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Computer Weekly at the movies: Werner Herzog takes on the internet

Computer Weekly sat down to watch Werner Herzog’s latest documentary on the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

If you were going to make a documentary about the internet, Oscar-nominated digital refusenik Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fitzcarraldo), who does not even own a mobile phone and whose idea of a social network is his own dinner table, would not be one’s first choice to direct and present it.

However, in his latest piece, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog sets out to do exactly that, taking the audience on a journey from the beginnings of the internet – with a guided tour of UCLA’s computer science lab from none other than Len Kleinrock – to our potential future among the stars.

But why did Herzog, who generally trains his eye on altogether more human subjects and is certainly not renowned for corporate gigs, turn his attention to this piece, which was commissioned and funded by NetScout, a supplier of application and network performance management systems?

“I do not do commercials or infomercials,” says Herzog, “but when it became obvious that NetScout would not interfere at all and simply wanted to be part of a film I made, that was quite fine with me.”

Maybe it is also because the internet has become so indispensable to our modern lives that it is becoming just another element of our common humanity.

A familiar tale

Lo and Behold opens with a story that has become familiar to many, the beginnings of the internet in the 1960s, the work of people such as Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and others, and a curious diversion into some of the ideas that did not end up being used to create the internet.

The audience is swiftly moved on through a series of documentary vignettes, each exploring a different aspect of the internet.

To accomplish this, Herzog draws on a series of remarkable interviewees including roboticist and autonomous vehicle pioneer Sebastian Thrun; physicist, cosmologist and author of The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss; Carnegie Mellon University’s Adrien Treuille, who crowdsourced research into cancer and HIV Aids by turning protein molecules into an online video game; and even reformed hacker Kevin Mitnick, who spent a year in solitary confinement after the FBI convinced a federal judge that he had the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile by whistling into a payphone handset.

Along with Herzog and his interviewees, we are invited to consider how we have incorporated the internet into our daily lives, how we use and misuse it, and the influence it exerts over all of us.

Herzog's scepticism

If Lo and Behold has flaws, and it does, it is that Herzog too easily conflates the internet with the world wide web – Tim Berners-Lee warrants barely a mention – and is one-sided in his treatment of his subject material: Herzog is clearly still a sceptic, and it shows.

He dwells at length, for instance, on the town of Greenbank, West Virginia, where the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) requires a heavily restricted ‘blackout’ zone, where for 10 miles around virtually all forms of electronic signals are prohibited, including Wi-Fi routers, mobile phones, and even microwaves.

Indeed, so strict are the regulations on anything that might produce a disruptive signal that the astronomers for many years used repurposed Checker Marathons (the classic New York City cab of the ‘60s and ‘70s) to move around the site, simply because they have diesel engines and therefore, no spark plugs.

Read more about IT's impact on the human world

As a result of these restrictions, the immediate area around the facility has now become a haven for people who believe they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a self-professed pathological sensitivity to electromagnetic fields in the environment.

Mainstream science rejects that such a condition exists, no medical test exists for it and in all conscious provocation studies, no correlation between exposure and symptoms has ever been found.

Herzog portrays EHS sufferers with respect and dignity – whether or not they are in fact suffering from something that is entirely in the mind, they do suffer from something and perceive debilitating symptoms having an impact on their lives – yet he does not once put across any opposing evidence to suggest that Wi-Fi, mobile radio and other electromagnetic waves are entirely safe.

Then there are the parents who believe the internet is a literal manifestation of the antichrist, having been mercilessly trolled by cyber bullies after the tragic death of their daughter in a car accident.The impact of this experience cannot and should not be denied, and online harassment is a social evil that needs to be tackled, but at the same time Herzog does not counter with evidence of the social good that the internet has brought, and those who go into this convinced that the online world is a source of nothing but danger will only have their preconceptions confirmed.

Per internet ad astra

Turning to the future, Herzog explores how the internet will likely evolve as a vital component of technological innovation, in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and robotics. He sits down with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whom he invites to consider how we might eventually bring the internet to our first martian colonies, and poses the question: “If the internet could dream, would it dream of itself?”

In a profoundly disturbing sequence, Herzog also addresses some of the existential threats to the internet, and by extension, to human society. In 1859, a massive solar flare induced a powerful geomagnetic storm – the Carrington Event – which bombarded the Earth with magnetic particles. The coronal mass ejection was so strong that the Aurora Borealis was visible as far south as the Caribbean, and in New York City, people could read by its light after dark. It also caused major disruption to the telegraph network.

If the Carrington Event were to happen today, it is likely that the entire internet would be knocked offline. Supermarkets would go unstocked. Credit card payments would be impossible. Entire cities would go without power. The impact on humanity would be nothing less than devastating, potentially an extinction-level event for all but a few of our most primitive remaining societies. Needless to say, we are not prepared.

Despite its occasional reliance on scary bedtime stories, Lo and Behold stands as an important and provocative documentary movie. NetScout executive producer and global chief marketing officer Jim McNeil says he set out to create a “public service announcement, what I like to call the Inconvenient Truth of the internet” – and in this aim, he and Herzog are at least partially successful.

It helps that Herzog, besides being a fine director, is a consummate presenter, and engages his subjects, many of whom have spent a good portion of their lives in dark rooms poring over lines of computer code, with warmth and wit.

Audiences will not leave the cinema especially hopeful for the future of the internet or humanity, but if Lo and Behold truly achieves its aims, they should walk away from it with their humanity reaffirmed, and a sense of fascination, even wonder, about what is yet to come.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World will premiere on 13 October 2016 at the British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival, and opens at selected UK cinemas on 28 October 2016.

This was last published in September 2016

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