Never at a loss for words, or for strange and perilous new worlds to explore, Werner Herzog considers whether the technologies that unite us might one day eclipse us in “Lo and Behold,” an alternately playful and unsettling 10-part essay on how the Internet continues to evolve and encroach on all avenues of society and consciousness. Touching on everything from the dangers of hacking and Web addiction to the unchecked possibilities of artificial intelligence, these discrete “reveries of the connected world” represent the latest of Herzog’s heady explorations of what it means to be human (and even post-human), rendered in his characteristically personal, decidedly analog style. With its bemused, skeptical pose, the film is unlikely to become an arthouse sensation on the level of his 2011 3D spectacular, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”; still, given that the Internet has done wonders for Herzog’s own celebrity, this Netscout-funded project should friend plenty of viewers through streaming services following a theatrical run.
The punning title riffs on an anecdote from the earliest days of the Internet — specifically, Oct. 29, 1969, when a graduate student attempted the first host-to-host communication and got as far as typing “lo” (the first two letters of “login”) before the system crashed. And so was born the World Wide Web, an event that Herzog commemorates by turning his camera on the original bulky, ugly computer terminals still housed within the bowels of the UCLA campus. He also interviews early pioneers like Bob Kahn, who collaborated with Vint Cerf to write the protocols that would give rise to the Internet; a glimpse of the complex mathematical equations involved in pinpointing “the minimum response time for an optimized network” briefly boggles the mind.
The rest of “Lo and Behold” is far less abstruse, and for the many viewers who spend almost every waking minute online yet possess only a vague understanding of what they’re engaging with, the film’s various Web experts, visionaries and scientists (many of them culled from the halls of Carnegie Mellon) offer a brain-tickling inquiry into the Internet’s history, form and function, as well as its vast and still-uncharted potential. It’s an inquiry as philosophical as it is technical, ranging from hypertext inventor Ted Nelson’s using the flow of water as a metaphor for interconnectivity, to Herzog himself posing to scientists the Philip K. Dickian question that might well become the film’s tagline: “Does the Internet dream of itself?”
If it does, then perhaps “Lo and Behold,” with its roving, episodic structure (divided into chapters with titles like “The Glory of the ’Net” and “Artificial Intelligence”), can be understood as both a record of that dream and an attempt to make sense of it. It drifts lucidly from one subject to the next, from celebratory anecdote to cautionary tale, with an intellectual verve that is never less than engrossing. The film’s most upbeat chapter spotlights Foldit, an online computer game that allows users to bend and manipulate the structure of biomolecules, yielding the sort of discoveries that could help produce cures for cancer and AIDS. The most sobering episode recounts the sad story of Nikki Catsouras, who died in a 2006 car accident, and the ensuing photo leak and online harassment that further devastated her family — interviewed here in a curious, funereal staging that suggests the wounds of the past still persist in the present.
Testifying to the dangerous consequences of Web exposure are several inhabitants of Green Bank, West Va., home of the enormous Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, whose electromagnetic sensitivity has turned this small Appalachian community into a cellular-free zone. Like refugees from some real-life version of Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” these residents describe having experienced intense, seemingly inexplicable pain before moving to Green Bank; presumably they will be better equipped to cope than the rest of the human population should a solar storm occur, the effect of which would likely shut down the Internet with “unimaginably bad” results.
Much of Herzog’s film is focused on the Internet’s human repercussions in the here and now: our excessive dependency, our vulnerability to cyber-attack (famous hacker Kevin Mitnick recalls the activities that led to his arrest and imprisonment), and all the ways our Web use triggers our best and (more likely) worst impulses. But “Lo and Behold” is never more thought-provoking than when it pushes toward the unknown, peering into an uncertain future where intelligence is not only artificial but also autonomous: If a self-driving car causes an accident, who or what is liable? Will the Internet one day spontaneously evolve a will of its own, spelling HAL-9000-level catastrophe? Is human existence on Mars a vital next step for the species, as posited here by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk? Will gadgets become irrelevant one day, because our minds will be so wired into our environments that we’ll be able to tweet our thoughts? Will robots fall in love? (Would it be useful for robots to fall in love?)
Unsurprisingly, Herzog resists the temptation to answer these questions, preferring to sit back and listen while his formidable array of experts bandy them about. Still, fans of his inimitable (or rather, extremely imitable) German-accented philosophizing will get more than their fill: The filmmaker remains a fully engaged presence throughout, and it’s hard not to sense a mixture of pessimism and awe in the way he regards his subject. Intrigued as he unmistakably is by the possibilities that technology may yet afford us, it’s hard not to suspect that Herzog agrees with the speaker who declares that “computers are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking.” Certainly his straightforward visual style, which favors talking heads and establishing shots over a flashier, more aggressive graphic approach, bespeaks a desire to scrutinize his subject from a healthy distance. The virtual future may be now, but “Lo and Behold,” with its stimulating volley of insights and ideas, always feels persistently, defiantly human.