Monday, August 15, 2016

Lo and Behold: Herzog Surfs the Net

The internet profoundly influenced daily life even more than we realize. Frankly, it is hard to remember how we engaged in piracy, anonymous slander, and bullying before it existed. Yet, we could lose all these advances in one Carrington Event. Werner Herzog takes stock of our digital condition in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

You need not explain the perils of the internet to Hillary Clinton. Nobody is more secretive when it comes to hiding email archives, yet the personal data of her donors has still been splashed all over cyberspace. That is not exactly what Dr. Leonard Kleinrock had in mind when he collaborated on the internet’s creation. Like all good things, the internet does not lack competing creation stories, but a strong case can be make for the team of scientists assembled in UCLA’s Boelter Hall, feverishly working to send a digital message up the road to Stanford. That is where Herzog begins his ten-part meditation, finding Kleinrock to be figure of appropriately Herzogian enthusiasm.

The connected world also used to be a small world. One early pioneer still has the slim volume of all the collected email addresses of the entire connected world (sorted twice). In fact, early protocols were intended for that sort of tight little community and lagged behind the exponential growth that began in the mid-1990s. As a result, it is not long before Herzog stares into the abyss of the internet’s dark side.

Nobody better understands the anonymous malice the internet unleashes than Catsouras family. When their teen daughter Nikki was tragically killed in a car wreck, scores of trolls bombarded them with a gory leaked photo of the accident scene, along with their callous commentary. (Frankly, since Catsouras was driving a sports car, this could also be considered as part of the ugly Occupy Decency-class warfare movement, but Herzog maintains a rigidly narrow focus during this section.)

Ironically, tight focus is generally the one thing this far-ranging kitchen sink survey lacks. Herzog touches on just about everything, including internet security (with the help of in/famous hacker Kevin Mitnick) and our increasing dependency on the net for just about everything. For the record, it is not just preppers who are worried about the implications of future Carrington level solar flares. Herzog talks to scientists who share their concern. He also devotes time to commiserate with those afflicted with extreme electromagnetic sensitivity, who have found a refuge in the cell tower free zone surrounding the radio telescope in Green Bank, WV (which is named for lifetime pork barrel champion Robert C. Byrd, like everything else in West Virginia).

Basically, Herzog hopscotches through the landscape of the connected world, eliciting plenty of genuinely provocative insights, but never fully working through any of the issues addressed. Evidently, Herzog and commissioning executive producer Jim McNiel have hours of solid supplemental footage that may very well be re-purposed into different media forms, including perhaps the miniseries Lo and Behold really should have been. Still, it would be interesting to listen to Herzog discussing the history of lint traps, so given its heady topics, Lo and Behold should be a no-brainer for his fans. Recommended for what it is—an unresolved and perhaps unfinished work of technological-sociological history from a major documentarian-auteur, Lo and Behold opens this Friday (8/19) in New York, at the IFC Center.