Have we stopped to be and given over our lives to the digital ether of the internet? Writer Nelly Crane explores Werner Herzog's latest documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, reflecting on our seemingly limitless love for the machines we have created.
From following the exploits of fictional explorers to documenting the environmental chaos of the 1973 oil crisis, Werner Herzog’s films have explored our human conflicts and ambitions within tremendous, often surreal and uncontrollable contexts. The Herzogian tendency to reify, to find a lens through which to address vast and indifferent entities, has found a new subject. In Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Herzog conducts a cinematic survey of the Internet’s creation, development and impact. The enormity of the subject is referenced in the title, which alludes to the first (and incomplete) transmission between Internet hosts; a failed ‘LOGIN’ becoming ‘LO’. The prominence of this information sets the tone for Herzog’s investigation: admiring, but acknowledging the incompleteness of the digital framework, whether in a literal sense, or with regard to our broader reliance on technology.
In line with the development of the Internet, it seems impossible to pinpoint any one climactic moment in Lo and Behold. We are presented with a plethora of visual and verbal detail, aiming to represent something which we feel is essentially unrepresentable in its magnitude. The episodic architecture of the film itself reflects the form of a network, interconnected pockets of vision offering fragments of personality, reflections and anecdotes related to the development of the Internet. Interviewees act like hyperlinks, each representative of a particular vision that is partially but never fully explored or analysed. Herzog’s agenda is not to realise fully the stories of each individual, but to present them as interconnected nodes, tangible manifestations of the Internet’s presence in our lives. The result is a busy form of tragicomedy, in which interviews and digital representations combine to produce a reflection of what is good, bad and ugly about the ‘connected world’. It is a world whose structure defeats our individual human attempts at moral or psychological characterisation - a colossus which subsumes such individual criteria into a universe in which dystopia and utopia are frighteningly hard to distinguish.
A striking moment in Lo and Behold occurs when Sebastian Thrun (of the Google driverless car fame) describes a time when machines will be responsible for everything and thereby replace human operations. Machines may be close to transcending our own mechanisms and capabilities, but as Herzog plaintively interjects ‘they cannot fall in love’. We do, however, see how their development has had a fundamental effect upon our own emotions and responses. Joydeep Biswas, a computer scientist, shows us a model of a robotic football team and its chief player, ‘Robot 8’. Herzog asks him whether he loves the machine, and Joydeep self-consciously affirms that he does. Machines may not be able to love, but we certainly love the machines we have created. Sophisticated as many mechanisms may be, some aspects of humanity appear impossible to transmit.
When Herzog meets philosopher and information technology specialist Ted Nelson, Ted describes what his own version of the incipient world of the web would look like. The image he uses is that of the fluidity of water, the operations of the connected world expressed in a way that encapsulates both the mystery and the familiarity of its presence. The image is natural, recognisable and identifiable, demonstrating the extent of our own acceptance of the Internet as a universal force. While we may consciously assume a status as objective and external commentators, there is a suspicion that our own subconscious reflexively and inevitably inhabits this world. This line between perception and immersion is a fine one, a liminality which Herzog manifests through his choice of interviewees.
Different realities inhabit the same visual and conceptual space in Herzog’s documentary, such as when we are shown a scene with a group of tweeting Buddhist monks. Immersed in the newly constructed normality of the digital world, this image represents the uncanny elision of new technology with another context and tradition. If modernity has produced a version of normality characterised by interconnection, then the act of tweeting, for example, is an ordinary act. Herzog, however, presents an image in which this form of normality jars with another, intruding with a kind of humorous juxtaposition upon its visual field. Within one camera shot our preconceptions about a particular way of life are reset within the context of the digital age; religion, as much as anything else, shown to be adapting to the new possibilities of connectivity.
Herzog shows us the extent of the collateral damage caused by the Internet, from the people who suffer from radiation hypersensitivity, the Internet addicts whose physical lives are absorbed into the digital ether, the family who was sent gruesome pictures of their daughter’s fatal car accident via email. The dramatic shift towards a world in which communication endangers our physical and emotional realities simply does not accommodate certain individuals.
It is tempting, then, to see Herzog’s perception of the Internet as something vast, beautiful but essentially eliminative. Effacing our personal identities, we were unable to envisage the Internet’s evolution from its inception, seeing it at times evolving and deforming into a Frankenstein-like creature. Even as individuality seems to diminish, however, something supervenes upon the digital collective we support. In one interview, scientist Adrien Treuille describes a case where the results of a digital puzzle, tackled by the international online gaming community, were used for molecular research. Like music, the formula we use to construct digital realities cannot wholly envisage the autonomy that emerges from them: the whole is greater, and therefore more dangerous and/or, in Herzog’s words, ‘beautiful’, than the sum of its parts.
Herzog’s style is, in fact, often operatic, concerned with immense land- and soundscapes. It is possible to identify a suggestive musical parallel within the ‘reveries’ which the film explores: like a symphony, the Internet is primarily mathematical but eventually and essentially poetic and unpredictable. The structure of the Herzog’s documentary itself mirrors the subject it explores, presenting a comprehensive whole which supervenes upon its individual narrative components, a ‘web’ in itself.
The film ends on a musical note with a group of friends singing and playing guitars and banjos, which returns the viewer to a world unspoiled by digital demand and intrusion. Whether the Internet represents symphonic beauty or a form of sophisticated nihilism, Herzog allows basic, poetic human interaction to end the film, concluding the exploration of our digital selves with a reminder of our shared connections in this world.