Sacred and Secular Networks in ‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World’

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In one of the ten chapters of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World, a bereaved mother asserts her belief in the demonic power of the Internet. Following the death of her daughter in a car accident, the family was plagued with ceaseless emails containing horrific images of the girl’s corpse. Now, the mother condemns the Internet as “the manifestation of the antichrist” – “the spirit of evil” running through everyone on earth. Later in the film, scientists speak of a sentient “intellectual Internet” – our soul companion in a future without the need for human interaction. Naturally, Herzog’s camera avoids all moral judgment; each idea, one biblically fatalistic, the other atypically utopian, is given equal credence.

Another early chapter explores the sacrosanct birthplace of the Internet. Computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock guides Herzog around the Stanford Research Institute room in which the very first online network was established. Kleinrock exalts room 3420 as “a sacred location, a holy place.” Herzog calls it a “shrine.” Later again, in a chapter entitled “The End of the Net,” a number of scientists link the potential death of the Internet to massive solar flares. While the devastation here goes beyond the demise of online connectivity (one scientist calls it “unimaginable horror”), the message is clear: no more Internet. From scientist to scientist, the beginning and end of the Internet is granted biblical significance.

Across these ten chapters, Herzog exhibits a diverse range of viewpoints regarding the Internet: worshippers and naysayers, those with crippling addictions to it and those who live in reclusive fear of it. Throughout, Herzog demonstrates his wonderful ability to plainly articulate complex ideas and theories, not in layman’s terms, but in poetic simplicities. The scope here is unfathomably broad, touching on ideas as diverse as “the internet on mars” to the concept of an Internet that “dreams of itself.” Despite these lofty designs, Lo and Behold is one of Herzog’s lightest documentaries in a while – the director is notably playful and warm, joking and empathising with his subjects throughout. Indeed, he treats the withdrawal symptoms of online gaming addicts with the same gravity as the despairs of a group of recluses living off the grid, terrified of the Internet’s radioactive fallout.

Despite setting out to study the “connected world,” Lo and Behold suffers from a distinct lack of connectivity. While this is due, in part, to its chapter divisions, it’s often difficult to find a connecting thread running throughout the documentary. There’s no distinct narrative here, more so an exhibition of ideas all under the umbrella of network and connectivity. Regardless, Lo and Behold is a fascinating experience, a ‘story so far’ style account of what Herzog, in his typically calm and understated mode, calls “one of the biggest revolutions we as humankind are experiencing.” In no other cinematic study of the Internet are experts and eccentrics given such equal estimation and faith. Herzog is keen to exhibit the phenomenon as both a revolutionary and religious experience, a malicious force and a tool for the greater good. Even if these ideas are tenuously linked, they are given coherence through Herzog’s reverie and respect.

Martin Macnamara

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