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Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

August 19, 2016
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

On the evening of October 29, 1969, a computer at UCLA logged in to a computer at Stanford. It was a landmark, but not quite the one that Werner Herzog makes it out to be in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, his musing on the Internet, how it affects and changes our modern lives, and how it might do so even more into the future.

This was the first established link of ARPANET, which introduced the idea of packet switching to computer networks. Prior to ARPANET, there were computer links from UCLA to Stanford, MIT, and other academic and military research sites, but there was one dedicated line with a dedicated computer at each end to communicate between each pair that wanted to. This clearly isn’t a scalable solution; packet switching allows messages to transmit across established links so one terminal at each site can handle traffic to many remote sites. You don’t need a separate phone line to call each of your friends; one can contact any of them, with the call routed by their phone number. Now the same was true for computers.

But this is not yet the Internet, largely because of another technical shortcoming. On ARPANET, you still needed to know how to get from one point to another, or at least your computer did. If you’re at Stanford in the middle of 1970 and want to talk to MIT, you need to look up the path in routing tables that tell you Stanford connects to UCLA which connects to the RAND Corporation, which connects to BBN Technologies, which connects to MIT. Or if the BBN links are down, RAND connects to the System Development Corporation, which connects to MIT. And every time the network topology changes, every computer needs to update its knowledge of how to get to every other computer.

The solution didn’t come for another five years, and wasn’t really implemented for almost ten more. The Internet Protocol (IP) routes packets of information somewhat randomly through a network, so each node only needs to know what it can connect to, and what its neighbors are likely to know. It’s like Stanley Milgram’s “Small-world” experiment — yes, that Stanley Milgram — where a letter had to be sent from one person to another through chains of people who knew each other on a first-name basis. Different parts of an Internet message might even be sent along completely different routes; they might arrive jumbled and out of order, so the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is in charge of breaking up messages into packets and reassembling the packets into messages on the other end.

It’s this sort of “social network” of computers communicating through TCP/IP that makes the Internet so robust and flexible. Of course, their deployment on ARPANET in 1983 doesn’t make for as singular and striking a story as the first link from UCLA to Stanford, so I understand why Herzog fudged the details in his telling even though the true story seems more thematically resonant. But it also points to the bigger problem with his technological meditations: he skims each subject with a perspective that’s a mile wide, but an inch deep.

It would be natural to ask why a man who does not own a mobile phone “for cultural reasons” is in the position to analyze our society’s relationship to the Internet. On some level, the answer comes down to our western ambivalence towards technology. We have a real Luddite streak that claims every new development — the Internet, television, radio, novels — to herald the end of some well-established moral order. Then the next generation grows up, sees nothing wrong with the technologies they’ve always known, and turns around to impose the same moralism on their children. And so a man who eschews modern communication technologies in his own life is somehow “purer” than the rest of us, which allows him to be our scold.

Which is not to say that Herzog’s tone is always scolding. For each story that comes off harshly critical, there is another one that uplifts. Herzog shows pranksters coming together over the Internet to torture a family in the wake of their daughter’s death, but he also shows people working together solving scientific puzzles about protein folding by turning it into a massively networked game. He visits a community hiding from electromagnetic fields in the shadow of a radio telescope, but also talks to Elon Musk about how the Internet can maintain communication with a colony on Mars. The firehose of data that can be collected in a massively connected world has chilling implications on our privacy, but it can also be used to train expert systems that help computers do more for us than ever before.

Any one of these dichotomies could, in the hands of a documentarian who really digs into them, make a fascinating and thought-provoking film. Herzog — the man who dragged a steamship over a hill — does not seem interested in muddying his hands here. Referring to his stories as “reveries” seems designed to inoculate him against criticism for their shallowness, and allow him to flit from one to the other, following his momentary interests.

Still, even a minor effort by Werner Herzog is engaging. The film is certainly never boring, and not often preachy. If you’re not steeped in the world of technology and the Internet already, you might even learn a few interesting nuggets you can deploy at your next cocktail party while you wait for Malcolm Gladwell to crank out a new collection of anecdotes. But if you’re waiting for substantive thought and insight about our connected world, you’re going to have to wait to hear from someone willing to join it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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