Overview: A documentary presenting the past, present, and future of the Internet and information technology and its impact–real and potential–on our species. Magnolia Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 98 minutes.
Would We Expect Anything Less?: Once again, Werner Herzog weaves different but related threads of the human experience into an educational, thought-provoking, and awesome documentary that simultaneously entertains and informs. He begins at the beginning–the very first message sent from host to host: “Lo.” From there, he explores all that the Internet has to offer–from an awe-inspiring source of information and a tool for improving lives worldwide, to the crutch without which we are doomed. In the end, he concludes nothing except that we are not human without love and connection–something that no technology can experience . . . can it?
We Are Only As Strong As We Are United: Herzog first explores the scale of the Internet, and through a conversation with Dr. Leonard Kleinrock takes us through the law of large numbers–the larger the network, the more efficient it can be. He helps the viewer understand the scale of the Internet as it is today (compared with the two-host conversation with which it began), and then shows us how the number of connected people, sharing information, has led to amazing things. Crowd-sourced molecule creation. Free education. Virtual classes with Stanford professors for those without the privilege of acceptance to Stanford. Autonomous vehicles. Soccer-playing robots.
The Internet’s Pernicious Influence: But, of course, people can take any amazing thing and ruin it; Herzog shows us this, too. Through the course of the film, we see the wonderful things the Internet has led to (crowd-sourced molecule creation, impossible response times), but we also see the vile, disgusting, evil impulses it has allowed people to indulge due to anonymity. With no accountability, morals become weak.
Herzog also shows us the physical damage of technology, in which we are immersed whether we want to be or not. In West Virginia, a community has grown within the radio-free zone around the Green Bank radio telescope. There, people sensitive to radio waves can live without pain. They are refugees from a hostile world. But are they free, finally, or imprisoned in a few square miles surrounded on all sides by the noise of information?
Consider the Expert Opinions: And those outside that circle without radio waves . . . are they free, or shackled by their dependence on technology? Would the end of the net be the end of us? Could one solar flare cause the fall of civilization? And if we are weak–which we are–what does it mean for us to put so much of our identity where a hacker could reach it? How much anonymity are we willing to sacrifice to keep our personal information secure? Herzog poses these questions through a series of interviews with IT security specialists, hackers, and technological visionaries, whom he places in settings reflecting the tenor of the discussion–evoking reverence, respect, and fear. We live in a time where a vast amount of information is available to us, when knowledge is less important than understanding how to access it, on the verge of even more amazing technology–yet one lax user could expose us all to identity theft or worse (see: Mr. Robot).
Does the Internet Dream of Itself?: Which brings us to the future of the Internet. Herzog investigates the possibilities this interconnection could open up–both good and bad. We could live on Mars. We could be rescued by robots instead of firemen. Our technology could become so advanced and seamlessly incorporated into our lives that we no longer see it. Our technology could become sentient. We could enter a digital dark age. We could tweet our thoughts.
He leaves us looking far into the future, to a place where there is no need for us to interact face to face at all, because all of the information we need comes to us. And then, he cuts back to a scene from the radio-free refuge in West Virginia–a masterful move, underlining a point Herzog interjects throughout the documentary: to be human is to love, and connection is more than packets and protocols.
Overall: In Lo and Behold, Herzog teases out the advantages and weaknesses of our connected world, and follows them to their logical ends. This is an ode, an essay, and a cautionary tale, deftly crafted and magnificent in its final form.
Featured Image: Magnolia Pictures