Does the Internet dream of itself? Will people even need human contact in the future? Isn't it weird to see monks looking at their smartphones? These are just a few of the modern existential humdingers explored in Lo and Behold, the latest deep-dive documentary from none other than Werner Herzog.
The nihilistic filmmaker plumbs the digital revolution's impact on humans, from the birth of the Internet to its inevitable (or, possibly already existing) sentience.
Conflict-with-nature themes famously permeate much of Herzog's work — and in Lo and Behold, the master documentarian turns his gimlet eye on both the digital ecosystem and the perils (and yes, stark beauty) that await us there.
73-year-old Herzog certainly brings a fresh perspective to the topic, since he never uses the Internet himself.
"I have a mobile device only for emergencies, and when I turned it on recently it stated to flash at me angrily that this device hadn’t been used for 52 weeks. Which is fine," Herzog told Mashable. "I am still doing well. I have survived these 52 weeks without a cell phone magnificently."
Herzog and Lo and Behold executive producer Jim McNeil (whose company, NetScout, backed the film) spoke with Mashable about the film ahead of its Sundance bow. Check out the trailer and the rest of the conversation below.
We're a long way from Grizzly Man here — what prompted you, a self-proclaimed Luddite, to examine the Internet, of all things?
Herzog: I was immediately fascinated because I see around me this explosive evolution of the Internet and all the digital possibilities. And I was curious because I come at the whole thing as an outsider — someone who barely uses the Internet, someone who doesn’t use a cell phone. But I do believe I can see the contours more sharply than others.
McNeil: Having someone like Werner, who is coming to it with a complete fresh perspective, completely unbiased, has allowed us to get a really unique take on this … I call him a technology tourist.
Herzog: No, I’m really more fascinated than a tourist. A tourist is ambling causally; my curiosity is much sharper than that.
What did you discover in this process? Was there a difference between the film you set out to make and the one you wound up with?
Herzog: Our first idea was to do a series of very short clips, 5 minutes or 6 minutes for YouTube, a little bit in my vein of [the] texting-and-driving film, From One Second to the Next. Very quickly it becaome obvious that this would be the wrong format. The more I dug into it, the more complexity that emerged. It had to be a feature-length documentary … so we switched fairly quickly. [We are] still talking about some sort of additional films on the Internet.
The film asks several people: 'Does the Internet dream of itself?' But we never get your answer. So: Do you think the Internet dreams of itself?
Herzog: I do not know. But I think it’s going to get there. Well, it’s a big unknown, but it’s a very fascinating unknown. And very evocative. Number one, it’s sheer poetry; number two, it somehow gives a signature to a future that we can vaguely foresee. But let’s not get too deep into futuristic visions or so … because when I made this film, I was just exploring. It was terra incognita for me, and I just followed my curiosity … myriads of other questions are coming up and building around what I’ve done. It’s unfinished business.
There’s the birth of the internet in room 3420 in the Stanford Research Institute, a surprisingly humble origin story accompanied by swelling strings and enthusiastic narration. Then there’s new ager Ted Nelson, who isn’t content with the current web and instead wants more “interconnections”, even though it’s not really clear what he means by that.
Adrien Treuille explains how the web helped medical staff figure out a problem with their molecule modelling programme. The world of hacking is decoded by Kevin Mitnick, who ran rings round law enforcement before getting caught. Elon Musk pitches his vision of life on Mars.
Self-driving cars are unpacked by Sebastian Thurn and Raj Rajkumar, while the creator of football-playing robots, Joydeep Biswas, explains his plans to create a robot XI that could beat the World Cup winners by 2050. It’s all joyous, exciting stuff, and it argues the only real problem with the internet and technology is human beings who, unlike, say, driverless cars that share information to prevent further accidents, aren’t in the business of altruistic compassion while online.
The most sobering episode is the story of Nikki Catsouras, a teenager who drove her father’s car into a toll booth and suffered horrific head injuries. The pictures of the crash leaked online, went viral and were eventually sent to her father. The family sit in silence as the details are recounted; Herzog chooses to not even show a picture of Nikki, in case it inspired “sick curiosity”. Her mother says she believes the web is “the manifestation of the Antichrist”, and her father explains how even the dead have no privacy.
The laughs of early sections choke off into silence as the film goes on. We learn about a South Korean couple who were so addicted to the web they played video games as their child starved to death. Then there’s a man who had a leg amputated because he sat too long while online, and a group of people who live off the grid because of the invisible effects of technology.
Herzog does get a laugh when he holds back from questioning a gaming addict about her multiple online personalities, in case it triggers a relapse. Clearly pained by having to hold back, he explains that he wanted to ask about the “malevolent droid dwarf or whoever these figures are … but I desist”.
Despite some of the horror stories within, Lo and Behold is fundamentally positive about the technological world that surrounds us. Whether it’s the characters – who could walk off the pages of a Jon Ronson book – or Herzog’s deadpan delivery, it’s a homage to the outsiders who make the web and tech what it is – something ridiculous and brilliant.
Herzog is sometimes hard to follow as he pivots from sun flares to Hurricane Sandy to the Fukushima disaster without any apparent reason, but for those looking for a ride through our modern technological world, or indeed a preview of what is to come, this is it.