Director: Werner Herzog
12 | 1h 38min | Documentary | 28 October 2016 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
It felt inevitable that the mercurial Teuton, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, would tackle the internet at some point, given his fascination with vanishing cultures, lost prophets, and scientific endeavours promising either great advancement for humanity or eventual destruction. In his latest documentary with the parable-esque title “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, Herzog explores the ramifications of our internet-enabled world across 10 sprawling chapters. The director has spoken grumpily about how he eschews connected living, barely maintaining an email account and despising Twitter. Yet those expecting a doom-laden warning about brain-rot will be pleasantly surprised as, although there are more than a few troubling developments explored via interviews and archive material, from vengeful emails to the asymmetric warfare opportunities of hacking, Herzog also gives time to contemplate some of the more inspiring uses the world wide web and rapid data connections have been put to in the fields of science and medicine. An important note: the film – which is a bit spotty in its focus, and certainly isn’t comprehensive – isn’t so much interested in the “world wide web” as it is about the development of super-speed data flows, and their pivotal role in society today.
The film opens in what can only be called irresistible “Herzogian” territory, as we are taken to what is described as a “holy place” in the history of the internet’s creation. With Herzog’s unmistakeable Bavarian-accented voice providing the narration, we are taken along a corridor in UCLA’s Boelter Hall, turning into room 3420, which has been preserved as it was from the 60s. There, the excitable computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock shows us the refrigerator-sized hunk of metal and electronics that was effectively the world’s first internet server – the Internet Message Processor, or IMP. So ugly it is almost beautiful, it was built to military-grade hardiness specs. Of course, it performed a function that is now handled by tiny devices inside laptops, cellphones and smartwatches. But the IMP was key to the launch of the internet, which took place in Kleinrock’s lab in October 1969 with the first word being transmitted across the primitive net: “Lo”. An appropriate first word that was actually the result of a server crash – the intention was to type “Login”.
From UCLA, Herzog takes us onwards on his idiosyncratic 10-chapter examination of the Internet. There are plenty of metaphor-based factoids thrown at us to give us a sense of how fast the web developed from the early UCLA days: apparently if you burned CDs of a day’s worth of data that is sent globally, the pile would reach Mars. Not all of the material presented is revelatory and some sections feel like they get shorter shrift. It feels like stretching to suggest that robot cars trading data with each other to develop better driving patterns could be a kind of dreaming (Herzog is also interested in the notion that the internet might dream of itself, presumably once it reaches a point where it develops some kind of consciousness, a difficult to conceive of notion frankly given how the web operates today). But an interview with a medical scientist who used game-type cloud sourcing to help map the structure of the AIDS virus is a truly inspiring example of productive human connectivity. The film strikes a compellingly poignant too when it explores those left behind in the rush to get every device and person connected and online, or those who saw their visions of the internet’s design and purpose pushed aside.
The new ager Ted Nelson is a classic Herzogian figure unearthed for this documentary, a sad and cheated dreamer who imagined the internet operating in a very different way and wants more “interconnections”. He shows us an example of this on his home computer, and to be honest the concept doesn’t look very promising, but his intense commitment to this alternate online world and mode of behaviour clearly impresses Herzog. Another lost prophet for the director’s bulging files. At one point, Herzog take us to an American “offline” commune set up in an isolated part of Washington State where those who believe they are suffering from sensitivity to electrical currents and airborne data transmissions can hide away. One resident tearfully describes the unbearable physical and psychological pain she felt until she found this retreat and how sad she feels that she can’t go home, and despite the fact that medical science remains skeptical of this the phenomenon, Herzog treats her with quiet respect and acknowledges that – to her – the pain is real. It personalises the idea that there will always be those who can’t – or wont’ – connect.