All words: Vesper Arnett
A few weeks ago an interviewer told Werner Herzog about Pokemon Go. I highly recommend reading that piece, regardless of your familiarity with Herzog’s work, as it is a perfect primer to his most recent film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, an informative history of the Internet. Herzog’s well-documented resistance to technological advances has earned him the label of neo-Luddite, but his film indicates both a newfound appreciation for the radical future envisioned by computer scientists, as well as an apprehension to it.
Herzog is thorough and pursues knowledge from as many angles as possible. He interviews scientists, researchers, inventors, a family, and people who suffer from a self-diagnosed “radiation sickness” they allege stems from the advancement of technology over the last hundred years. In doing so, he crafts an elegant quilt of disparate relationships with the Internet, one that is worthy of attention. This is one of the best analyses of the phenomenon surrounding our Internet-obsessed culture, one that explains for the layman but does not talk down to the knowledgeable, and it’s also not just a camera trained on someone’s laptop. As much as I would love to watch Herzog browse the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary’s Facebook page, that is not the content of this film, and it is fine.
The title itself is a reference to the first message sent computer-to-computer between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute: “LO.” In reality, the word was not supposed to be “LO” at all, it really was supposed to be “LOGIN” but the computer experienced an error before the text could be completed. Even though the message was not what it was intended to be, the word itself ushered in a new era of communication that should be celebrated on the same level as the telephone.
Herzog’s sense of wonder about the science behind the Internet causes the first portion of the film to drag unnecessarily, as though his desire to explore computers through the eyes of the experts indicates his own discomfort with editing out the more complicated details. At one point, an expert explains the law of large numbers, but Herzog then dives into a story about someone else’s ideas about how the Internet should function. However interesting it may be to know that there could have been a different form of Internet, it does interrupt the narrative’s flow.
One section of the film covers the negative aspects of our newly interconnected world. After the sudden accidental death of a young woman, we see the story of a family’s loss becoming viral (a first responder shared photos of her body with family and friends). People eventually shared and emailed the images with the family, and some of those messages were filled with hate.
Perhaps the biggest issue that Herzog grapples with is one that seems to have no solution. How can the Internet possibly be safe and worthy of its capabilities if the humans who use it are the weakest links in its security? Living without the sort of technology we have now seems unfathomable, yet there are people who do this every day out of necessity, be it for work-related or for health reasons.
How can we trust artificial intelligence if the designers themselves have inbuilt biases, or are motivated by greed, rather than a love of science? Herzog’s conversation with a cosmologist taps into this set of ethical questions in terms of the future of online life. How can all of these ideas be integrated into daily life, like the self driving cars, if they have to contend with the unpredictable behavior of human drivers on the road?
Herzog’s concern with technology seems only more justified when we see it through his eyes. Perhaps in a few years Tesla will be a competitor to Honda and Ford, but until then, we won’t really know what ideas will be truly life changing. Luckily, we’ll have Herzog’s film to remind us just how far we have come in the last 50 years, and to amuse us when we realize that he may have been right all along.