Only Werner Herzog would have the audacity to make a documentary about the “internet” in 2016 – and only Herzog would manage to gain something from this outdated term that still feels futuristic. Suffused with the same wondrous tone as his documentaries about the natural world, Lo and Behold sometimes feels like a film made at the very moment at which the term “internet” first passed into everyday parlance, and sometimes feels even more visionary than the thought leaders that Herzog interviews. While Herzog himself might take a back seat for many of these interviews, his restlessness, and his awry questions, capture his own networked sensibility in quite a powerful way too – the fascination with oblique angles and unexpected contiguities that sees most of his documentaries veer off in an unusual direction at one point or another. During the opening “chapter,” which deals with the genesis of the internet in the 1960s, you can often sense Herzog joining the dots between the evolution of the internet and his evolution as auteur, questioning the extent to which his signature, and the internet, might have emerged from the same cultural matrix.
After this opening chapter, Herzog turns to the utopian promise of the internet, relying mainly on interviews and archival footage to get his message across. For the most part, Herzog seems content to just train the camera on his subjects and let them talk, to the point where it is often their presence, rather than their insights, that are the most commanding. Rather than try to explain the internet in any cogent way for his audience, Herzog focuses on those moments in the interviews that quantify the sheer reach of the internet. At one point we learn that if all the data from one day of the internet were stored on CDs, those CDs would stack all the way to Mars and back. At another point, we learn that a directory of internet users at any one time would be at least seventy-two miles thick. Along with these analogies, Herzog also focuses on those moments when his subjects emphasise the tactility and materiality of the internet, starting with Robert Kahn, who casually touches the objects on display at the University of California museum while reliving how he first used them, fifty years ago, to invention the Transmission Control Protocol and, in turn, the Internet Protocol.
While Herzog doesn’t spend much time on technological exposition, he does show a characteristic fascination for the quirks and arcana of the internet, such as a node in the early days of the internet that “thought” it could carry messages in negative time, and so deliver them before they had even been sent. Similarly, Herzog seems fascinated by ideas about the internet that preceded the internet, along with alternative histories and versions of the internet, such as Project Xanadu, which founder Ted Nelson described an attempt to translate the “experience of water and interconnection” into computer networking. Finally, Herzog seems fascinated with the way in which the internet relates to intelligence, from a gaming platform that was pioneered by Carnegie-Mellon to assist with problems in molecular biology (its goal is to “help the players understand and inhabit the world of the molecule”) to the realm of artificial intelligence, including a Carnegie-Mellon team of football robots that are aiming to be capable of beating the FIFA World Champions by 2050.
As fascinating as this vision of the internet might be, however, it becomes a bit one-note after a while, and quickly starts to feel like an advertisement for the internet, or even a pitch for the various initiatives that are being depicted, most of which are situated at Carnegie-Mellon. Although Herzog is trying to cast these thought leaders in the guise of the oddball visionaries and renegade auteurs that populated so much of his work, they don’t really live up to the image – a situation that becomes painfully clear in the case of Elon Musk, who appears in the later part of the documentary, and who has never felt less visionary than he does here. Similarly, the talking heads approach ultimately doesn’t sync all that well with Herzog’s impressionistic style, with the result that the interviews quickly decelerate the momentum of the film. The fact that they’re technical without being expository, and often turn on trade secrets that can’t be fully disclosed, makes them even less engaging, turning them into data dumps beyond a certain point, chunks of information that don’t seem to serve any clear purpose. Watching them, I realised Herzog’s best documentaries revolve around figures in motion, or figures who aspire to motion – whether ski jumpers, pilots and engineers – rather than the more staid corporate innovation that is often on display here, in the interviewees’ manner if not necessarily in the nature and ambition of their inventions.
Luckily that all changes with an abrupt pivot into the dark side of the internet, helmed by a woman who believes that the internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist. This paves the way for the two most distinctive parts of the film, the first of which focuses on communities that have removed themselves from the internet. The first of these is Green Bank, West Virginia, the site of the National Radio Quiet Zone – an area that the government aims to keep as free from physical and electrical noise as possible, in order to facilitate an astronomical laboratory focused on emissions from deep space. At first, this precinct was exclusively inhabited by locals and employees of the observatory, but over time a small community of people has emerged in flight from electromagnetic sensitivity, since the region effectively functions as a giant Faraday Cage. The second region without the internet is a internet rehab centre on the West Coast, and it is here that Herzog enacts some of the most affecting and unaffected interviews of the film, as we are introduced to a couple of young adults whose lives were on the verge of being destroyed by internet addiction. One of them, a young woman, still can’t talk about gaming in any detail, for fear that it will trigger both her addiction, and the various events in her life that led to that addiction in the first place.
In other words, Herzog not only outlines spaces where people live without the internet, but where people think – or try to think – without the internet. This leads on, quite naturally, to the next part of the film, which focuses on the possibility that the internet will ultimately destroy life and thought as we know it, in a powerful counterpoint to the hive mind utopianism of the opening sections. Rather than simply resort to more exhausted arguments about the internet “dumbing down” society, however, Herzog turns his attention to astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, who discusses the Carrington Event of 1859, the most powerful solar storm on record. Given that this caused widespread havoc to telegraph systems, Walkowicz suggests, a similar solar flare might turn the internet into a source of destruction, leading Herzog to muse about the possibility that the internet might someday facilitate an extinction event. Out of all the interviewees in the film, Walkowicz was my favourite – her tone is passionate and provisional at the same time, and a real counterpoint to the “visionary” register that so many of the men in the film adopt as a matter of course. Among other things, Lo and Behold is – perhaps unwittingly – a testament to the white male dominance of the internet sector, as well as the extent to which a certain kind of mansplaining is more or less synonymous with discourse within this particular sector as well.
It’s a bit of a letdown, then, when Herzog returns to interviews in the last third of the film. While his oddball questions might offset the visionary monologues of these tech gurus, he still gives some of them an awful lot of space. At one point, he tells Musk that he would like to be the first person to go to Mars, and I wondered whether this film – the first documentary shot on Mars – was the film that Herzog really wanted to make, since there would be no director better suited for the project. Not only does he foreground references to Mars in his interviews with previous subjects, but there is an entire chapter of Lo and Behold dedicated to “Internet on Mars.” Similarly, the most evocative section in this back end of the film is a sequence in which Herzog imagines how Chicago would look after everyone had departed for Mars. Walking along the shores of Lake Michigan, he notes how quiet and deserted everything looks, only to come across a group of Buddhist monks working on their smartphones – a flashback to the surrealism of his earlier documentaries.
Nevertheless, there is something powerful about how Lo and Behold recovers the idea of the internet from the idea of being online – or insists that the internet is more than simply being online. Unlike virtually every other documentary about this area, Herzog largely refrains from metaphors of connection – or complicates and estranges them – eventually turning to each of his key intervieees and asking them whether or not “the internet dreams of itself.” Their answers are more original and surprising than might be expected, especially since Herzog’s idea of the internet seems to be pretty expansive, extending both to artificial intelligence, but also to the alternative networks that the community at Green Bank is forced to construct in lieu of the internet proper. The great twist of the film comes with Danny Hills’ suggestion that, far from having transformed the world already, our current period will probably come to be seen as a “digital dark age” by a future in which the internet of things has finally moved beyond phones, producing an “environment so wired that experience will be brought to you.” The final note of Lo and Behold, then, is that we are still much closer to the internet, as both a term and an idea, than to a genuine digital singularity.
Herzog devotes the last part of the film to evoking this singularity, in a brief concluding section titled “The Future.” The most powerful moment here comes from Tom M. Mitchell and Marcel Just, who showcase a two million dollar instrument that can “read” mentalese. Hooked up to an individual’s brain, it can figure out that the brain is computing the idea of an elephant – the example they use – with no apparent regard for whether the computations come from an image of an elephant or the word “elephant,” or what language the brain is thinking in. It’s a moment that recalls Herzog’s own film Land of Silence and Darkness, which follows a group of deaf-blind subjects around their daily lives, including a visit to a zoo where they caress an elephant’s trunk. Both films draw upon the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, and in both films, Herzog is fascinated by – and keen to draw attention to – the nature of perception as inherently limited, and inherently finite. And it is that depiction of the internet as embroidering the limitations that make us human, rather than collapsing us into a post-human singularity, that makes the best parts of Lo and Behold such an original take on digital technology, and so true to Herzog’s own vision, which has always depended on affirming his perceptual partiality in just this manner.