Werner Herzog’s New Doc Makes the Internet Look Scary Again

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After seeing a Werner Herzog movie, I always have a strong temptation to write in a “Herzog voice”: “I am using the internet to write a review of a movie about the internet,” I’m tempted to say. “These are the mysterious images of penguins that I dreamed.”

Because the Munich-born Herzog’s new documentary Lo And Behold is about both communicating online and (somehow) dreams, this reaction is strangely appropriate. The film is a vaguely chronological exploration of our connected universe, beginning with a close-up on the logbook from the October 1969 experiment at UCLA that gave us the internet and ending soon after Elon Musk’s agreement to take Herzog to Mars and reconnect him with his people. (Left unexplored is the theory that the web was actually created during Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.)

Veering back and forth from the bleak present to the hopeful future, Herzog attempts to interject motifs from previous work like Fitzcarraldo and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams into Lo And Behold’s ambitious ten-chapter essay. These tangents, coupled with the occasional voiceover quip, become distractions from his greater concerns: that our love of and dependence upon technology is endangering the human race. His subjects also touch – and leave the audience to dwell further – on the death of critical thinking and the dictatorship that is groupthink.

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Fitzcarraldo

Interspersed are segments examining every aspect of the connected world, automatons and the effect that all things wireless have had on our culture. One goofy science student at Carnegie Melon shows Herzog an intense game of soccer played exclusively by robots. The student hopes that by 2050, his Robot 8 will dominate Lionel Messi and his flawed human brethren in a “real” match. This is the deceptively charming side of future tech, whereas those of us who spend a great deal of time spelunking online worry that technology is already outmaneuvered by the creeping darkness.

If you’re not familiar with that dark side, it’s the place where psychopaths and gleefully immature brats email autopsy photos of a dead teenager to the girl’s father, specifically in the notorious Nikki Catsouras case, which the film touches on. “There is no dignity or respect on the internet,” Catsouras’ grieving mother tells Herzog. Instead, it’s demonic, she says, “the spirit of evil.”

Maybe this internet thing isn’t working out, guys. Between it eliminating jobs (thanks, robots), spam (thanks, robots), online harassment (sexist robots) and numerous other drawbacks, it’s hard for even a master like Herzog to make a balanced case here, including one that defends connected tech. Would the internet’s sudden disappearance from our lives be a calamity in anything but the short term? Were we to abandon the connected world and colonize Mars, it’s doubtful that anyone would miss having to read YouTube comments.

“How will we tell them the outcome of the World Series?” Herzog asks rhetorically in one of his more amusing Bavarian voiceover interjections. Herzog does make a valid point here: is there anything that our disconnected world hasn’t done better?

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Wikipedia can be manipulated and is often factually inaccurate, while real-world fact-checking means your local library’s card catalog usually leads to the right answer. Scrolling Amazon Prime’s video library for hours, you might admit, is no improvement on visiting an indie video store.

But it may not matter whether we prefer to turn off our modems and detox or to spend 40 hours in a row playing Pokemon Go in a diaper. (In the film, there is a straight-faced discussion about “Asian teenagers” marathoning desktop games for days without pausing to visit the restroom.)

As one scientist tells Herzog unequivocally, “It’s only a matter of time before we have a solar flare,” one that researchers and history suggest would knock out power grids, as well as the internet and most connected tech for good. Herzog makes a valid point here: is there anything that our disconnected world hasn’t done better? Lo And Behold points out that we’re busy debating internet behavior and addiction, unaware that the web may not last forever anyway – and that we’re not culturally or mentally prepared for that possibility.

The internet nerds may avoid falling in love with Big Brother, but they do have a troubling affection for Robot 8. Lo And Behold might just be their wakeup call.

 

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