In “Lo and Behold, Reveries of a Connected World,” we have a documentary about the internet, how it was conceived, what it does now, and where it might go in the future. Not exactly an original or exciting concept, considering how much information there is about this thing that so many of us use on a constant, day to day basis, like this moment right now. But when this documentary is made by an acclaimed master filmmaker who doesn’t use the internet and can go an entire year without even turning on his cellphone, who has a tendency to look at the much more existential side of any situation and often comes up with gloomy conclusions, you end up with what is currently the best possible documentary about the internet, modern society and where this all could possibly be taking us.
Now that is not to say that “Lo and Behold” has the full history of the internet, and is an exhaustive compendium of all the key facts of the invention of this world changing creation, and it doesn’t look at every single facet of day to day life and how the internet is used in that way. Basically, not once does anyone mention Netflix, Amazon, eBay or Al Gore. Werner Herzog seems much less interested in WHO made these machines and much more interested in WHY, and more importantly, how does this change everything it comes in contact with, and is it all for better or worse or a mix of the two?
He does have a number of talking heads in there explaining some key aspects of the internet’s origins and current uses, but many of these conversations tend to have a much more macro view of the topic. When someone explains how a self-driving car that makes a mistake will learn from that mistake, they point out how this car is connected to all other self-driving cars through a network, and the knowledge gained from making this mistake will be transferred to every other car so they all learn the same thing, and this knowledge will automatically be passed on to future cars that haven’t even been built yet, which is so incredibly different than how humans work. We don’t have that sort of hive mind (although maybe we do?), so when I make a mistake, unless I tell someone how I did it and what I did wrong, no one else will learn from it and no one else benefits. Imagine if we lived in a much more cooperative world in which we constantly taught each other from our own mistakes, the things we could be doing as a species would be beyond incredible.
These are the types of ideas and thought processes that “Lo and Behold” inspires, as it goes through its story chapter by chapter, looking at both the benefits and detriments to the system we have in place. We all know the internet can be a very dark place inhabited by some very terrible people, and of course Herzog spends part of the movie talking to one family dealing with some pretty horrific internet abuse, just as a reminder about how horrible things can get for some people and how the internet can make things so much worse because of some bad people. We sometimes read of stories like this, but when we see a family actually tell the story and we see the emotion in their faces and eyes, it becomes more real and hits home a littler harder. So while the internet has brought us some great things, it can also bring pain, and we must always remember that if we are to use this thing properly.
And Herzog being Herzog looks to the future with a wary eye, as the documentary goes into artificial intelligence not only in self driving cars but in all sorts of different applications, and if it would be possible for these AI machines to ever achieve any level of sentience, and of course what would then come of that? And those people whom he interviews all tend to be quite thoughtful and open minded, approaching his questions with inquisitiveness and through philosophical filter, so when he does something like ask these various scientists and experts whether or not they think the internet dreams, they take the question seriously and ponder it and it makes for very thought provoking and poetic discussions about the nature of awareness and what it even means to dream and be alive.
“Lo and Behold” is a pretty wonderful movie, and I would actually love a follow up from Werner Herzog, maybe in short form, about how he sees the internet and modern technology after doing this documentary and talking to so many people, and whether or not he now bothers to turn on his cellphone more than once a year, or if he threw that thing in the river and started looking for a cabin in the mountains to live. More than likely, this Luddite turned technology archaeologist is probably fairly unchanged in his day to day life, but his mind his now reeling with the untold possibilities and the myriad of questions that come up when thinking about this stuff.