Working almost exclusively on the internet and being doggedly curious about the world around me, I’ve found that now more than ever I’ve begun to question the effect it’s having on the world and its inhabitants.
That statement may seem a little grandiose but being exposed to the inner workings of the web on a daily basis opens your eyes to a few things. Did you know that there are rehab centres for internet addicts? Did you know that if you burned all of the net’s data flow in one single day onto CDs and stacked them you could reach Mars, twice? And did you know that just one solar flare has the capacity to take down the entire network in seconds? No? Well neither did I until I watched “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, a Werner Herzog documentary about the internet.
One of our most intellectually ambitious filmmakers tackles what he calls, “one of the greatest revolutions” humanity has experienced. Being an avid documentary fan, the opportunity to delve into Mr. Herzog’s journey through the mysteries of the digital universe was irresistible. In the course of his nomadic career Herzog has explored the psychology of movements so seemingly disparate from one another that they appear to have no tangible connection; from Lessons of Darkness, a film about the capping of burning oil wells in Kuwait, to Grizzly man, the poignant tale of one man’s life campaigning for the protection of grizzly bears. But there is a common denominator between his subjects. They all feature the tales of insatiable dreamers, of people not befitting of social norms and those that stand out for their actions and beliefs. Only the outcome of his subjects’ endeavours properly inform us as to their ultimate epitaph of singular genius or delusional soul. Sometimes there’s very little to separate the two.
And with the internet we find a world wide melting pot of both, dreamers and fools, side-by-side in pursuits that despite their seeming impossibility we can no longer regard as lunacy. Throughout the film interviewees appear to stand in two camps, one which regards the internet as a force for evil and one which sees it as the path to utopia, a world in which concerns for human welfare will become a thing of the past. Mr. Herzog, an unseen interviewer with an unmistakable voice, seems receptive to both views.
He listens to scientists and entrepreneurs celebrate the expansion of knowledge that the digital revolution has brought forth. We hear the story of how biologists replicated the structure of a molecule in the guise of an online video game. Players worldwide would investigate thousands of alternative constructions of the molecule to ultimately create the most optimum version of itself, the end to which was to cure a specific illness. A game used for undeniable good. In direct juxtaposition we also hear of a Korean couple who were so obsessed with playing an online video game, which involved the care of a virtual being, that they neglected to look after their newborn baby who starved to death as a result.
This malicious manifestation of the net is further propounded by the story of the Catsouras family who suffered the horrifying indignity of having their daughter's dead body shared online for millions to see. After her involvement in a car crash close to home Nikki Catsouras’ lifeless body was photographed and shared on the world wide web. The image went viral but the family were powerless to prosecute any individual for distributing the image or even remove the image itself because the deceased, “have no rights to privacy”. Do we blame human nature for such atrocious acts or direct our accusations towards the net and lament the erosion of privacy we once had? If we regard our own social construct as a very finely tuned machine then surely the digital age has robbed us of some very important aspects of this. Face to face interaction, consequence and responsibility to name a few.
The question of balance, of good versus evil, is a thread running throughout Herzog’s film. For the most part the academic community we’re introduced to sees the endless opportunity for discovery and scientific advancement. Occasionally we can see Mr. Herzog’s imagination leaping beyond even the more startling speculations of his subjects. He is not so much credulous as excitable, given to interrupting the prose of researchers and analysts with flights of poetry. He asks one such subject whether he,“loves” a particular robot he’s working with. It is no longer a question which can be asked without a catalogue of connotations being drawn from the response. The scientist knows that, an undeniable assertion drawn from his hesitation, and replies with, “yes”. Herzog is a patient listener with an ability to nudge his subjects off their internal scripts, and like his other documentaries, this one is full of strange, small moments of unanticipated revelation. Answers however don’t tell us of the internal argument which preceded them. Some clearly regard his questions as charming, some give them more gravitas but without philosophical investigation they’re a mere starting point.
And that is, I think, what this documentary is. If you search for reviews of Lo and Behold, you’ll be faced with an overriding appreciation for Herzog’s work mixed with many assertions that this is not a thorough and well written documentary film but rather an essay. Divided into ten brief chapters, it is impressionistic rather than comprehensive. Many of the ideas are familiar, and some important aspects of life in the digital era are examined superficially or not at all. There is a notable absence of investigations into political propaganda, data privacy and corporate surveillance. The abuse of connectivity for state and governmental power is largely ignored in favour of technological advancement and moral dilemma on a personal scale.
The interviews seem to have been conducted over a few years, which gives a curiously dated feeling to parts of the film. It’s always difficult to write any comprehensive directive, appraisal or commentary on the digital world because things evolve so quickly. Perhaps that’s why Herzog hasn’t treated this as a definitive guide but rather as a sampling of unique individuals and their thoughts. At times the internet seems somewhat inconsequential as the overriding subject matter of the film and rather the point is for us to consider the fundamental values driving the opposing views we’re faced with. This gives an abiding validity to the questions posed but consequently no thorough answers.
Whether he is quizzing networking pioneers — men around his own age who still marvel at having been present at the creation — or listening to the testimony of “modern-day hermits” living off the grid and away from pervasive electromagnetic radiation, Mr. Herzog communicates compassion and astonishment in equal measure. The internet is an elusive quarry. It’s a marvel and a menace, a banal fact of life and a force for incalculable change. As in many aspects of life, the key to our management of the digital world is in balance. The lesson seems to be that we should take an objective look at how we can use the internet for good but also value the importance of acknowledging it’s transience and how critical it is to appreciate the fundamentals of human nature.
The world has been in existence long before the internet and it'll still be there long after. When assessing the power balance of our world and everything in it, mother nature is very much in control. During the film the physicist Lucianne Walkowicz explains how a solar flare could bring the whole network — and with it our super-technologized way of life — crashing down in a matter of days. The sun constantly assaults the Earth with geomagnetic storms, giving us the Northern and Southern Lights, but also wreaks havoc every so often when the solar flares that cause them are especially massive. One such flare happened in 1859 and destroyed much of the world’s telegraph network by instantly setting its wires alight. It hasn’t happened since, but it could.
So what would you do? If tomorrow there was no internet, no digital network through which to communicate and no means by which to appear faceless, how would you fare? It’s an interesting question and one which I, with increasing regularity, ask myself. Ironically the digital world has evolved to yearn for greater and more transparent human interaction. We've graduated from simple messages to live video stream, from text to emojis and all in the pursuit of more genuine and emotive interaction. For me, the internet offers a chance to enhance life, not replace it.
As Herzog puts it, "the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot."
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