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Movie Review: Herzog's Lo & Behold Looks at Life in the Connected World

Brian Santo
8/19/2016
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Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a funny, astute, shambolic and unexpectedly emotional investigation into what it means to be connected, what it means to become so reliant on technology and what all of that might say about what it means to be human.

The documentary opened today in theatres in the US. It is simultaneously available to stream from Amazon Video. The movie was co-produced by NetScout Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: NTCT). (See Encounters at the End of the Sundance Trail)

The notion of the "connected world" comes from Netscout, which initiated the project with Herzog. The phrase was meant to encompass more than just the Internet, but the Internet is the logical starting place, and Herzog begins at the beginning. He visits Stanford University, where some of the most fundamental early work on creating the Internet (then DarpaNet) took place. Herzog's camera glides through a clean, well-lit and modern-looking building. "The corridors here look repulsive," Herzog notes in a voiceover.

Here we meet Leonard Kleinrock, who developed some of the fundamental mathematics upon which packet networks are based.

Kleinrock shows us one of the first nodes on the Internet, used to send what he claims is the first Internet message ever. It was supposed to be "login." Senders and receivers were on the phone with each other to verify it worked.

"We sent the L. Did you get the L? They got the L," Kleinrock related. "We sent the O. Did you get the O? They got the O. We got to the G; it crashed. So the first message on the Internet was 'lo'. Like, lo and behold."

Kleinrock is followed by another computer pioneer, Danny Hillis, and just when we think we're watching a nice, straightforward story about the Internet, Herzog sits down with Ted Nelson, and things start to get nonlinear real fast. Nelson is respected as an Internet pioneer, but is also considered to be a flake, and he proceeds to demonstrate why. He is passionate about the subject, clearly emotional about things like hyperlinks, prone to the type of philosophical musings one might expect to hear from, say, Werner Herzog.

Nelson tells Herzog he knows that people think some of his ideas are insane. Sitting off-camera, Herzog throws us another curveball; he tells Nelson he thinks Nelson might be the only sane one.

"I have never heard that," Nelson says, visibly moved.

How can the audience not empathize?

After that, Herzog is off to the races, taking us on a journey in which he interviews a variety of people, experts and laymen, talking about driverless cars, the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the physical harm some people claim to suffer from cellular network radio waves, robotics, Internet addiction, colonizing Mars, the cruelty of Internet trolling, the effects of solar activity on the power and communications grids, hacking and cyber warfare and more.

Ask a technologist to talk about the Internet, and expect to hear about protocols, routing techniques and the Shannon limit. Ask a tech industry executive to talk about the Internet, and expect to hear about IT systems, big data services, streaming video, telemedicine and economic growth. Ask the average director about the Internet, and you'll get a film about the Internet: Vint Cerf? Check. Tim Berners-Lee? Check.

But Werner Herzog? Ask Herzog about the Internet, and you get what you would expect from Werner Herzog.

Half the subjects are seemingly pertinent, while Herzog seems to be off on wild tangents with the other half, but that misses Herzog's point. He isn't interested in how the Internet works; he's interested in how people relate to each other using the Internet as a tool.

He even shows us how it changes what we relate to. Herzog visits Carnegie Mellon University to watch a set of robots that are being trained to play soccer. He interviews a young researcher, who enthuses about one particular robot that stands out.

"You love it," Herzog states -- it's not a question, it's a profoundly perceptive observation. The young man sheepishly admits he does. The audience I was in melted.

The segments of the documentary are reveries, just as the title suggests. There is no linear story of the Internet in the film just as there is no linear story of the Internet in and of itself. Instead, Herzog gives us a sense -- by necessity fragmented but still somehow holistic -- of how this tool can be used and misused. By that measure, it's all on-topic.

In an interview with Light Reading at the Sundance Film Festival, where Lo and Behold premiered, Herzog said, "Clausewitz, the Prussian war theoretician of Napoleonic times, famously said, 'Sometimes war seems to dream of itself.' My question is -- does the Internet dream of itself? Of course you will not get a real coherent answer, but sometimes it is important to ask a very big question, so I do it."

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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