Lo & Behold: Werner Herzog’s take on the Internet

Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s documentaries are instantly recognizable by their slow, Germanically inflected voice-over, which champions the bleakest of world-views. Here is a famous line from his film “Grizzly man”, about a loner who spends his summers camping in the middle of Grizzly bear territory in Alaska (until he is eaten by a bear):

“I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

Fun stuff.

Last month Herzog released two new documentaries: The first, “Into the Inferno”, is about volcanoes, and our own morbid fascination with them. So precisely the sort of topic you would expect from Herzog. It’s out on Netflix, and it’s really quite good. Nothing to do with networks though.

The other documentary, “Lo & Behold: reveries of the connected world”, also on Netflix (in some countries), is at least at first glance, about a much less Herzogian topic: the Internet. “What is so terrible about the internet?” you ask, “Isn’t it kind of great?” Yes, that is indeed how it would seem to most of us. But just wait until Herzog shows you.

The story starts nicely enough, with a tour of the first node of the internet, somewhere in a basement office in California. And it even provides some real mathematical depth, when he discusses transfer protocols and correctly guesses that there must be a hidden Central Limit Theorem (yes, that theorem is actually mentioned!).

The documentary consists of about a dozen vignettes: short mini-documentaries on loosely connected topics. Some of them are upbeat, like the one about the history of the internet or the one about football-playing robots. But most are  much closer to Herzog’s favorite themes: there is a vignette about extreme internet harassment (difficult to watch even), one about the ethics of self-driving cars (who is responsible in an accident?), and even one about how the internet might cause the end of human civilization (spoiler: it’s much scarier than you might imagine).

All in all, if you like Herzog you certainly get your money’s worth with Lo & Behold (and despite the negativity of some of the topics, there is much reason to like Herzog). And if you don’t know him yet, Lo & Behold is an excellent introduction to both his work, and a fascinating exposition of one of the most important inventions in human history. Go watch.

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