There is a rather profound moment in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, where an astronomer named Lucianne Walkowicz gives a prediction of the way the internet can potentially evolve in the future. She explains the notion of using radio waves or visible light to carry internet signals, which she notes can be a relatively cheap process, as a way of creating a web of interconnectivity between planets. By developing this web of communication between potentially hospitable planets, perhaps we can not only learn about new life, but also gain a deeper appreciation for our own world and what it means to be human. It is a segment of the interview that is surely meant to spawn a feeling of wonder surrounding the vast and mysterious possibilities the Internet still contains, and how we can perhaps become a more enlightened society.
But that moment is then quickly undercut by a transition to entrepreneur and Space X founder Elon Musk, the man who more than anything wants to send people to live on Mars in seclusion and communicate with earth via satellite, in light of disasters of apocalyptic proportions. Sitting quietly in a deep, ponderous stance, he says “I’m sure I have good dreams sometimes, but I don’t seem to remember the good dreams. The ones that I remember are the nightmares.”
These two moments combined raise a question that audiences will likely be haunted by throughout this documentary—is the internet currently evolving is ways that is making our society slowly forget how to dream of a more positive future? It isn’t the most original question posed about our growing reliance on technology, but Herzog is able find moments of surprising emotional heft in a subject that on the surface, can be perceived as cold or difficult to grasp.
This documentary focuses on how the internet has evolved since its’ beginnings in 1969, and as a result changed the way people have largely related to each other the world around them. The film is littered with awe-inspiring moments similar to the interview with Walkowicz. For example, there is an interview with a scientist who developed an online game where people can help solve the puzzle of how certain molecules are shaped or “folded”—thus assisting in combating major diseases. Another being a conversation with an internet pioneer who dreamed of creating a program where internet links would automatically form as a person writes new content, creating an infinite web of past and present connections. These ideas seem exciting and trailblazing, making it all the more tragic when he delves into the subjects of artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons, thus painting a portrait of just how insignificant human connections may have become. As a result, one is eventually left to wonder if those original internet pioneers would have approved of our actions in the present. The people interviewed by Herzog cover a fairly large spectrum of jobs and backgrounds, as they range from internet hackers, astronomers, nuclear weapons researchers and kids addicted to video games. The varied perspectives of those people make for a very engaging hour and forty minutes, as feelings of optimism and dread are constantly being evoked and shifted.
But one of the biggest reasons as to why it is so easy to become emotionally invested in this documentary is, of course, Herzog himself. When he asks questions or makes observations, he sounds as though he knows very little about technological advances of recent years, and thus offers an easily relatable perspective. His speaking tone often conveys a wide-eyed enthusiasm towards many of the subjects being discussed. A subtly funny moment occurs during a conversation with an engineer, who is explaining the inner workings of a self-driving car, that can download new information regarding car crashes as a way to learn about human values. Herzog eagerly wants him to open up the trunk so he can see all the intricate machinations inside, only to find the trunk empty with a row of computers placed under the rug. It is that unawareness of the technology that perhaps allows him to ask the most interesting questions, that at times resonate the most deeply. For example, even though the self-driving cars can learn from their mistakes— making the future generations of cars all the more perfect—who is liable for that one crash, and what does that say about our willingness to forgo personal responsibility in today’s society?
Even though he asks uncomfortable questions, he always comes across as incredibly empathetic, and willing to share in a person’s glee or excitement, which can be quite infectious when watching the film. When he is shown a robot that is part of an automotive soccer team that can potentially rival the world’s best soccer players in the future, he says it’s “beautiful” before one of the engineers professes their love for it.
One may wonder if he, just like the audience, is left in a state of confusion or fear as to what the future for the internet holds, as he can also shift to being genuinely bewildered by the cruelty with which people can enact. The most heart-wrenching moment in the film comes when he interviews a family who lost a daughter in a car crash, who were then emailed pictures of the dead body from an anonymous source. It’s an interview that lingers over the rest of the film. It not only is a worst-case scenario regarding people not willing to take responsibility for their actions in a digital world, but it also exemplifies Herzog’s humanist choices, that suggests a deep affect on him, as he refuses to show any pictures of the girl. Just showing her favourite area of the house. The image of an empty living room with a dusty piano is a quick but punch-to-the–gut reminder of the richness of life that was treated to trivially. For anyone who grew up surrounded by computers, such cruelty should come as no surprise, but hearing his genuine reactions of sadness or perplexity can be a reminder of how we may have come to accept those negative aspects, when perhaps we shouldn’t.
However, Herzog’s seemingly unawareness to the subject also acts as a double-edged sword. The film unfortunately gets bogged down when it explores themes and ideas that are overly familiar. When he is interviewing subjects who discuss the danger of solar flares, which can harness the power to instantly cripple our society through the disruption of our satellites, or younger people addicted to video games, he doesn’t offer a perspective that hasn’t already been previously explored by other media outlets or documentaries in far more detail.
Nevertheless, the amount of moments that resonate far after viewing Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World do overshadow those that seem derivative and Herzog makes for a surprisingly impactful audience conduit.
This documentary just completed an extensive month-long run at Bloor Hot Docs but is also available to download on iTunes!