Werner Herzog brings his dour brand of whimsy to LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD, his consideration of cyberspace. The result is a thought-provoking piece that brings up little-known issues and implications, placing them side by side with the more conventional topics of security and dependence. Indeed, the most arresting moment in the documentary isn’t a security analyst explaining that if were presently engaged in a cyberwar, we would not necessarily know it. Rather, it’s a computer scientist blithely musing on another potential blind spot. That would be the idea that if artificial intelligence arose on the internet, and became self-aware, he didn’t see any reason why it would let us know it’s there, much less consult us about anything it might want to do. It’s as revelatory as it is disconcerting.
The doc begins at the beginning, with Herzog visiting the very room where the internet was born on Oct. 29, 1969 when an aptly named IMP (Internet Message Processor) sitting in a non-descript room on the UCLA campus sent two letters to its counterpart 400 miles to the north at Stanford. There would have been more, but the Stanford computer crashed when the “g” of “logon” arrived but didn’t print. As Leonard Kleinrock, one of the computer engineers involved, puts it with a twinkle in his eye as he tells the story while sitting in that room, we didn’t get what we intended, instead we got “Lo”, as in “Lo and behold,” words with which to conjure.
And conjure we did. From solving problems of molecular architecture by inventing a game played by the world to violations of grief and privacy that are wrenching to hear; from instant communication and access to the world’s knowledge base to a mysterious physical affliction caused by the very medium that allows it, forcing its sufferers to live in Faraday Cages or seek refuge in one of the few spots on earth where the internet is inaccessible. That latter, in bucolic Green Bank, W. Virginia also provides a home to a radio-telescope that would be useless elsewhere, and to a community that deals with each other face-to-face, not virtually, providing us with a glimpse of a way of life common less than a generation ago, but one that feels prehistoric despite the obvious delight the radio-astronomer takes in his weekly sessions with the local bluegrass group. Herzog does not overtly judge. He does not tell us directly how to feel. He does what the best filmmakers do. He shows us what he has discovered, slyly shaped for maximum impact both intellectually and emotionally.
We are gently led through the past, present, and future, with stops along the way for ideas that never caught on, and the proponent who refuses to relinquish his vision. A man who visibly chokes up when Herzog, in his gravelly profundo of a voice assures him that he is one of the sanest men he has ever met. This is never an abstract film, though the subject is precisely that. It is a record of the personalities, all of whom have what can only be described as a giddy élan about their chosen specialty. A robotics researcher, having explained the mechanics of how it works, cradles one particular soccer playing robot shaped like a tin can and declares his love for this particular one over all the others. Elon Musk waxes grandiloquent about how the internet will work on Mars, and Kevin Mitnick, the proto-hacker, describes how he gamed the FBI with a sublime practical joke by using their phones against them. Funny, but when he explains the correspondence with what he did with what the NSA is doing now, it gives one pause. The dark side of progress was there at its beginnings, and the law, ethics, and human wisdom, it seems, haven’t caught up. They might not know where to start. Balance that against a self-driving car that not only learns from its mistakes, but so do all the other self-driving cars that currently exist as well as those yet to be built.
There is awe and wonder in LO AND BEHOLD, but the dazzle is tempered with a bracing, even-handed approach that is neither hopeful nor pessimistic. We are asked to do what, as far as we know, computers or the internet can’t do yet. Take stock and let our imaginations run wild with what comes next with the imp of the perverse that we have unleashed upon ourselves that will turn our world (virtual and analog) upside down.