Werner Herzog documentary offers social 101 of connected world

Werner Herzog documentary, courtesy of NetScout, provides a social panorama of the digital age

Have you seen a more “repulsive corridor…” asks Werner Herzog strolling through a bright anonymous university building in Los Angeles to the room where the first internet transmission took place. He prods at the dull looking computing unit and pulls out the log book. This is the birthplace of the digital age…  

Over the last few years there has been a big vogue for companies funding films. This is art meets content marketing in its truest form and started in earnest with the 2008 film Somers Town, funded by Eurostar and directed by Shane Meadows. It is most well-known in the 2014 animated Lego movie. Now cybersecurity company, NetScout, has joined this merry band and funded a new documentary Lo and behold: Reveries of the connected world, a film by Werner Herzog.

“I do not want to do commercials or infomercials,” explains Herzog in the press materials. “But when it became obvious that NetScout would not interfere at all and simply want to be part of a film that I made that was quite fine with me.”

The finished product is 98 minutes, in ten chapters, which covers the length and breadth of the computer age via the good, the bad and the weird. It includes interviews with the tech luminaries such as Elon Musk of SpaceX fame and Leonard and Bob Khan, the fathers of networking.

Interestingly, Herzog himself knows nothing whatsoever about technology and generally avoids it, so the stories captured provide a unique journey through all the different social aspects of technology, punctuated with Herzog’s odd commentary. “I’m not a journalist and I don’t come with a catalogue of questions. I have conversations on camera,” he explains.

The final result is a quirky panorama. We meet the individuals who have been blighted by radiation sickness, have been forced out to the middle of nowhere to escape the harmful rays and now go in for a spot of fiddle playing round the campfire. There are comedy tales of blighting the FBI from notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick (filmed with the Las Vegas strip in the background) - which sound exactly like schoolboy bragging ­- and he’s clearly extremely chuffed with.

At the more strange and sinister end we hear about the rehabilitating gaming addicts who became so obsessed that that they wore nappies to avoid losing game time (and worse). And then there is the vile case of Nikki Catsouras, whose family were besieged by horrific images of her tragic death. “The doctors [only] told us about a severed thumb,” says her father. Then internet trollers sent pictures of her severed head.

Yet as always tech has a predominantly positive spin and there are robots aplenty - some training to beat real players in a future World Cup - along the bizarre potential of thought reading. Space and getting the internet on Mars are touched upon along with all that the Internet of Things might mean.

Most of the material covered is familiar territory. Yet it is a decent project - worth producing by NetScout. I thought it was a touch too long - it could have lost about 20 minutes. But overall, it makes for a nice introduction to the social and moral concerns of the latest technology. And best of all, it sets it within the context with history, with many of the driving people behind it all offering their views on what it might mean in future.