THERE is a room in one of the science buildings in UCLA that is ground zero for the birthplace of the internet. In the 2016 documentary by legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, we get to see that room—complete with a commemorative plaque about the fateful day in Oct. 29, 1969, when the first message was transmitted over a network from one computer in UCLA to another at the Stanford Research Institute 400 miles to the north.
In the first scene of a 10-part documentary, Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock recounts that the first message was a single word: “Lo.” There was nothing profound about the word—one of the computers had simply crashed when it was about to receive the letter “G” to complete the remote log-in.
“The SRI computer crashed, so the first message ever on the internet was lo, as in lo and behold. We couldn’t have asked for a more succinct, more powerful, more prophetic message than lo,” Kleinrock says.
The sense of wonderment in Kleinrock’s observation sets the tone for the rest of the documentary—a freewheeling look at various aspects of what he calls “one of the greatest revolutions” humanity has experienced.
Like a book, the film is divided into 10 chapters, each dealing with a particular aspect of the internet. Herzog, who does the voiceover and the interviews never, actually appears on screen.
In Part 1, Early Days, Herzog talks to pioneers like Kleinrock and Bob Kahn, who co-invented TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol-Internet Protocol), the system of rules that makes communication on the internet possible.
Herzog, who describes himself as a novice with a conceptual understanding of the basics of the internet, says the early days look like prehistory from the perspective of today’s explosion of information technology.
“‘Today if you would burn CDs of the worldwide data flow for one single day, and stack them up to a pile, this pile would reach Mars and back,” Herzog says, clearly in awe of the pervasiveness of the internet. “The internet is already permeating everything. Even on the International Space Station, a phone call from one module to the next goes via the internet.”
In Part 2, The Glory of the Net, Herzog explores gains that were made possible because of internet technology and the vast number of people on the network. This includes an online video game in which hundreds of thousands of online users helped design RNA molecules that scientists using supercomputers could not do on their own.
Here we also see autonomous cars that can drive themselves and robotic soccer players that their inventors hope will one day be smart enough to beat the FIFA champions.
Balancing this upbeat view of the internet is Part 3, the Dark Side, which starts with a stark, almost shot of the Catsouras family seated around the dining table behind some cupcakes and croissants, talking about how grisly photos of their daughter Nikki, killed in a car accident in 2006, had circulated on the internet because two California Highway Patrol officers had emailed them to other people.
What made matters worse were the reactions that some people had to the photographs, and the online harassment that family members were subjected to as a result of the leaks.
“I received emails with the pictures attached a short time after the accident,” Nikki’s father says. “It was disguised and I didn’t know who it came from and I opened it up. The bad ones were very hateful. Hateful towards me, towards Nikki, towards our family. It said dead girl walking. Woo hoo daddy I’m still alive.
Nikki’s mother adds: “I didn’t know such depravity existed in humans and I think dogs treat their kind better than humans treat their kind… There is no dignity or respect on the internet because we’re not held accountable. Nobody is there to tell us not to. I have always believed that the internet is a manifestation of the anti-christ, of evil itself. It is the spirit of evil and I feel it’s running through everybody on earth and its claiming its victories in those people that are also evil.”
Some of Herzog’s material—such as his detours into solar flares, Hurricane Sandy, eccentrics who claim hypersensitivity to electrical radiation, and the Fukushima disaster—are only tangentially related to the internet but Herzog’s curiosity and enthusiasm are catching.
There’s a lot more in Lo and Behold—including interviews with uber-hacker Kevin Mitnick and the inventor Elon Musk—that make this documentary worth watching.
The topic is so wide-ranging, however, that Herzog inevitably leaves some stuff out, too. While he has a striking shot of Buddhist monks tweeting in front of the Chicago skyline, there is no mention of Facebook and the pervasive perfumed garden it has built on the internet. The documentary also seemed to be crying out for an interview with Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web and gave it away to the world.
Still, the journey is an engaging one, and Herzog’s storytelling skills, his deadpan delivery, and offbeat questions (Do you love your robot?) are enough to hold our interest.
Lo and Behold is available on Amazon and iTunes. Chin Wong
Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com