Film: Reality check

‘Lo and Behold’ documentary chronicles virtual world

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‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World,’ a documentary by Werner Herzog, reveals the ways in which the online world has transformed the real world. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

By Richard von Busack

Werner Herzog examines the internet itself in Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, a documentary in 10 chapters.

Just as “What God hath wrought” was the first message transmitted by telegraph, the first message conveyed by the internet was the single word, “Lo.” It sounds biblical. But this message sent between labs at UCLA and Stanford was nothing but a glitch: It was supposed to read “Lo[g In]” and then the system crashed.

Herzog visits the site of this historic transmission, which occurred on October 29, 1969 at 10:30pm. Observing the non-descript UCLA hallway, Herzog mutters, “The corridor here looks horrible.” He’s welcomed to a small office still containing the metal monolith that transmitted the word. The computer is about 5 feet tall, a piece of military hardware. Scientist Leonard Kleinrock, present at the creation, opens up the machine to give Herzog a whiff of vintage computer guts.

The bounty of the internet is part of these observations. Carnegie Mellon professor Adrien Treuille demonstrates a game to design folding molecules, a pretty game of lights and musical tones, intended to help war against disease.

But one loves a Herzog documentary not for bright sides, but for his sensitivity to bad vibes. He visits the victims of a spectacularly vicious internet hazing: The Catsouras family of Southern California, deluged with emails of their daughter Nikki’s fatal car crash, carrying captions such as, “Woo hoo, Daddy! I’m still alive.” “Woo-hoo,” Herzog repeats, incredulous.

In a West Virginia valley where cell phone transmissions are banned to aid the search for interstellar signals from a massive telescope, Herzog encounters a small colony of people who are hiding from the internet—Jennifer Woods, like the Michael McKean character on Better Call Saul, is infernally sensitive to electromagnetic radiation.  

Here is a mixed bag of observations, with an ultimate point. We don’t realize how dependent we are on this World Wide Web, subject to utter collapse due to hacking, solar flares or some other unseen danger—perhaps even, ridiculous though it sounds, Skynet-style sentience. What’s more scary—contemplating the vanishing of the internet, or contemplating its very existence, its possibilities for surveillance and harm?

‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World’ opens Friday, Aug. 19 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

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