Writer and musician currently living in Jakarta
'Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World' (Netflix/File)
Given the torrent of documentaries about the internet released every year, you would be forgiven for not getting too excited about watching yet another standard cast of technopreneurs and Silicon Valley philosophers being rolled out to wax lyrical about the meaning and future of the World Wide Web. However, an exploration of cyberspace helmed by the 20th century’s Teutonic megalith of film Werner Herzog offers the prospect of something a little different.
For a start, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is very wide in scope. Most of the notable internet documentaries of the past several years have deeply analyzed a certain aspect of the internet, whether it’s cybersecurity in Zero Days or intellectual property and the storage and distribution of knowledge in Google and the World Brain. Herzog, on the other hand, seems to have jumped into this project with, “so what’s the deal with this whole internet thing?” as his sole research question.
To answer this question he talks with big tech-world names such as Elon Musk, Danny Hillis and Sebastian Thrun, but also turns the camera on some little-known engineers working on self-driving cars and soccer-playing robots, among other projects, and young people in an internet-addiction rehab facility. The various stories are divided into ten thematic sections – with titles like “Life without the Net,” “The Internet on Mars” and “The Dark Side” – which really all could have been documentaries in their own right.
This doesn’t leave the viewer with any sense of cohesion; at times it actually has the same aimless, random feel of surfing the web itself. He browses over the story of hacker “demigod” Kevin Mitnick, the Wikipedia print project, the possibility of a solar flare wiping out all communication technology and more. Obviously, trying to pack the whole internet into a 90-minute documentary is impossible, and Herzog doesn’t find time to touch on surveillance or spying, social media, e-commerce, e-governance, the dark web or smartphones, among many other things.
However, regardless of being neither cohesive nor comprehensive, this loose collection of vignettes is bound together by Herzog’s personal mission to explore the psychological repercussions and abstract, poetic aspects of the internet age. (The former is suggested by the film’s cover image: a human head sculpted out of wires and circuits.) Herzog believes in some sort of sacrosanct human dignity, and despite his ostensible awe at the heights digital innovation has risen to, he can’t mask his concern that the latter is somehow curtailing the former.
The other thing that ensures Lo and Behold will hold the attention of viewers is that it is infused with the director’s severe, brooding personality. When checking out the computer that sent the first message via the internet he remarks, “The corridors look repulsive, but this one leads to a shrine.” Later he asks several of his interviewees with deadpan sincerity, “Does the internet dream of itself?” Elsewhere, the dialogue is peppered with those unique Herzogian existentialist dad jokes delivered in his trademark dour tone.
In conflict with the standard approach in documentary filmmaking, Herzog never tries to be an objective bearer of his subject. Rather he stylizes his scenes, directs interviewees and asks them questions that push them off their standard scripts. This is particularly evident in a bizarre scene in which the mother of a family who were victims of cyberbullying declares the internet to be the antichrist while posing next to a pile of scones. Looking at the internet through Herzog’s eyes is indeed something to behold.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is currently available on Netflix. (asw)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.