Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD, documentary, rated PG-13, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
In Lo and Behold, documentarian Werner Herzog delivers impactful images to an image-starved world — whether it’s a rocket ship blasting off behind a herd of charging cows, or a family grieving over the online harassment they received after their daughter’s death while they sit at a table laden with a perfectly symmetrical display of muffins and croissants — the latter image providing an odd moment of levity in their otherwise harrowing account of cyberbullying.
The film is ostensibly a documentary about the internet, but its greater purpose is to give us pause and ask questions about where we, with our advancing technologies, are headed. It starts with a brief history about the early days of the worldwide web. The first message sent by internet, from a computer at an engineering building at UCLA to a computer 400 miles away, was the message “lo.” The sender was typing “login” but was interrupted by a technical glitch before the rest of the word could be typed. But the experiment was a success and “lo” came through. By the 1980s, the email addresses of everyone on the internet could fit in a directory no thicker than your average phone book. Today, according to Herzog, such a list would stretch “to Mars and back.”
Herzog visits centers devoted to the most advanced work in robotics, including a self-driving car that learns from its mistakes and uploads the information to a network of other cars, teaching them as it learns. We visit a team of scientists who set up games for soccer-playing robots. One technician has a fondness for robot number eight, although number eight seems just like all the rest to the casual observer. Herzog, with his disarming line of questioning, asks the technician, “Do you love it?” and the technician sheepishly admits that yes, he does. Herzog also shows us a robot servant who can successfully pour you a drink, robots designed for search and rescue missions, and scientists working with artificial intelligence. Before you start fearing a coming “rise of the machines,” consider that artificially intelligent machines are still less capable in terms of self-determination than your average cockroach, according to the film. Herzog is less interested in what all this tech can do than in what it all means. He repeatedly asks his interview subjects, “Does the internet dream?” All agree it’s a good question, but few have concrete answers.
We’ve come a long way, but not all of it is good. A large-enough solar flare could wipe out the internet, the film shows us. Considering that a lot of our technology — from cell phones to televisions and home security systems — requires a connection, if they’re compromised, the world may plunge into a chaos from which it might not recover; we may not be able to recreate the technology. Much of the knowledge about how the internet itself developed is lost in an ocean of unsaved emails. In Herzog’s view, the universe is a cold and indifferent place. If we build it, forces beyond our control may tear it down. If they do, you can bet the cockroaches will survive just fine.
Herzog accepts nothing at face value. Like a modern Socrates, his questions stimulate honest discussion, undermining prepared narratives and spinning us in unexpected directions. Buddhist monks absorbed by social media stare at their cell phones, prompting him to ask, “Have the monks stopped meditating?” The film suggests that so long as we are connected, we are also susceptible to dark forces and are sometimes their agents. A telling statement is that the internet, the most advanced global system available that actually works, is also out of control. Underscoring this point is Herzog’s interview with infamous computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, who went from being one of the FBI’s most wanted to his career today as a legitimate security analyst and consultant. He once sweet-talked his way into a corporate network system with a simple phone call to a clueless receptionist, ending the phone call after obtaining password clearance from the company’s head of security.
Lo and Behold is far from a condemnation of web technology, but it is Herzog’s plea for objectivity. The internet revolutionized the world and will continue to do so. It isn’t good or bad in itself, but we have an obligation to consider carefully how we use it and what we use it for. How it’s affecting our evolution remains to be seen. — Michael Abatemarco
“Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting.” — Werner Herzog