Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2016 5:28 am 
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Wireless interdependency: apocalypse sometime worse?

Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World at first seems like a movie about the Internet that goes astray, but that would be unfair. Even if this is a film commissioned and produced by Netscout, a tech firm, that he at first repeatedly refused to make, it is a Werner Herzog film, steeped in Weltschmerz - a sense that the wonders of technology are not enough, and cannot save us, however much its geniuses think it can. And though he does begin with the Internet and wander away from it - the division into ten chapters reflecting the meandering - the title is right: Herzog's broader concern is connectedness, the electronic and mechanical kind that makes the world perhaps fatally dependent on grids, the only escape from that dependency now to go off them, back to the Stone Age.

I am going to take you through the movie's ten chapters. They are a thorough tour of the tech world and its discontents. But the fact that Alex Gibney's recent Zero Days, about worm viruses and cyber warfare, does not need such divisions reflects its greater verve, clarity of focus, and relevance - and less need for a grim presiding docu-personality like the great Werner of Grizzly Man and Caves of Forgotten Ancestors.

In Part I: The Early Days, Herzog does start with the pioneers of the Internet, whose early experiments by Charley Kline, Leonard Klienrock, and others took place out of UCLA, where Kleinrock shows us the ugly, early, brick-shit-house of a computer still lurking in a stark room down a corridor. Unfortunately their explanations are too brief and abstruse, and we don't begin with a clear sense of what the "Internet" is or how the open source Word Wide Web of Tim Berners-Lee (mentiuoned, but not directly heard from) fits in. Nor is there discussion of why and how the "Internet" of different countries differs; or the immense storage centers ("data centers"), part of the "Physical Internet" hidden away like nuclear waste, required to keep Google and Facebook and Amazon and Netflix and your email up and running 24/7. This does not explain even in broad general terms how the Internet works. But in grandiose language, Herzog proclaims the momentousness of the revolution that began at UCLA. He ends with Ted Nelson, a maverick pioneer whose interconnected system of links, which we can't quite understand, was never used. Some people now think him nuts, and when Herzog tells him he's the sanest person around, he almost cries. This is a glimpse of how indeed at first computers and the Internet did seem like science fiction, or mad dreams.

Part II, The Glory of the Net, lauds the advances in medical research made possible through Internet-powered cooperation and rapid exchange of knowledge. We meet Sebastien Thon, a master roboticist whose faith in self-driving cars (indeed all things mechanical) is disconcertingly boundless. It's fun watching little round robotic footballers playing ball, but more dubious to imagine being dependent on a car that drives itself and wonder who's responsible in case of an accident. The "glory" Herzog depicts is partly a matter of experimenters' self-promotional enthusiasm; even here there is a sense of false hopes and hubris, of Herzogian doom, that's arising.

On to The Dark Side of the Internet in Part III which we may have glimpsed already. Here I suspect Herzog is more at home, focusing rather ghoulishly at first on the Catsouras family, all dressed in black in their dining room, staring into the camera, and talking about how the gruesome beheading in a car accident of their daughter (and sister), who had mental health problems, was brutally exploited by malicious persons who taunted the family with electronic hate mail and photos that went online and became a hideous meme. It was a lastingly traumatic incident that causes the mother to proclaim the Internet "the Anti-Christ" because it has less accountability, no moral controls. The Internet allows people to be nasty farther and faster - like nuclear weapons, or dronee, perhaps. But there is censorship by Google, and in some countries, like China, of Google; Facebook has been banned in Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea and Syria. Not mentioned.

Life Beyond the Net (Part IV) is really more about its bad effects, as well as the difficulty of escaping it, and radio waves. This section moves on to a space research center in the Alleghenies that is cut off from any radio waves, and victims of microwave allergy like Julienne Moore in Todd Haynes' Safe who take refuge here. And apparently in the complete absence of electronics, Blue Grass thrives, providing a folksy musical interlude. Then Herzog leaps westward, to Washington state, and a rehab center for Internet (really computer game) addiction, and news of the damage to self and to dear ones done such addicts of what's called "gaming" here and, particularly it seems, in Asia. (Such self-imposed victims are not really "beyond" the Internet, but they need to be).

Now that he's made the Net start to feel more dangerous than we realized, Herzog turns even darker with Part V, The End of the Net, where he focuses on how dependence on computers and the Internet will only magnify any possible apocalyptic futures. Here's one apocalypse: trendy, much-tattooed astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, of Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who works with the magnetic fields of stars, explains to us how the sun may eventually to destroy Earth and how on the way to that its disruptions can crush our power grids and satellites. Next comes a related look at Hurricane Sandy 's disruption of New York city, which "could happen on a worldwide scale, and much worse," Herzog intones. Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State, goes further and points out, as do other experts, how quickly things will stop functioning when there is a meltdown of Internet communications. It's all connected now. Cut down the Web, and there's a chain reaction of disaster and shutdown.

It's almost a brighter note when Herzog moves on to how human beings can at least take control, even if it's only to destroy the system themselves. Thus Part VI: Earthly Invaders moves into the terrain covered in Gibney's Zero Days - Internet and cyber world's own destroyers, the hacker world. At DEF CON, a hackers convention now boasting 22,000 members, we meet Kevin Mitnick, 52, who's probably the most famous hacker, jailed for five years in 1995 and now a security consultant, who explains that the human element is the real weakest link in any network. Mellow-voiced security analyst Fred Curry points out how in the somewhat too-free world of the Internet, cyber invasion becomes a weapon of war open to all, small nation (or maniacal loner?) or large. Shawn Carpenter works for Sandia National Laboratories, a government cyber security research facility, something even Zero Days left under-explored. Carpenter perhaps understandably looks worried, and won't reveal much, but will nod to the existence of the 2004 Chinese cyber attack detected by the FBI, Titan Rain. (Research will show he was the guy who traced Titan Rain back to its source in a massive China-based cyber espionage ring.)

We begin visibly to meander here, but Part VII: Internet on Mars, has a subject too good to leave out: the visionary 45-year-old South African PayPal and Tessla billionaire Elon Musk, who is building trips to Mars and selling tickets. But his dreams are bad dreams, and his optimism about being able to carry out this exploit is offset by the negative reason for it: because we may very well fuck up our own planet beyond hope of redemption. Still, what a spread he's got! SpaceX, his factory for manufacturing rockets, seen here, looks gorgeous.

When Herzog poses the question whether the Internet can dream of itself - like Philip K. Dick's "Do androids dream of electronic sheep?" - it's his segue into Part VIII: Artificial Intelligence. He takes us to the robotics labs at Carnegie Mellon, in once working class Pittsburgh, to consider that robots might have made the Fukushima disaster less awful by going in when it was too dangerous for humans and turning valves off. Well, at this point robots are cute, but Herzog gets one expert to admit they're much less advanced than a cockroach. Yet, AI is yet another danger of something that can be ill used. So much for dreams.

Part IX is called, oddly, The Internet of Me, a phrase coined by Fred Curry, which refers to the trend of computers to become embedded in us. A phone in your head, and so on. Do you like that idea? I do not. (Pretty certainly, Werner doesn't either.) Having everything in your house wired, invisibly, envisioned by Leonard Kleinrock here, is not a new idea. But the sense of growing helplessness and overkill of such a direction, the lack of restraint, at this point begins to feel palpable, the "connected world" too invasive by half.

If you're paying attention and tuned in to the film, this section brings out the Luddite in you - a sense that scientists, with their unbounded confidence and ability to do remarkable things (which sometimes get out of everybody's control) are always threatening to drift dangerously far away from the human, like the expert who says maybe "our children's children's children" will prefer the company of machines to humans, and "maybe that will be okay." It will very much not be okay. It's not okay now, and won't be then, because humans will still remain humans, however they become, in Thoreau's memorable phrase, "the tools of their tools." Having almost everything done by machines is an advance. But just as the Internet itself, wonderful and all-encompassing though it is, as we know, has already made us more and more dangerously dependent on it, the further mechanization of our lives also, while empowering us, will also cripple our ability to function as self-sufficient and morally accountable human beings.

Part X is called The Future, as if Werner hadn't shown us more of than than we wanted to see allready. Well, it turns out we're going to be able to read each other's minds, and the "embed" thing will mean we can tweet by just thinking. So perhaps we won't just become the "tools" of our tools in Thoreau's still metaphorical sense- but will actually be the tools. Yes, it's scary, if for tech buffs exciting.

And yes, in the end this film is too random and scattershot and Herzog has meandered too much, relying on too many talking heads and not providing enough original material. But if you accept it all as the filmmaker's "reveries," taking what you like of them and leaving the rest, you should still be left with a lot to ponder, and if it isn't one of Herzog's great films, it still has his mark on it.

o and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, 98 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2016; played at 22 other festivals including San Francisco and Munich. Critically so far it rates about the same as the more clearly focused Zero Days (both Metacritic 78%). It releases in US theaters 19 August 2016, in NYC at IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Center of Lincoln Center.


Alex Fegan: Older Than Ireland
NOTE: On a more cheerful note, a little documentary shown in NYC in April releases today in San Francisco's Opera Plaza, Alex Fegan's Older Than Ireland, which consists of interviews with Irish men and women who are, every one, 100 years old and over - a man is 108, a woman 113. The film explores their life's journeys, mostly poor and simple, which begin with the dawn of Irish independence and go through the Troubles into today. They're remarkable people.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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