrow. I’ve already written about my impressions of the film, which is very good and very different from other documentaries about the Internet you may have seen.
I was also able to talk to filmmaker Werner Herzog, as well as one of its executive producers, Netscout’s Jim McNiel, about the process of making the film, its inspirations and its goals. What follows is a lightly edited interview in which I talk too much because I am nervous. Enjoy.
Matthew Panzarino: The first question is, how did this project get started? Why was this a pivotal moment in the connected world that you felt needed to be documented at this point?
Werner Herzog: I think this came out almost of nowhere. I was approached because I had done a film basically backed by AT&T about texting and driving, which was on YouTube and very, very successful. It had a huge impact. I was approached by NetScout. Jim, you’ll have to explain how this whole thing worked out.
Jim McNiel: I think it started up by Werner repeatedly turning us down. That’s probably the best way to say it.
Werner: Part of it, you may be right, because I don’t even have a cell phone. I think early on I explained, “How am I going to do a film on the Internet, when I have done on my first phone call at age 17?” Nobody can imagine that, that a young man, me, performed his first phone conversation when I was 17. Inconceivable today.
Jim: We thought Werner was a really good person to talk to about this project. Where we’re coming from, Matthew, is we’re in the business of helping companies deliver digital services. We’re the network performance, management, monitoring, and service assurance space.
Companies like AT&T and Verizon, and T-Mobile and Sprint, Cable & Wireless, Time Warner, those guys use our stuff to monitor their networks, do capacity planning, check for light and heavy loads. Apple Pay, AmEx, MasterCard, US Bank, Kaiser; those companies do it for the same purpose, only different business.
We watch and observe what’s going on in the environment and make sure it continues to operate the way it should. What started to dawn on me as I started diving into this is, these companies may not fully appreciate how much the world depends on them, and how much we take it for granted.
If these services that we rely on, such as the ability to do a mobile pass at a gas station, or a Starbucks phone purchase, or the ability even to have food in our markets on a just-in-time basis, if this stuff doesn’t continue to work the way it has, we’re in for a real surprise.
We approached Werner with this initially to explore doing something similar to what he did for AT&T, which I thought was so compelling. If you haven’t seen it, and if you have friends who drive and text, or kids, I encourage you to do so, because you’ll never be the same.
It’s astounding. There’s over 5 million views on YouTube on this I think, and there should be 50.
Werner: 40,000 schools show it across the United States now to all those who are doing their driver’s license [training] in high school.
Matthew: Ah, yes, this is “From One Second to the Next.” I am familiar with this.
Jim: When you think about the impact that has, could we take an approach to wake people up, to say, “Look, you’ve been using this thing for quite some time, and while you were sleeping it snuck in and permeated every aspect of your life. You carry it around in your pocket, and you can’t leave the house without it.”
People are more likely to leave their home without their wallet than they will without their mobile device.
Werner: I can.
Jim: And you do, all the time.
Werner: I actually got myself a mobile phone, but only for real emergencies. I turned it on the other day in an emergency, and it angrily flashed at me, “This device has not being activated for 52 weeks.” It wanted to update and to download and whatever.
Matthew: Of course.
Werner: …and I switched it off again.
Matthew: This particular series of interviews and things that you touched on — I’m curious how you chose these particular nodes of the Internet’s story to investigate.
Werner: Number one, I don’t do interviews. I’m not a journalist. That’s probably where I differ from other filmmakers, who did [document] aspects of the Internet. How can I say it? I just followed my curiosity. Of course, we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do. A few people with whom I’d like to speak were in Japan or in London and we couldn’t travel. We couldn’t meet them in time, or things like that.
Basically I plowed on from one person, from one aspect of the Internet to the next in a fairly spontaneous way.
There was an urgency of curiosity in me.
Matthew: Obviously, that curiosity led you to Ted Nelson. I’m a big…I hesitate to say fan, but I’m a big admirer of his work.
Werner: He’s a wonderful man, yeah.
Matthew: I think it’s so cool, and I’m glad he was included in this because I think his version of the Internet would be a far more holistic and understandable one than the one we have currently. I was curious how you came upon him. Did somebody recommend you speak to him because of his concepts?
Werner: I do not recall exactly, but I think it was very natural that we ran into each other. He was one of the very first ones with whom I had a conversation on camera.
Matthew: I thought that it was very interesting that it brought up — because the presentation of his vision for Xanadu and everything like that has a big contrast with the rest of the film, in terms of the way things are actually built and interconnected — how everybody stresses that the Internet is made up almost of weakness and of breakages in the links, and that it exists in spite of itself. I thought it was an interesting contrast in how it could have been much more orderly.
Jim: Matthew, I’m delighted you caught that. Ted does come up when you do a search on the usual suspects and the pioneers of the Internet, and even just computing in general. He’s a good early thinker. I do think that the world would have been different if we could have used some of his concepts.
Werner: He actually started out very young, age 19, as a filmmaker. I saw his first film that he made. It’s very strange and very unusual.
Matthew: That doesn’t surprise me much, I don’t think. In a good way.
Werner: We almost talked filmmaker-to-filmmaker.
Matthew: That’s good, to share a language — and unsuspectingly as well.
Jim: Matthew, you might be interested to know, because I don’t think anyone has heard this and no one’s probably going to know this. In terms of that type of connection, do you remember Lucianne [Walkowicz], the cosmologist…?
Werner: Yeah, the astronomer at Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
Jim: Yeah. Did you notice that she’s got art on her arms?
Matthew: Yes, I did notice that.
Jim: Do you know what that art is?
Jim: It’s from Werner’s “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams” documentary.
Werner: …yeah. It’s a panel of horses. She put it on her shoulder.
Matthew: That’s fantastic.
Werner: I found it remarkable.
Jim: Talk about two people hitting it off. They hit it off instantaneously.
Werner: I didn’t want to dig into it during the film, but of course it’s good to find a scientist and astronomer who has a wide spectrum of interests and fascinations, and pieces of art, and evolution of the human spirit. I had an immediate contact with her. It was very easy to talk to her, for me.
Matthew: That’s great. I couldn’t agree more that people that are shaping our sciences need to drag our humanities along with them, so that it colors the way that they discover and create these things.
I deal with technology startups on a daily basis. When they have an ignorance of the humanities, or sort of a disregard for them, it makes me sad because they’re crafting the future. They need to understand that these things are important and that they deserve to be brought along with it. That’s cool to find that kind of integration.
Jim: I’m so glad you said that because I think that’s actually a big part of what motivates us to do this project, which is to get people that we talk to and businesses every day to think more broadly about the impact of what they do.
Matthew: One thing that struck me, too, that you mentioned in the film, was the case of the young couple in Korea whose child tragically passed away because they were playing a game. They were addicted to it. That was the subject of a documentary a couple of years ago called “Love Child,” which I had seen.
I found that that, coupled with the people who are physically affected by the byproducts of the Internet and our connected world — the signals and that sort of thing, and that’s why they chose to live where they live — I thought those were interesting choices to show the dark side of the Internet. How did those things come to be your representations of that dark side?
Werner: I could have moved to China, which was an original idea because there’s a very fascinating rehab center. A real toughest-of-tough boot camp. But I stayed away from it because I wanted to stay more within our culture, and within our language. It would have been hard to speak in Mandarin and having subtitles and things like this. But it was obvious there had to be something about the addictive side of video games in it, online games.
Jim: Werner, I don’t remember. We were searching for a place without Internet when we found Green Bank. When we started that exploration, we didn’t really know that these women were living there, did we?
Werner: No. It just happened. Once we landed somewhere, I immediately started to stretch out my feelers, and I would come across the unexpected.
Matthew: One comment that you made during the film, which I found was interesting, was that you volunteered [to Elon Musk] for a one-way trip to Mars. Why was that?
Werner: Because I’m very, very curious. I’d instantly go…of course, I have to have a camera with me and have paper and pen with me.
Matthew: Right, prerequisites. Got it.
Werner: Yeah, and some good Bavarian beer.
Werner: And that would be that.
Matthew: One other question which I found was interesting was the question about the cockroach, that you asked the Carnegie Mellon researcher, the robotics researcher, Mr. van der Weg. Why was the interesting comparison to the cockroach something you felt you needed to ask him?
Werner: It came spontaneously to me all of a sudden. I thought, “Here I see these robots. They could fix Fukushima, somehow connected to a global positioning system, whole armies could swarm over Fukushima and open valves, and fix a problem.
All of a sudden, I had the feeling, “Cockroaches? Could a cockroach do that? Aren’t cockroaches still far superior?” All of a sudden it came to me, “How much value is a cockroach to you?” It was a surprise for him, and it was a surprise for me. You see, I’m not a journalist. I just follow my instincts and I do a conversation.
Matthew: I found that so striking. I’m sure you may be aware of this, but there are people who do robotics experiments with cockroaches, because you can attach small circuit boards to their back and insert wires into their antenna. You can actually control them remotely with your cell phone or smart phone. Your child can do it like an experiment.
Werner: An experiment. I didn’t know about that. Give me more material about that. I think they could even shoot a movie nowadays, with the sub-miniaturized camera and a tiny lens. They could shoot movies.
Matthew: Right, like a GoPro for cockroaches.
Werner: Yes, cockroach movies. I know that there’s movies shot by sheep with a GoPro attached to their head. They’re very interesting. There’s actually very fascinating movies shot by sheep.
Jim: Warner, there was a robotic penguin got accepted into a colony down in South America, too.
Werner: My goodness. I’m missing a lot, apparently.
Jim: Matthew, that’s the wonderful thing about bringing Werner on this journey because he’s such a great sounding board. For us, you and I have been in tech for a lot of time. We’re immersed in this stuff. To throw something at Werner and have him say, “Well, I think that’s not interesting at all” or “That’s fascinating” — it’s nice to have a fresh perspective.
Matthew: Yeah, and I think that shows in the film for me. Maybe if you go in just asking the questions, without thinking you know the answer or believing you do, something more unique can emerge.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s true.
Matthew: One of the last questions was, if you feel that you had…if the film has an effect, what would each of you think, believe, or hope that effect would be on the people that watch it?
That’s my advice to your readers. Cook a meal at least three times a week. Play a musical instrument. Read books and travel on foot.
Werner: That’s a big question. I think we have to abandon this kind of false security that everything is settled now, that we have so much assistance by digital media and robots and artificial intelligence. At the same time, we overlook how vulnerable all this is, and how we are losing the essentials that make us human. That’s my advice to your readers. Cook a meal at least three times a week. Play a musical instrument. Read books and travel on foot.
Jim: I love that.
Werner: These are the essentials.
Matthew: That’s a good recipe.
Jim: It’s hard to add to what Werner said, but I think one of the things that people should think about is that the web has expanded, in many respects, quite organically. It will continue to do so, but there are aspects of it where we can’t allow it to evolve based on its own devices.
I think there’s an inherent obligation for companies that we do business with as consumers, and as society, to expect that those companies step up and take the measures that they have to, to ensure the things continue to work the way they promised. That we don’t spend four hours on the tarmac when a power outage happens at a Verizon data center. That we don’t end up not having food in our local market because the just-in-time delivery system isn’t working because of Internet outage.
We’ve now become so reliant upon this technology, I think it’s incumbent that we ensure that the people that are there to deliver it take it seriously.
Werner: I’m still a liberated virgin.
Matthew: My father’s an artist. He got his first cell phone and learned to text recently. We went through a very similar process of discovery together. He’s a very intelligent and curious man, but his attachment is with the physical world. His hands are gnarled and grooved by all of his years touching pigments and paints and chemicals and everything in his craft. To watch him interact with technology is very interesting.
Werner: My salute to your father.
Matthew: I will pass it along. Thank you very much. Have a good one. Bye-bye.
Werner: Good. Bye-bye.