Earlier this year Elon Musk, billionaire co-founder of SpaceX and CEO at Tesla, claimed that the probability we’re not living in a simulated universe is ‘one in billions.’ He argued that if the rapid advancement of technology over the last few decades continues at the same rate, it is inevitable that we’ll soon be able to create simulated universes indistinguishable from reality. Our universe is merely one such simulation, the theory goes.
This simulation hypothesis is nothing new, not even in cinema; The Matrix (1999) introduced the concept to the masses nearly twenty years ago when Neo chose to take the red pill. Musk’s recent advocacy of the theory only gained the coverage it did in the media because his position in the vanguard of technological innovation lends him some authority on such matters.
Musk makes an appearance in a slightly different capacity in Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. In it he talks to the director about the mission to colonise Mars, a conversation which culminates with Herzog enthusiastically volunteering to participate in the voyage himself. While simulated universes aren’t discussed as such in Lo and Behold, the film is concerned with what the future of digital technology looks like and where it might take the human race. First of all, though, it looks to the past and the genesis of the Internet.
Herzog visits the small room at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where the earliest form of the Internet was created (the ARPANET, funded by an arm of the US Department of Defence). The title of the film is a nod to the first ever message sent using the system, an aborted attempt to transmit the word LOGIN. The computer relaying the message only managed LO before crashing. Leonard Kleinrock, one of the pioneers of the Internet, effusively teaches us about the creation of the ARPANET, delivering his lesson directly into the camera. It is a buoyant, optimistic start.
Appropriately for a film which is concerned with emerging digital technologies, Lo and Behold was originally intended as a series of short YouTube films, a concept that would have been seen as fancy when that first cabinet-sized computer was fired up at UCLA all those years ago. After some consideration Herzog and his producers chose to make a feature film instead, but one which still bears the traces of its original, episodic design.
The film is split into ten chapters, each announced with a bold intertitle and most of them rather dramatically named: THE END OF THE INTERNET; THE DARK SIDE; THE GLORY OF THE NET. There is no real link between them except that they all examine the different faces of the same digital phenomenon. In addition to Elon Musk’s Martian ambitions and Leonard Kleinrock’s history of the Internet the film speculates on what would happen should the Internet ever go down (it would mean the end of civilisation). We also meet a group of people who have retired to a radar station where there are no telephone masts as they suffer an unexplainable sickness from the signals they emit. Much of the content is speculative but it is philosophically rich. In the future, will humans need personal contact with each other when technology can provide almost everything we need? Questions like this may seem frivolous now but if we assume, like Elon Musk, a continuing rate of technological advancement, they may be answered sooner than we think.
As usual, Werner Herzog is not afraid of making his presence felt. His distinctive voiceover greets us from the start and he is often as much a feature of an interview as his subject. Herzog’s impishness can be engaging but it proves problematic in one particular scene in Lo and Behold, during a chapter in which he explores the shadier side of the internet and, more specifically, the ease with which it can be used for malevolent purposes. In it he interviews the Catsouras family, well-off Middle Americans who have seen first-hand how the anonymity of the internet encourages the most malicious behaviour.
In 2006 Nikki Catsouras died after crashing her father’s Porsche 911 into a concrete tollbooth at over 100mph. The first responders to the scene of the accident chose to send gruesome pictures of the victim to their friends and before long these images were spread across the internet. Soon after, the Catsouras family started receiving horrifying messages mocking Nikki’s death. Many of them contained the graphic photos from the scene of the accident.
Nikki’s father, Christos, explains the circumstances of the tragedy and the subsequent abuse his family have received. The scene is noticeably staged. Christos and his wife, Lesli, stand by the breakfast bar of their well-appointed kitchen, their daughters sat down beside them. Batches of muffins are lined up invitingly in the foreground. Towards the end of the scene, after the family have given their account, they all look suddenly at a point off to the left of the camera, as if Herzog is asking them a question that we can’t hear. The whole episode is so surreal in its manufacture that the sombreness of the Catsouras’ story is undermined. This uncanniness leaves a lasting impression, when it should come from the tragic, sudden death we hear of or the vindictive way it is exploited.
Werner Herzog, a self-confessed technological novice, manages to approach his subject with an endearing naiveté. He is keen to strike a balance between eulogizing the internet for the positive impact it has had since its creation and lamenting its potential for harm. It’s unclear if Herzog is still as technologically averse after his experience making Lo and Behold but his enthusiasm for Elon Musk’s mission to Mars suggests his sense of adventure remains undiminished. The film is unlikely to be remembered as one of his grandest statements but we may be able to look back on it in time and wonder at its prescience.
More by Werner Herzog
Woyzeck (1979) – Herzog and his exhausted crew filmed this adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished play only five days after finishing the shoot of Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). In it Klaus Kinski plays the titular soldier who gradually loses his mind while stationed in a quiet, provincial German town. It is a painful, committed performance from Kinski as he presents a man buckling under the weight of repression.