Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, starts with the director introducing us to one of the birthplaces of the modern Internet, UCLA’s campus. We then meet computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock who introduces us to first node of the Internet where the first message was sent over the network (“Lo” after the machine crashed while typing “Login”). Kleinrock is one of the many enthusiastic men–and it really is mostly men in this movie–who tell us about the beginning, the present state of, and the future of our connected world. If the movie had stuck with that format, I would have been enthralled (if disappointed at the dude-ocity). Unfortunately, the strength of the first third of the movie is outweighed by an ugly middle section and a muddled finale.
Divided into 9 chapters, things start to go wrong about 30 minutes into the movie at Chapter III: The Dark Side. This section is composed solely of a single edited conversation with the Catsouras family. In 2006, one of their daughters died in a car crash, and the grisly photos from the accident were leaked online, resulting in the family being anonymously harassed. While their story is tragic and upsetting, the sight of the family at one end of their dining room table, with three plates of muffins and croissants prominently framed in the foreground, makes me wonder what I am supposed to take away from their plight. If not for the tragedy of the story, I would think that I should be mocking their demeanor, appearance, and statements about the evils of the Internet.
The same awkwardness carries on to Chapter IV: Life Without the Net. It begins with another enthusiastic scientist, astronomer Jay Lockman, at the Green Bank Science Center in West Virginia, home of the largest fully steerable radio telescope. In order to eliminate interference with the telescope, there are no cell towers, and limited signals that could cause interference. Again, geeky cool, until we abruptly shift to three people who moved out to Green Bank due to their electromagnetic hypersensitivity–they get poisoned by Wi-Fi and cell signals. As with the Catsouras family, I don’t know if I should mock them, or feel sympathy. Perhaps that is Herzog’s strength as a filmmaker–he doesn’t take pot shots at these people and their idiosyncracies.
After this odd middle section covering the outliers of our connected world, the movie makes its way back to the Internet and its role in society. Solar flares will wipe out the net and civilization as we know it. Hackers are already everywhere and will get you through social engineering (though this is true). Mars needs Internet too (I think this was just an excuse to interview Elon Musk). The movie wraps up with discussions of AI and the self-centered future of connectivity.
Most of these topics are interesting and relevant, but we never get as deep as I would have liked. We also have mostly men interviewed, and oddly, most of them are associated with Carnegie Melon. It’s like Herzog went to visit campus, and decided he could get most of his movie done with the people there. The one woman prominently featured was the badass astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, and she made some of the more interesting points in the back half of the movie. But, there are plenty of other women who have played a prominent role in technology and the Internet. I’m sure Herzog could have interviewed a couple more.
Lo and Behold started off well, and throughout there were many great moments (kudos also to the gorgeous soundtrack). But, the creepy middle third and the somewhat rushed ending took away from an exploration of one of my favorite topics. For that, I can’t give this movie a strong recommendation until it makes its way to Netflix and you are bored.
If you just can’t wait, though, the movie is now available for rent on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.
Lo and Behold chapters:
- Chapter I: The Early Days
- Chapter II: The Glory of the Net
- Chapter III: The Dark Side
- Chapter IV: Life Without the Net
- Chapter V: The End of the Net
- Chapter VI: Earthly Invaders
- Chapter VII: Internet on Mars
- Chapter VIII: Artificial Intelligence
- Chapter IX: The Internet of Me
For more on electromagnetic hypersensitivity, see Caitlin Dewey’s article here.