Film Review: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog brings his considerable strengths of wry humor, unbounded curiosity, taste for the morbid and gift for drama to this exploration of the birth, growth and future of the Internet and the massive connectivity it unleashed.
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Among so many qualities that have made Werner Herzog over the decades one of the world’s most renowned international filmmakers are his sense of story and showmanship, both on display here. Nor is he, as so many of his films have displayed, a stranger to life’s eccentricities, darker corners and extremes, as embodied by his characters, be they fictional, as epitomized by actor Klaus Kinski, or real, as they sometimes are in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

Organized into ten chapters, with each embracing different aspects of the Internet story, Lo and Behold kicks off with a brief history of the revolutionary “network of networks.” Inspiring the doc’s title, “L” and “O” was the first word sent via Internet by pioneer Dr. Leonard Kleinrock in 1969, when the message traveled north between host computers at UCLA and Stanford. The Net’s roots, therefore, were in academia and then expanded to government defense agencies like Arpa and Darpa before conquering the planet. (In his later “The Internet on Mars” chapter, Herzog investigates the possibility of settlements of both people and the Net in outer space as he interviews entrepreneur Elon Musk who, with his SpaceX rocket project, has such a vision).

On the way to “Mars,” the doc serves up some early oddball Net outliers and dreamers, such as Net “pioneer” Theodor Holm Nelson, who in the early ’60s became inspired by the chaotic way water in nature behaved. Also noticed early on was the miracle of the Net’s amazing connectivity and its potential value: A Carnegie Mellon scientist explains how putting a medical puzzle in the form of a game on the Web resulted in unexpected crowdsourcing that led many thousands of people to eventually find a solution to a cancer enigma. Equally if not even more memorable are the doc’s examinations of self-driving cars and robots, all dependent upon internet technology and capabilities.

As Herzog is wont to do, he goes to “the dark side” in a chapter focusing on a family in which a daughter driving her father’s Porsche died fatally in a horrific accident and whose death pictures while still in the vehicle (she was nearly beheaded) traveled the Web. But the worst part was that the family received unbelievably cruel and hateful online responses. The mother proclaims she didn’t know there was depravity in humans and brands the Internet as “a manifestation of the anti-Christ.” Herzog also queries several young people being treated at a rehab facility for another monstrous Internet byproduct: videogame addiction.

Herzog’s taste for the bizarre gets its moment with his investigation of a group of people claiming severe illness due to acute sensitivity to radiation—meaning, Internet-driven cellular waves. They have settled in isolation in a remote Appalachian area that is home to an observatory, many miles from the nearest cellular tower. The observatory, like this group of the afflicted, must be far from cellular activity so that it can collect “incredibly” faint radio-wave signals. Whether or not the illness and sensitivity these people claim is real goes unexamined, though the segment provides some jaunty mountain music from the locals.

There are many amusing anecdotes likes these as Herzog also takes his Internet exploration into the realms of cosmology, brain functions, artificial intelligence, and a future where an expert guesses that the Internet might one day allow for tweeted thoughts to be communicated. The ever morbidly inclined Herzog even unearths a doomsday scenario in which the Internet might be felled by extreme natural events like a massive solar flare.

Herzog enlists his own flair for the dramatic (some portentous orchestral strands from Wagner’s Das Rheingold help), but he’s also a skillful reporter who attracted an impressive array of talking heads to this project (Dr. Kleinrock, Danny Hillis, Dr. Robert Kahn, Sebastian Thrun, several Carnegie Mellon experts, among many others). Viewers might also savor such facts like that of the counterintuitive law of large numbers, which explains why the Net grew ever more efficient as the number of its users rose.

Again, Herzog serves as an amusing and seductive off-screen presence, providing helpful, if dramatically charged, voiceover and lobbing often provocative, even leading questions to his many subjects. (Press notes indicate that his onscreen conversations with interviewees were largely spontaneous.) As such, Herzog serves as a viewer surrogate, even a not-so-dumb tech “dummy,” far from immersed but genuinely interested in the mysteries and power of the Internet. His m.o. works, as it also puts his subjects at ease, maybe even to the point of, in the cases of notorious hacker and former Federal prisoner Kevin Mitnick and high-level security investigator Shawn Carpenter, being just a tad too loose-lipped about vulnerabilities, human and mechanical.

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