Werner Herzog’s new film is a fanciful ricochet across visions of the internet
There’s a section in Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold where the scientist Joydeep Biswas demonstrates a team of autonomous, football-playing robots. The intention, he explains, is to get them to a level where they could beat the World Cup winners by 2050. The identical stumpy boxes pat a ball to each other, eerily stopping all at once when a goal is scored.
Biswas picks up one of the machines, the same as the others except for a number eight stuck to its side. He says his team is fond of this particular player. Herzog, deadpan, asks the scientist if he loves it. Biswas admits he does, touchingly caught off guard by his own response. “Yes we do. We do love robot eight.”
This is an example of a moment that Lo and Behold relishes in, future gazing on the surface, but hinging on the human ticks and ambitions of its subjects. These moments are split across 10 meandering chapters that encompass everything from the birth of the internet, autonomous cars and solar flares, to gaming addiction, hacking culture and Elon Musk’s plans to use the internet to communicate with a colony on Mars.
Let’s be clear. If you’re looking for a focused analysis for the internet and its growth over the past few decades, this isn’t the film for you. While the opening sections chart the early days of the internet in room 3420 in the Stanford Research Institute, the thread soon unspools across a multitude of utopian and dystopian visions, bled together like associative word games. The “reveries” in the title is not amiss, and as a whole Lo and Behold – funded by network performance company NetScout – drifts across the digital landscape. Like falling asleep in a data centre and listening to the servers hum.
The grounding for all this comes from the interviewees, who range from the charismatic internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock, to renowned hacker Kevin Mitnick, to IT innovator Ted Nelson, whose Project Xanadu aims to be an alternative structure to the World Wide Web. There’s a brilliant shot during the interview with Nelson, where the rocking of his houseboat makes it seem as if the whole world is tipping upwards and downwards, as he speaks about the difference between insanity and determination.Nikki
One of the most potent sections comes from the family of Nikki Catsouras, a teenager who died after crashing a car into a tollbooth. While paramedics saved her father the details of her injuries, photographs found their way online, went viral and were posted alongside abusive messages to her father. It’s a sobering example of the internet at its darkest, made all the more powerful by Herzog’s decision not to feature any images of Nikki, opting only to show a room she had a fondness for.
While the grazing against that particular subject is effective in its implication, the whistle-stop nature of Lo and Behold makes some other sections feel jammed in. The part on video game addiction ends up being very one sided, focusing on stories of South Korean players wasting away as they play online games. While effective on their own terms – especially the story of the couple who let their baby die while playing a simulation of parenting – it would’ve been nice to see a few more perspectives here, or something other than the cliché addiction angle.
That said, Lo and Behold is arguably successful because of how it evades full analysis and prediction. The artist and writer Tom McCarthy once said he was suspicious of the future; a neoliberal narrative that supposedly critical thought conspires with, quite compliantly. He’s got a point. One of the most insightful quotations from Lo and Behold comes from cosmologist Lawrence Krauss: “I think anyone who claims they know what’s going to happen to the internet is not worth listening to.” Instead, the future in Herzog’s film is unpredictable, a fanciful ricochet across visions of the internet.
Through all of the dizzy peering, what shines through is the sincerity of the scientists and engineers Herzog speaks to. The Tomorrow’s World dreams and apocalyptic visions may be fascinating, but it’s the beats and nerves of the conversations that give Lo and Behold its human centre, from Elon Musk talking about how he can only remember his nightmares, to Joydeep Biswas cradling a football-playing robot as if it was a child.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World will be shown as part of a "virtual festival" on 13 October, with 60 cinemas in the UK screening the film alongside a Q&A with Herzog, via satellite link. Tickets will go on sale 15 September at www.loandbeholdfilm.co.uk. The film will go on general release in UK cinemas on 28 October.