The first message ever sent between two computers across a great distance was meant to be: “log”. But after computer A sent the “l” and the “o”, computer B crashed. Thus, the first message ever sent across the internet was “lo”. According to the opening scene of this documentary, there couldn’t have been a more prophetic first message across the internet: “Lo” and behold!
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is a documentary by Werner Herzog. If you don’t know who Werner Herzog is, please check out some of his work like Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World. It is about the history of the internet, from its earliest days, and about how it has taken over our lives. Werner Herzog has an endearing German accent that is almost impossible not to mock, and with it he narrates his documentaries in a witty style that is at once very serious and melodramatic, but also drily comedic. His work is occasionally highly regarded, but at least always interesting.
A whole parade of old, wise faces passes the screen, as each old computer expert tells about their experiences with the birth of the world-wide web. The passion of the old computer geeks for the interconnected world and the giant flow of information has very much become a part of our modern world. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, Harari talks about a possible new religion arising in the future, data religion, in which humans find their worth as being part of the world-wide data flow. It is therefore very timely that Herzog’s documentary starts with the origin of the internet as some sort of serene, religious moment of prophecy.
He quickly moves on to self-driving cars, who get their information about traffic jams from the internet. And who learn how to drive better through a shared pool of AI experiences. But not all is wonder and sunshine. With the connectedness of all things may come loss of privacy, loss of dignity and decency. Loss of accountability.
Herzog moves between many topics. His message may be about connectedness, but the documentary topics feel only loosely connected, without a strong narrative to tie it all together. The general mood behind the film is one of wonder and consternation about where the world is going. There is no strong point to it beyond what the connected world is doing to us. Herzog therefore focuses a lot on individuals with remarkable reactions to the connected world. Like an AI researcher who loves one of his robots, or a family that became a victim of hate mail, to people who claim that radio waves make them sick. Herzog provides no judgment.
The feelings of wonder and consternation change to those of concern. Herzog focuses on many negative aspects of the connected world. Is Lo and Behold mostly a word of caution? Elon Musk shows up for a short interview to deliver a more positive message about having the internet in a Mars colony. Involving space travel makes Herzog’s documentary even looser around the edges.
Lots of interesting material that is sure to get people talking, Lo and Behold still lacks focus and picks low-hanging fruit. There is no clear narrative and there are no real new ideas, and therefore makes little impact. Herzog wastes some time with esoteric questions such as “does the internet dream”, but doesn’t really explore the full potential of the connected world.