“ANY SUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1973. Four decades later, every time we log on, he’s proven right. The technology that surrounds us often seems impossible—an ever-growing galaxy of knowledge and lies and video and pics and news and garbage. Even for those of us whose phones are the last thing we glimpse before sleep and the first thing we strain to see when we wake, the internet can seem like magic.
Except it isn’t. It never was.
“This particular machine is so ugly on the inside, it is beautiful,” computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock says a few seconds into Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Kleinrock creaks open the door to one of the first computers used to send a message over the internet. The machine is the size of a fridge. Kleinrock sniffs its guts. “It has a unique odor,” he says. “A delicious old odor from all the old parts.” Kleinrock stands in a drab, fluorescent-lit room at UCLA, yet infuses the space with a sense of grandeur. This room, Herzog narrates, is “ground zero of one of the biggest revolutions we as humans are experiencing.”
As a filmmaker, Herzog is often obsessed with the tangible—with people on the edges of society, with feats as lethal as they are daring. But Lo and Behold is Herzog’s attempt to parse a world that’s moving away from the physical. It makes sense he starts his documentary by reminding us that the internet started as—and still is—a series of weird-smelling tubes and wires. It also makes sense, given the immeasurable ways the internet has affected humanity, Lo and Behold splits in countless directions: It isn’t long until Herzog’s interviewing brain researchers and hackers, until he’s watching orange-clad Buddhist monks stare into their phones. Herzog talks to engineers designing self-driving cars; to patients in internet addiction rehab; to security analysts who, legally, can only tell Herzog some of what they know about cyber warfare. He talks to astronomers who warn how solar flares will disrupt our power grids and food supplies. (“If the internet shuts down,” says Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, “people will not remember how they used to live.”)
Herzog tracks down hermits in West Virginia who claim to be made physically ill by modern technology and hide in the signal-free zone of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope. He speaks to parents who, after losing a daughter, opened their email to find that trolls had sent them graphic photos of her corpse. (“I have always believed,” the mother says, “that the internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist. Of evil itself.”) He finds a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon who oversees autonomous, soccer-playing robots—the man is particularly proud of Robot Eight, cradling it so we can get a good look. (“Beautiful,” Herzog says. “Do you love it?” “Yes. We do,” the scientist answers. “We do love Robot Eight.”) Herzog talks to Elon Musk, who explains how he plans to use the internet on SpaceX’s Mars colony. “I mean, right now,” Musk says, “we can’t even get one person to Mars, so clearly—”
“I would come along,” Herzog says. “I wouldn’t have a problem. One-way ticket? I would be your candidate.”
“Sounds great,” Musk stammers. “Okay. Um. I do think we’ll want to... uh... offer roundtrips.”
If this parade of scientists and eccentrics and weirdos sounds broad, it is: Herzog wants to look at every aspect of our online lives. Lo and Behold’s subjects are as varied as life, because when we’re all connected, only a wide lens will do. And because he’s Herzog, he doesn’t stop with the present: “Could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?” he asks. Krauss answers: It’s a possibility, but “anyone who claims they know what’s going to happen to the internet is not worth listening to.”
But Herzog and his subjects are worth listening to. Lo and Behold is a look at what might come next, and a mourning for what we’ve lost, but more than anything, it’s a meditation on how the internet has already changed us. Herzog has made more than 50 films; Herzog himself is 73. Last month, he offered “Werner Herzog Teaches Filmmaking”—six hours of video lessons in which he walks students through his “uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking.” The course is only available online.