October 29, 1969: Two computers talk to each other for the first time via Arpanet, precursor to the Internet. The message is supposed to read "login," and although the system fails, the actual message heralds the new era with the prophetic proclamation, "Lo".
That's the starting point and source of the title for "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World", a new documentary about the Internet from prolific and idiosyncratic filmmaker Werner Herzog. One of the most distinctive voices in cinema for the last 50 years, Herzog wrestles with the realities of the modern world by interviewing technology pioneers, as well as people whose lives have been changed by the Web and even people who have rejected it completely. The result is an engaging but ultimately pessimistic vision that misses out on as much as it throws in.
"Things are going too fast," Herzog said at last week's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where he presented the film and answered questions from the audience. "All these technical innovations are going too fast and society in general does not absorb it well."
Herzog's meditation on the Internet Age begins with that first message and takes in a wide range of topics, including crowdsourced medical research, hacking, cyberwarfare, self-driving cars and soccer-playing robots. He journeys from the corridors of Stanford University to the labs of Elon Musk's SpaceX project to a community that has rejected the Digital Age entirely. He meets a range of well-known and lesser known figures from pioneering scientists fizzing with excitement about the potential of their creation, to portentous soothsayers predicting the end of civilisation in a conflagration of technology-zapping solar flares.
Herzog doesn't appear in the film, but his personality haunts proceedings like a specter, both in his distinctively accented voice-over and his sudden interjections from behind the camera. Throughout the film we see hard-core computer science or technology folks speaking to the camera about the intricacies of their work, only for that flatly accented, unseen voice to pose some nonsequitur like "Does the Internet dream of itself?" or "But can it fall in love?", more than once leaving the sciencey techie type to stare into the camera in bewilderment for an awkwardly long moment.
Having seen the Digital Age arrive in his lifetime, Herzog can't bring himself to trust it. "I feel uncomfortable with phones, and with a cell phone in particular," the 73-year-old director said, "because I am one of those -- and you may not believe it -- who had no running water in my childhood. We had to go to the well with a bucket. We had barely any electricity, no water-flush toilet. I made my first phone call when I was 17."
His scepticism toward technology comes through in his attitude to social media, which he said "doesn't get you anywhere...people who are too much into social media will lose the world and those who read will gain it." But a glaring flaw of the film is the conspicuous absence of young people, and those few youngsters who do appear are in rehab dealing with Internet addiction or silently mourning the effects of cyberbullying. Not to trivialise their very real problems, but the film ignores young people with positive stories to tell.
At least Herzog admitted in the Q&A that "there are many elements I still did not cover yet." But the film makes his stance clear. The 73-year-old director yearns for a simpler world rather than a connected world, favouring the idyllic throwback community he discovers in Green Bank, West Virginia. Green Bank eschews mobile phones and modern gadgets so as not to disturb the local radio telescope as it scans the heavens. It's a haven for those who claim the wireless waves all around us make them physically ill, and Herzog lingers on pastoral shots of the community enjoying the simple pleasures of a pre-digital era, including a bluegrass band.
"The last thing that you see is the bluegrass people," he told the Sundance audience. "I really liked them a lot. I had the feeling that was the world that cannot be eradicated. When you see these guys, you instantly know -- and I am not an American, but I instantly know -- this is America at its best. This is what America was meant to be."
Herzog does have some legitimate concerns about who controls the Internet, and by extension, how it can be used to control us. "More and more you will have companies stepping in," he said. "They will force you to reveal basic information just to access certain websites or certain information, and they will send you more and more advertisements.
"Or a regime that is totalitarian can somehow control it and allow you only certain things to do. You have it in China. You have it in North Korea. You may have it in the United States if, let's say, the fundamentalist rabid religious right only will allow you to have access to biblical content, whatever. And when you click on a porno site, you will be somehow brandished [sic], they will come and tar and feather you."
Herzog is concerned as well with the fragility of the Internet and its foundations in the real world. "We have the feeling that there's a cloud of information, like it's particles of mist out there. Not so. It is not a cloud. It is servers in big cooled halls, and with a few hand grenades you can stop the entire system. Give me a bazooka and I'll do it."
Despite these dire warnings about the future of humanity, Herzog still finds comfort in one familiar place. "I like that we still have cinema, where we can rely upon something that we have become accustomed to. We love cinema. We love to see a movie together and we love the fact that there is storytelling, and this is not going to go away."