Werner Herzog On-Line

German director explores the digital world with ‘Lo and Behold’

Nov. 16, 2016
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Perhaps it’s telling that Elon Musk confides this to Werner Herzog: he can never remember his dreams, only nightmares stay with him. The SpaceX-Tesla visionary is the most famous of the dozens of theorists and scientists Herzog interviews for his documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a film whose focus on the digital universe widens to consider cosmology and the future of humankind.

The great German filmmaker approaches the subject with curiosity and concern. The tone is implied at the onset when he visits the building at UCLA where ARPANET, the military forebear of the Internet, was activated in 1969. “The corridors here look repulsive,” he says in his precise German manner. Herzog is less impressed by the setting than a veteran of that early research, who behaves like a babbling docent as he shows the director the original ARPANET room, preserved like a shrine.

Herzog finds positives on his journey. Among them, the progress made in cancer research via an Internet game whose solutions were made by uncounted online players. But another clue to the director’s thoughts arise during his interview with Ted Nelson, a pioneering theorist of connectivity in the 1960s, more philosopher than engineer, whose expansive ideas formed a road not taken by developers of the protocols at bottom of the worldwide web, which has long since expanded exponentially and in ways no one can control or fully understand.

One early developer shows Herzog a copy of an Internet directory from the ‘70s, the size of small-town phone book, containing email addresses for the net’s hundreds of early adapters. Nowadays a printed director of email addresses might be 72 miles thick, according to Herzog.

One of those first generation Internet engineers adds that the web was designed for communication between relatively small numbers of people who trusted each other. Spam, viruses and identity theft were unimagined; hence, the system has always been and remains vulnerable to malice. Hacking by individuals, crime gangs and national governments could erase bank records, jigger stock markets and turn out the lights.

Even more frightening than sabotage is the potential apocalypse that could be caused by a giant solar flare. As an astronomer reminds Herzog, in the 1850s an eruption on the sun melted down the only electrical network extant at the time, the telegraph system. A solar flare of similar magnitude would knock out the grid. Because society has become as dependent on this technology as a baby to its mother, civilization might collapse and millions could perish in the rubble.

Lo and Behold explores many other facets of the pervasive digitalization of the world, including Internet addiction by people who have lost touch with real world and died from neglecting their physical needs; and the development of Artificial Intelligence. One engineer tells Herzog, reassuringly, that a cockroach is more sophisticated than any robot in existence. And yet, one Internet pioneer speculates that some form of AI might already have evolved on the web—but hasn’t revealed itself as yet.

Musk explains his dream of planting colonies on Mars as a safeguard against the extinction of humanity in a global catastrophe. But an astronomer differs, reminding Herzog of the concept’s fundamental flaw: people will take their bad thoughts and emotional pathologies with them wherever they travel.

Lo and Behold is out on DVD.


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