In the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, a curious woman opens a box and releases all manner of evil into the world. Once the box is open, there’s no closing it, and only hope is left at the bottom. This story came back to me as I watched Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s rumination on the range of digital systems and devices that govern our world. Divided into ten chapters—each featuring people who are furthering the technology or pushing back against it—the film explores the horrors and the wonders of our current way of life. The inventors of self-driving automobiles speak glowingly of the machines’ ability to learn and adapt, opining that it far outstrips that of humans, while victims of online bullying and addiction call the Internet the work of the devil. These views may seem irreconcilable, but Herzog arrives at a single conclusion: no matter how much technology evolves, it’s still up to us to steer it in the right direction.
Some of Herzog’s subjects are so damaged they’ve abandoned civilization altogether. A chapter dedicated to technology’s losers introduces us to people who have moved into the woods to escape the radiation of microwaves, computers, cell phones, and a host of other commonplace conveniences. One woman has developed such an acute sensitivity to this radiation that she spent a year lying in a Faraday cage, her husband passing meals in through a slot. Another woman is driven to tears detailing how her illness has prevented her from functioning in everyday society.
Other subjects have no one but themselves to blame. In a different wooded area, teenagers at an “Internet recovery center” describe becoming so engulfed in online gaming that reality became unreal to them. One young woman, asked about her identification with an online avatar, refuses to answer because she doesn’t feel recovered enough to comment without causing herself further mental damage. Herzog cites a story about kids in South Korea who stayed glued to their game screens so long that their legs developed thrombosis and had to be amputated. Unlike the radiation victims, these kids have been scarred by abusing the technology rather than just trying to coexist with it, but in both cases the way people respond to science varies more than anything inherent in the science itself.
Herzog’s most extreme example of online evil involves the grieving family of a mentally disturbed woman who died in a car crash. A first responder snapped a photo of her nearly decapitated body and e-mailed it to all his friends, turning the family’s tragedy into a meme. The mother is convinced that the Internet is the work of the Antichrist. But even in this case the culprit was a person pressing a couple buttons, not the buttons themselves.
Kevin Mitnick, one of the world’s most famous hackers, tells Herzog that, for better or worse, humans are the weak link. When the FBI was after him, he explains, he evaded capture by hacking into the bureau’s cell phones, which he accomplished by sweet-talking people at Motorola. There will always be security breaches, he argues, because there’s no end to our fallibility. Nothing we make will ever completely cover up our flaws, but developments like the Internet at least make it possible to dream of being better than we were yesterday. To counterbalance the dystopian misery described by some of the subjects, Herzog marshals a parade of technology’s greatest hopers and strivers, all of whom believe machines will be our salvation.
The most striking of them is engineer and inventor Elon Musk, currently at work on a project to build rockets so we can colonize Mars. Musk figures that if we destroy the earth, there should be a plan B. In a way his project is both hopeful and fatalistic—it’s based on the dual assumptions that we deserve to survive but also need to be rescued from ourselves. When Herzog asks him about his dreams, Musk admits that they’re mostly nightmares. What he worries about most is not that his machines will fail but that people will use them for evil rather than good. This is true of most of the scientists interviewed; they seem to locate almost all the pitfalls in human rather than technological failure.
Self-driving automobiles, soccer-playing robots, communication devices hooked up directly to our brain waves, and many other unfathomable advances are developed to ease our way through life. All new technology is now interconnected, every device linked to every other device in order to function. We have become dependent on these networks to such an extent that even a short service disruption sends our lives into chaos. In Lo and Behold, footage of a pitch-black New York City after Hurricane Sandy and descriptions of how solar flares affect our electrical grids hint at the apocalyptic future possible because of this reliance. But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Grappling with the miracles and the tragedies we have wrought, Herzog always returns to the idea that, no matter how far into science fiction we venture, our participation is still what matters most. Like the mysterious ocean in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris (1972), technology can seemingly become whatever the user wants or needs it to be. When Herzog asks one scientist whether machines will ever have minds of their own, the man laughs and counters with his own question: Would he want his dishwasher to refuse to function because it didn’t feel like working? Whether hiding in the woods or flying to other planets, we still must account for our actions. No matter what good or ill may escape from the boxes we open, we will always be responsible for dealing with the consequences. v