Very early on in Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, the quasi-religious character of digital technology becomes apparent. Herzog first visits the UCLA campus, where “some sort of shrine” commemorates the invention of the internet in one of its science buildings. The metaphor feels sardonic (the corridor concealing this shrine is “repulsive,” Herzog points out in his unmistakable voice), but computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock uses the same religious language, and without the slightest hint of sarcasm.
“We are now [in] a sacred location,” Kleinrock says, inviting the camera into the bland room. “It’s a holy place.” Kleinrock recalls how the first message sent through the internet – “LOGIN” – crashed after two letters, resulting in the Biblical-sounding “LO.” Later on, an internet pioneer references the Book of Genesis in a demonstration, a robotics engineer talks about the “reverence” he feels for his products, and Herzog asks wryly when (or whether) tweeting monks have stopped praying.
But as the documentary rolls along, religion and even science fade from view, and the shadowlands between truth and untruth, reason and insanity, and progress and extinction all come into focus. The film is not just about the internet, but everything the internet touches, from cell phones, to cybersecurity, to addiction, to robotics, to the colonization of Mars. But more strikingly, it’s about the social and cultural dreamworld that has settled over all of it like a global fallout.
Herzog is not what you might call a tech optimist. This “Bavarian Luddite” (as Wired calls him) grew up without running water let alone a telephone – he didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn’t use a cell phone – and a spirit of German Romanticism makes this 98-minute journey a highly critical one. He goads Sebastian Thurn as to whether machines can “fall in love as we can,” tells several stories of internet addicts spiraling out of control, and looks with a sympathetic eye at sufferers of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” who – although there’s zero scientific evidence supporting their imagined condition – try to create an Edenic existence in rural West Virginia where cell phone use is literally impossible.
Easily the most powerful section of the film is “The Dark Side.” Herzog interviews a family who, after losing their daughter and sister in a car accident, received countless images of the mangled body with heinous messages from anonymous internet users, for no other reason than to make them suffer. When the mother talks about the depravity found on the internet, the question is staring us in the face as to why the law hasn’t caught up to prevent these kinds of horrors. Her explanation is chilling and unforgettable. “I have always believed that the internet is a manifestation of the antichrist,” she says matter-of-factly, without the least bit of emotion. “Of evil itself. It is the spirit of evil. And I feel like it’s running through everybody on earth and it’s claiming its victories in those people that are also evil.”
It’s obvious why Herzog chose to include their story. But he’s also careful to offer a counter-balance in “The Glory of the Net,” which focuses on a massively successful crowdsourcing project among gamers that helped to visualize molecules and help treat diseases.
It seems like Lo and Behold, then, wants to show us a tool which is incredibly powerful but ultimately value-neutral – not inherently evil or good, but simply reflecting back at us what we bring to it as human beings.
But in the last few chapters, a Faustian and even apocalyptic mood tips the scales once more. Interviews with scientists and innovators like Lawrence Krauss and Elon Musk paint a picture of a world that, because of its complete dependence on internet connectivity and digital information, is one solar flare away from total economic, political, and social collapse. In a disquieting moment, Musk – who is making colonization of Mars look like a practical necessity through his SpaceX organization – daydreams about his own nightmares.
Even if this sort of disaster is averted, Herzog shows us a world with an internet problem. The future will bring massive transformations that generate massive questions – questions that we not only need to answer, but need to ask in the first place. Do robots need to be programmed to reflect human ethics? Do the “things that still make humans human” matter? Is Krauss wrong that the internet has created a world where “the person isn’t important at all”?
Lo and Behold may occasionally hit the gong of pessimism, but it’s not reactionary. Instead, Herzog offers a humble and open-minded “yes” to these questions, one that takes the conclusion of one computer scientist seriously: that we are due for a revolution not just in our technology, but in our “theology…in our morals, in our definition of what it means to be human.” Maybe a revolution isn’t what’s needed at all, and the remedy for all that’s disturbing and dangerous about the internet is already there waiting for us, within us and above us.
The biggest question Herzog leaves us with, though, is not a happy one: Will we seek it out in time?