Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Herzog on the Net

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“Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, one of two Werner Herzog’s documentary films which were released in this year, freely flows from one section to another in its amused reflection on the past, present, and future of the Internet. While it often meanders or stumbles as going astray a bit too much at several points, the documentary is still compelling none the less mainly because of Herzog’s own offbeat approach to his thought-provoking subject, which alternatively fascinates and alarms him for good reasons.

Consisting of ten sections, the documentary begins its first section at the campus of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where the history of the Internet was started during one night of 1969 October. As the camera looks around a tacky office area where the Internet at its most rudimentary level was tested, we meet Leonard Kleinrock, and this old computer scientist, who participated in that milestone development project, cannot help but be enthusiastic as showing us an old preserved computer equipment developed by him and his colleagues and recollecting their first online communication.

As reflected by an amusing episode told by Kleinrock, even typing and sending three characters in row could be quite burdensome to computers during that old time, but things have been evolved far faster than expected since that small but significant first step. Boosted by the rapid development of computer technology, the Internet has become a big part of our daily life as making the global community smaller than ever through its ever-increasing webs of digital networks around the world, and it keeps becoming wider, bigger, and faster even at this point.

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In one section, Herzog calmly and wryly observes the bright sides of this ongoing technological advance which will change our world a lot within next 50 years. Sebastian Thrun, the CEO and cofounder of Udacity, tells us a good example of how the Internet can be a useful portal for finding and recruiting creative minds. Adrien Treuille, the creator of science game EteRNA, shows us what was obtained from the countless trials of his many online game users, and we see how that can be applied to an actual biology research.

Observing the exponential evolution of the Internet, Herzog muses at one point on whether the Internet may gain its own consciousness someday, and this is naturally associated with two cases of artificial intelligence development presented in the documentary. In case of a vehicle which can be automatically driven by a computer inside it, its demonstration is followed by a discussion on whether it can be as capable and ethical as human drivers. As constantly monitoring its surroundings as programmed, it can avoid any possibility of accident on the road, but can it possibly be capable of ethical choices under certain circumstances?

Anyway, computers may learn more rapidly and efficiently than us someday, as implied by small robots which can play football for themselves. They remain on a basic level, but their developer confidently predicts that they will play better than human soccer players within less than 50 years. This may sound silly to you, but think about how computer has surpassed human brain in several notable fields including chess, go, and lip-reading during recent years.

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Not so surprisingly, Herzog also looks around the dark sides of the Internet, but the documentary occasionally loses its focus during this part. We hear about online game addiction, and Herzog mentions how serious this problem has been especially in South Korea, but he only comes to scratch the surface before moving onto other things to show and tell. While privacy and security are indeed relevant issues associated with the Internet, the documentary does not present anything revealing to most of us (the interview clip featuring former hacker Kevin Mitnick ends up providing no more than an amusing anecdote, for instance), and I am not that sure about whether a part involved with several people hypersensitive to electromagnetic wave is necessary, though they are surely interesting enough to observe.

One of the most effective moments in the documentary comes from a family tragedy which induced the worse sides of human nature during the aftermath. After a teenager girl named Nikki Catsouras died because of a horrible car accident, the pictures shot at the site of her accident happened to be leaked and then spread around the Internet, and this accordingly led to more shock and pain for her grieving family. As they flatly recollect their terrible experience caused by those anonymous Internet users, we cannot help but be horrified by how awful people can be, and Herzog wisely avoids making this moment too sensational or exploitative.

Considering that it is intended as a promotional film (its production was mostly financed by the cybersecurity firm NetScout), “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” did its job while functioning as the overview of many different aspects of the Internet. I wish that it were more focused and coherent in its storytelling, but it is still an interesting documentary thanks to Herzog’s distinctive presence hovering around the screen. Although he mostly stays behind the camera throughout the film, his narration always attracts our attention, and his occasional odd questions and comments seldom disappoint us. This is not one of his better documentaries, but, folks, has Herzog ever been boring?

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