It’s worth reflecting on how cyberspace has so thoroughly had an impact on our lives. What has changed as a result of the ubiquity of personal computers, the Internet, smartphones and instant global communications? What are the implications for the human prospect? There’s no more engaging and enlightening guide to such questions than master German filmmaker Werner Herzog whose documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (http://www.loandbeholdfilm.com/), which premiered at Sundance in January, was released last month.
Divided into 10 chapters, the film provides both an insightful interrogation into and a critical meditation on how this technological revolution has come about, its consequences and future possibilities.
Chapter 1, “The Early Years,” goes back to the birth of the Internet beyond its U.S. military origins. It was 1969 in a lab of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) when computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock sent the first computer-to-computer message: a simple “Lo,” for the first two letters of “login.” From these humble beginnings arose today’s World Wide Web in which every single day the amount of data transmitted is equal to that stored on a stack of CDs reaching to Mars and back. It’s an arresting metaphor as Herzog introduces us to concepts underlying this exponential growth, such as the efficiencies of expanding networks and the law of large numbers, and to the ideas of Internet pioneers and philosophers like Ted Nelson.
Chapter 2 on “The Glories of the Net” shows how the massed collective power of huge numbers of web-connected players can be applied to solve puzzles that supercomputers could not. There’s been an explosion of online learning rivalling the best universities. Looking ahead to the potential of artificial intelligence we can foresee self-driving cars and perhaps autonomous robots doing things thought unimaginable outside of science fiction.
But alongside the impressive possibilities there is a dark side as explored in chapter 3. The so-called “dark web” has become a haven for illicit transactions of all kinds. Think of the sharing of pornographic and violent images gone “viral,” shaming through social media, the spread of hateful messages and invasions of privacy. This technology like others can be used for evil purposes or to spread falsehoods. The avalanche of instantly available online content contains a good deal of misinformation and worse. Beware the “lying weasels” of the Internet, advises Daniel Levitin in A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
Although Herzog doesn’t discuss it, I might add that religious extremists have taken to the web too, and I’m not just talking about vile videos posted online by fanatical Islamists. Terrorists and their sympathizers claiming religious inspiration may be the worst offenders, but Christianity is hardly exempt. That includes self-appointed defenders of the faith as observed by Phyllis Zagano (“Catholic blogosphere creates cesspool of hatred,” Prairie Messenger, July 27, 2016). Rev. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, warns that the Internet “can be an international weapon of mass destruction, crossing time zones, borders, and space.”
Can we do without the web? In chapter 4 on life without it Herzog finds those who have chosen an isolated hermit-like existence completely off any grid. He visits a tiny town where the residents, fearing electronic radiation, have created a technology-free zone. He talks to a woman who has built a “Faraday cage” designed to block all electrical fields. At the other extreme of human behaviour are the perils of Internet addiction. In South Korea he finds gamers so obsessed with playing non-stop for many hours that they put on diapers. Whether rejecting the web or being controlled by it, human beings prove to be endlessly fascinating subjects.
Chapter 5 speculates on the “end of the net.” The web depends on a vast critical electronic infrastructure that could be vulnerable to major global disruptions such as solar storms. The worst in the industrial era occurred in September 1859. Known as the “Carrington event” it damaged many telegraph lines sparking considerable alarm. (A 2008 National Academy of Sciences report estimated the cost of a similar event to current power grids and communications systems at $1-2 trillion.) Modern civilization wouldn’t necessarily collapse, but the impact would be enormous.
There are also major threats that originate on earth. Chapter 6, “Earthly Invaders,” investigates the legions of hackers and spammers, the originators of identity theft and cyber-attacks. A notorious case is that of American computer security consultant and super-hacker Kevin Mitnick, arrested in 1995 and imprisoned including a year in solitary confinement. (The current U.S. presidential campaign has been rocked by the hacking of many thousands of Democratic National Committee emails, likely by agents linked to the Russian government urged on by Donald Trump.) The wired world of increasing digital surveillance, of encryption and metadata, remains one in which “people are the weakest link in security.” Knowing that human beings have often been their own worst enemies, it’s frightening to contemplate the chaos that cyber-warfare could unleash.
What lies beyond earthly parameters? The next chapter speculates about the “Internet on Mars,” referring to visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk’s “Space X” project which has the ambitious goal, to put it mildly, of establishing a human colony on the red planet. With trademark wry humour, Herzog offers to become one of the first Martians. Is there any realm of human thought and imagination that the Internet has not invaded? That goes for the spiritual too as he observes a group of Hare-Krishna monks engrossed in their smartphones. Can we speak of an Internet brain or global mind? Pushing that further he muses: “Could it be that the Internet dreams of itself?”
Where indeed is the World Wide Web headed? There are nightmare scenarios as well as dreams. The last three chapters explore the future of robotics and artificial intelligence for good or ill. Would an “Internet of Me,” of mind-melding invisible total connection, be “the worst enemy of deep critical thinking”? Do we want to be able to transmit thoughts electronically? Will humans be able to control the awesome technologies they create? Humanity may yet fall victim to its hubris.
Herzog’s examination of the online world isn’t intended to be a comprehensive study. He doesn’t much get into the politics of Internet regulation and censorship, the use of burgeoning social media platforms as tools of political participation and empowerment or, alternatively, of manipulation by government and corporate elites, not to mention the Orwellian possibilities of electronic surveillance. Rather, the filmmaker as narrator plays the role of the idiosyncratic observer whose inquisitive “reveries” are rooted in a profound cautionary humanism. In the question and answer session following the Sundance world premiere screening, Herzog summed up that abiding concern succinctly by saying that, although Internet technologies may be described as “smart,” they unfortunately do not seem to be making people smarter.
At 74, Herzog shows no sign of slowing down. He continues to be a prolific creator of both dramas and documentaries. The new non-fiction film Into the Inferno, a globe-spanning exploration of active volcanoes, is premiering at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, which is also featuring the North American premiere of his Salt and Fire, a thriller filmed in Bolivia involving a volcanic eruption, and in which he also acts. I’ll report on those in a future column.