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Lo and Behold: Reveries of the connected world

02/10/2016

Back in August I managed to catch the eccentric Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog’s latest effort Lo and Behold: The reveries of the connected world.  It was screening during the New Zealand International Film Festival. What follows are some belated thoughts.

The internet is a massive topic, as it contains a vast sea of information and produces human behaviour both positive and negative. Herzog covers his subject with the sedulous eye of a seasoned documentarian, interviewing an interesting cast of characters including Elon Musk, a prominent hacker, founder of Udacity Sebastian Thrun, internet addicts at an internet rehab centre and a family who were victims of hate mail following the death of their daughter. I shan’t cover everything in this post but hope to give you a taste of the film.

The film is separated into ten chapters which essentially trace the internet from its origins (the first message in 1969 was supposed to be “log” but after typing ‘l’ and ‘o’ the system crashed so, symbolically, the first message sent via the internet was “lo” as in “lo and behold”) then the system’s evolution into what it is today (and it offers more than you realise) and a look at the potential future possibilities of the internet.

A funny moment happens pretty early in the film where we are treated to flash backs of news reports from the 1980s with a news anchor exclaiming with awe “imagine reading your daily newspaper on your computer” overlaid with a computer which looks shockingly primitive to 2016 eyes. How far it has all come.

We go then to cover some of the exciting possibilities the “internet”, as Herzog solemnly intones, is just starting to bring to us. We all know the internet is about forging connections but most of us only forge these connections through email and the vacuity inclined social media. A powerful type of connection the internet can provide is in online education whereby a teacher can connect, not with just 200 students who may take a University course but, with hundreds of thousands and possibly more.

The founder of online course provider Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, is interviewed and he described the possibilities of online education. In one of the more startling aspects of the film, Thrun describes how he taught the same course to 200 Stanford University students “IRL” (in real life) and a hundred thousand online students. Staggeringly, the highly privileged students at prestigious Stanford were trounced by the online students in final results. Thrun tells us that the best performing Stanford student on the course was the 413th overall. When economists and pundits talk about disruptive tech firms such as Uber and Air BnB, the byword is spare capacity. By allowing drivers to use their own car to ferry people around (Uber) or by allowing people to easily rent out spare rooms in their houses, these companies are using that spare capacity.

I view online education as providing the means to tap into a lot of spare human capacity that is un or underemployed in many parts of the world especially the developing world where there is much less opportunity.

We meet a family who experienced the ignominy of a photograph of their decapitated daughter, who had died in a car crash, going “viral” on the internet. The family was then subject to abusive hate mail. It’s a very sad story and one could not help but feel for this family who were  This gets to the heart of the ugly fashion in which some people use the internet which, to my mind, is neither good nor evil rather it is up to people to make decisions about how they use it.

That’s also the conclusion I drew from Herzog’s interviews with internet addicts who have lost jobs and relationships because of their single minded obsession with the internet and usually, in particular, with playing online computer games all hours of the day.

Finally, there is some speculative crystal ball gazing about the future of the internet. Elon Musk gets a lot of press with his Tesla motorcars and SpaceX. The tech billionaire also made an interesting, and disconcerting, observation in Lo and Behold on a possible future scenario regarding the application of artificial intelligence. He imagines an AI told by a Wall Street firm “maximise my profits”; the AI absent any sort of moral frame, shorts consumer stocks, goes long on defense stocks and starts a war. And, Musk remarks with quite some understatement, “that would be quite bad”.

For billions of people on this planet, the internet is an essential part of our lives. Yet, I would venture, not something most of us can begin to comprehend. Lo and Behold is a good place to start our education.

Here is the trailer:

 

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