Ones and zeros. Blips and beeps. While there is science behind it, the Internet is essentially modern day magic to the average person. It entertains us, informs us, gives us companionship, allows us to be heard, and makes us witness. However, like all good things, those benefits don’t come for free.
Werner Herzog’s new documentary “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” is a literal and philosophical examination of the Internet and its impact, both past and future, upon us as a people.
In context of the film, Herzog is an off-screen interviewer who guides us from the infancy of the Internet at UCLA in 1969 to current projects underway that would enable life and society as a whole to continue on other planets. Among others, he interviews Bob Kahn, who is credited as one of “inventors” of the Net, as well industrialist Elon Musk who has a striking vision of the future.
Much of the film focuses on the darker side of what the Internet represents. Anonymous connectivity in forums such as social media reveals the harsh nature of many people. With the freedom to comment without identity or consequences, some choose to spew venom. The most horrifying example that Herzog provides is an interview with the family of a deceased woman. She had passed away as a result of a car accident. Someone at the scene snapped photographs of her mutilated, nearly decapitated corpse. The pictures were spread online. They were viewed millions of times and turned into memes. Sickeningly, a small segment of people discovered how to contact the woman’s family and, for no other reason than just to be cruel, would send the photos along with a mocking comment to her parents.
Moral issues aside, there is danger attached to our dependency on the Internet. As people do less and less and computers do more and more, there is a very real risk of total calamity upon failure of the system. A natural occurrence such as a massive solar flare would essentially wipe out satellites, cell phones, and servers…basically the whole ball of wax. One interviewee questioned how many people would even be able to survive a collapse of that magnitude. If society was reset to zero, could the average person obtain food, provide their own medical care, or even survive life in the brutal elements?
Herzog also delves into the nuances and complications of Artificial Intelligence. Sure it’s neat to see if engineers are able to create a team of robots who are smart enough to beat the reigning FIFA champions in a game of futbol. Who wouldn’t want to see that? BUT what if a company uses AI to run their finances? Without the filter of human morality, a computer might make choices that are fiscally prudent yet devastating to lives, political relationships, and the overall big picture.
A few years ago during his standup comedy special, “Hilarious,” comedian Louis C.K. tackled the subject of people’s relationship to technology. He presciently pointed out how spoiled humanity as a whole has become by it. He notes that if a cell phone temporarily loses Internet connection or runs a little slow, the first thing a person says is that they “hate” the phone, device, or company. In reality, these creations are a miracle and a testament to human ingenuity. There isn’t enough appreciation or respect for these achievements.
“Lo and Behold” is both informative and chilling. It ponders a future that will be far different than anything any generation of humanity has ever experienced. The Internet (and its related offspring) is a runaway freight train on an ever-widening track. Decades ago during its gestation period there may have been a way to control or constrain the monolith going forward but we didn’t know what it was going to become. Just like we don’t know now.
Zep the Bear is the man-beast social critic responsible for the pop culture blog “Super No Bueno,” which you can read at supernobueno.wordpress.com