A group of scientists at Carnegie Mellon believe that by the year 2050, robots designed to play soccer will surpass their professional human counterparts. This juicy nugget of techno-speculation materializes in the middle of Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a new documentary broadly about the internet from Werner Herzog. Sporty robot prototypes, which look like Roombas with attitude, have already been created by an emotional team of students who have developed love for one robot the way sports fans adore Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. But they disappear just as swiftly as they entered in the dizzying collage of subjects Herzog has stuffed into the 98-minute film.
Divided into 10 parts, each introduced with a Herzogian title like "The Internet of Me," the doc spends all-too-brief time with the people who create, protect, advance, and fear the internet — and in one stark case, those who have found a way to escape it.
The internet according to the people who made it
Herzog seems to be in pursuit of what the internet is. A mother who had gory cell phone images of her daughter’s nearly decapitated head sent to her anonymously after she passed away in a car crash calls the internet a "manifestation of the anti-christ." An addiction therapist compares internet gaming to a drug with potentially lethal side effects; one collective of scientists speculates on the internet as a sentient being; another collective describes it as the Jenga stack on which civilization now balances, ready to be toppled by the unpredictable gust of an intense solar flare.
Gaming is the solitary weakness in the collection. Herzog overstates both the benefits and detriments of video games, with the unmistakeable phrasing of someone who has avoided the medium altogether. Foldit, a puzzle game that helps scientists with protein structure prediction, is portrayed with revolutionary fervor, while the deaths of gamers at South Korean and Chinese internet cafes is, in Herzog’s opinion, a horrific omen of countless grown adults shitting their adult diapers as they amuse themselves to death. Journalist Simon Parkin’s book Death by Video Games provides a richer and more open-minded investigation of the topic.
If the internet falls, will civilization follow?
Lo and Behold has the flow of a hurried amusement park tour, spending the bare minimum with attractions that beg to be lingered in. Any one of Herzog’s subjects could sustain a stand-alone, feature-length documentary, but the director is more interested in breadth than depth here. Still, there’s little refuting Herzog’s gift as a documentarian. Even condensed, his interviews manage to squeeze fresh stories from people and technology exhaustively covered by books and media. An interview with Elon Musk ends with the SpaceX CEO confessing he doesn’t remember his good dreams, only the nightmares. And a monologue by Ted Nelson about the flow of water nearly out-Herzogs Herzog. When Nelson’s interview ends, Herzog tells a vulnerable Nelson that he is sane, and Nelson nearly melts through his office chair.
Herzog has the capacity to see the internet for the fragile, human-made tool it is. In the post-film Q&A, the director was only somewhat joking when he described the tactility of the internet: "It is not a cloud. It is servers and routers, which can be very easy to control and very easy to destroy, by the way. Give me a bazooka, and I’ll do it."
As the film hurtles toward its finale, Herzog attempts to tie a handful of the many threads together, only to drop them for a banjo jam session in the small town of Green Bank, West Virginia. Introduced earlier in the film, the community, built around the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, is free of radio waves and cellular signals. Even spark plugs and microwaves are banned as threats to the telescope’s ability to collect data from the cosmos. Such unusual circumstances have attracted a modest group of women and men who claim a sensitivity to radio signals. As a result, their world consists only of the basics. And so they spend their afternoon with Herzog plucking the banjo, beating the drum, and huddling around the technology that sent humans down this path all those millennia ago: a roaring fire.