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Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Werner Herzog

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 8/19/16 (limited); 8/26/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2016

One of the great, underappreciated joys of a documentary by Werner Herzog is having the opportunity simply to catch a glimpse into the workings of the man's mind. Take an interview he has with a robotics engineer in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. At one point, the director asks the engineer, "How much value is the cockroach to you?" You will read that inquiry and likely wonder two things: 1.) What kind of stupid question is that, and 2.) what kind of person would think to ask such an odd question?

I intentionally have omitted any form of context from the question for a few reasons. First and foremost, there's the absurdity of the question, which, without context, sounds like a complete non sequitur divorced from any rational way of looking at reality. It's a very funny question, and let me add that it remains amusing even with the proper context in which Herzog asks it. Additionally, it's the sort of question that only a mind as unique as Herzog's would think to ask. It's also one that only a man as confident in his way of looking at the world as the filmmaker actually would ask. That makes the inquiry triply funny—first on the face of it, second because Herzog thought to ask it, third because he actually does ask.

There's a fourth level on which the query is funny, and it comes from the fact that, within the context of the situation, we quickly realize it is a perfectly reasonable question. Even the interview subject gets it, and after an almost instantaneous beat of bemused consideration, he lets out a healthy guffaw of recognition.

See, the robot this man is designing, which appears on screen just before Herzog asks about cockroaches, has a tough skeleton and appendages that curl around its torso. It looks a bit like an insect, and there's also its intended purpose that brings the roach to Herzog's mind.

The robot is being built to perform rudimentary tasks in places that humans cannot or should not enter, such as, for example, an area within a nuclear power plant that has been exposed to radiation. The idea came to the engineer after the meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. The disaster may have been averted if someone—or, in the designer's mind, something—had been able to turn a few valves in areas that had been contaminated. Hence, he is building a machine that could do just that.

The film, which traces the history and considers the future of technology, is filled with such innovators, experts, hobbyists, theoreticians, engineers, and entrepreneurs. They talk at length about the benefits and perils of technology, most of it tied to the rise of the internet.

The film's title comes from the first electronic message exchanged between two computers in 1969. It was supposed to "log," as in "log in," but the computers crashed before the last letter could be typed. "Lo and behold," exclaims the man showing Herzog the room on the campus of UCLA from where the message was sent. He speaks of that room, which has been preserved to look exactly as it did on that day almost 50 years ago, in almost religious terms. It's a shrine of sorts, although the sacred text of that first message is not recorded anywhere within the space. None of our digital communication is, really. One interviewee jokes about the fact that someone's going to have to print off every entry on Wikipedia if we want a physical, encyclopedic record of history.

At some point, we might have to do that, too. Herzog and a few of his subjects are critical of the all-digital world that we're approaching. We could lose the majority of our collected information if some disaster struck, either man-made corruption or a force of nature.

For example, a large enough sunspot could, theoretically, knock out power worldwide. When the topic arises, all of these interviewees become a little quiet and begin to talk in terms, not of saving the current human population of the planet, but of preserving the human species—as in humankind only needing a number equal to when our species was capable of spreading from Africa. They're not referring to millions or hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands, either. It will only take a couple thousand people for humanity to survive. Take the current human population of Earth, and do the math for the casualties in a worst-case scenario.

There's an air of gloom and doom to certain sections of the film, especially those which discuss the internet as a tool of international warfare and of interpersonal attacks. Cybersecurity experts speak about cyberwarfare in such a way that one can almost hear the word "redacted" in their pauses, and a father discusses how photos of his daughter, after she was killed in a horrific automobile crash, spread online. Complete strangers sent those photos to him, just as a twisted "joke."

To imply or infer that Herzog is advocating some kind of Luddite philosophy here would be dishonest. The internet, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the means of interplanetary travel and colonization are all tools that are doing and can do much good for humanity. In the case of the effects of losing our technological comforts to a sunspot or something else, these tools might be doing too much good, in fact (Herzog finds people who are addicted to video games and/or the internet, as well as others who are convinced that they're being poisoned by electromagnetism).

None of these experts, for example, think that some evolved artificial intelligence will one day destroy mankind of its own volition. They do worry, though, that a human being may program such an intelligence for his or her own benefit without considering the ramifications. If a stock-trading AI is programmed to make the biggest profit possible, why wouldn't it find a way to crash the market and reap the low-buying benefits?

In all of these cases, the potential evil of technology comes from a human component. If there's a warning to be taken from Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, it's that we may not respect technology as much as we should. There is too much promise of what's to come for this to be anything other than a hopeful film, although, as human beings, we'd better get our collective act together if we're ever going to see those promises fulfilled.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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