Computing goes to Sundance and sits down with the director of the most radical film yet made about the connected world
Werner Herzog is a film director who needs little introduction, at least to anybody who knows films. From the despair of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which a band of conquistadors try - and utterly fail - to tame the Amazon and discover El Dorado, to Grizzly Man, a punishing documentary about one man's passion for fierce creatures outweighing his survival instinct, Herzog has made a career of charting journeys into the unknown.
Famous for not owning a mobile phone - he made his first telephone call at the ripe old age of 17 - Herzog is a self-confessed beginner when it comes to the world of the internet, and to connectivity.
Nevertheless, application and network performance management firm NetScout, who you may remember is currently in an unprecedented legal battle with analyst house Gartner, decided to strike out with another IT industry first and hire Herzog to create a documentary about the internet called Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World.
Computing attended the premier at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week, and discovered a film unafraid to ask questions about the hyperconnected future we're currently throwing ourselves headlong into.
With interview subjects that range from scientists at Stamford University who are building football-playing robots they hope can replace human players, to a group of people living beneath America's largest telescope, who in order to allow it to function have withdrawn from the world of electronic communications altogether, the film asks more questions than it answers, and does so through the filter of a self-confessed "curious man" who has been probing minds in a career spanning 50 years.
"A very deep question, with no full answers"
Herzog considers the film to be only the beginning of a dialogue that is set to continue. In this spirit, Computing sat down with Herzog and NetScout CMO Jim McNiel to discuss the film's message.
Herzog calls his film "a deep, conceptual look into the phenomenon of the connected world".
"Because [the internet] is not just a technical device. [The film is about] how we, as human beings, are in contact with other human beings, and how this information, or teaching, or memory, or social interaction, is being redefined, and [asking] how do we respond as human beings to all these things coming at us?
"And sometimes that's a very deep question with no full answers from anyone," he says.
In the film Herzog, referencing Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz's question "Does war dream of itself?", asks whether the internet, in fact, dreams of itself also.
McNiel, who clearly sees Herzog's film as a mesmerising adjunct to NetScout's "Guardians of the Connected World" campaign, says working with Herzog has changed the way he sees the internet.
"There's one thing that surprised me about this process," McNiel tells Computing.
"I'm a technology guy, and I've been in technology for years, and I thought this was going to be a film about technology, and the impact technology has on society.
"But it turns out it's not a film about technology at all - it's a film about humanity. And that was the big surprise for me - because really we are the creators of the connected world, and it's created in our image: which is why it has viruses, and failures and foibles, and why it commits crime. Because it's a mirror of all of humanity. That was where the film took me."
For Herzog - perhaps harking back to the characters in Aguirre: Wrath of God, cast adrift on a raft and left for dead - having now experienced the internet, he can see it as nothing more than a vast and alternately inspiring and bewildering space. As research in cloud computing, the Internet of Things, embeddables and advanced AI begin to accelerate to levels way beyond our control, it's getting easier to share his outlook.
"It's like seeing a new continent," he says.
"You can say, ‘Oh look, there's something there: ice floes and cold water on a whole continent, Antarctica is materialising. And you just take a few dogs and a sledge and food and you start to explore. It's unknown terrain, and for the next 10, 20, 30 or 50 years we'll continue to navigate and move into very, very uncharted terrain.
"There's lots of terra incognita out there, and I'm really fascinated - I like these voyages where you do not know exactly where it's going to take you. It's not like tomorrow I'm flying from Salt Lake City to Burbank and I know the number of the plane and the arrival time, and I know the airport at Burbank. This voyage into the unknown is fascinating. And not just for me, of course. Many people are much more internet-literate [than me], but there's so much unknown terrain out there that is going to come at us and we've no clue what is coming."
"A computer is not going to make a film as good as mine"
Herzog has been scathing about AI's potential to mimic, or certainly collaborate, with humanity. In the press conference before our interview, he said a machine couldn't make a film as good as his within "4,500 years".
The figure, of course, was plucked out of thin air, but after what he saw making Lo and Behold, how can he be so sure?
"Of course I'm sure," he snaps.
"The same way I'm sure that nobody among my film maker colleagues could make a film on the internet as good as I do. I just know it. When you're looking around here now, you don't know what's going to happen in ten thousand years, it's too vague. But there are certain things I know: a computer is not going to make a film as good as mine."
McNiel, however, says that when AI begins to move from so-called general intelligence to super intelligence "there's the possibility that something like that may happen".
"Look at the quality of entertainment that's consumed en masse - can a computer produce that stuff? More than likely," he smiles.
"But a computer will never create the kind of tragic humour of Buster Keaton," Herzog chimes in.
"Forget about any capacity of computers - Buster Keaton will never be paralleled by another human being, nor by a computer."
McNiel agrees, citing an ongoing project to create an AI comedian: "It can write jokes, and you may laugh at a few of them, but it's almost like they're being knocked together by a 12 year old. They've just taken irony and opposition, and they're trying to mathematically construct humour.
"There's the thing that's going to be always different: a computer just follows a formula," he says.
"Snowden was right"
Herzog has interesting views on the data privacy debate and the impact of whistleblower Edward Snowden's NSA revelations.
"We do know all those flows of gigantic data can be tapped into, and of course it's a question of public interest versus privacy and of course the debate is not over.
"I always had the feeling that, yes, somebody was watching what I'm doing," he says, adding that this inspired him to do a little test in which he performed several Google searches in the space of a week for Harley Davidson motorbikes he didn't want.
"All of a sudden, I'm flooded by ads from Harley Davidson repair shops, and with that I know that somebody, some algorithm, knows what I'm trying to find," he says.
"I do not need Snowden [to know all that], but now we know more precisely and more about the entire infrastructure. But there is surveillance and we know that."
Herzog, like many others, always sticks a piece of plastic over any built-in laptop camera.
But did Snowden do the right thing by speaking out?
"I think so, I think so," replies Herzog.
"Although of course there's the question of national security, but it's not really jeopardised by [speaking out about this]."
"There's never an excuse to let national government jeopardise freedom," says McNiel.
"He did the right thing because he knew the government was breaking the law. If they want to protect the people of this country then do so by all means - I'm sure they had our best interests at heart - but they need to go back and look at the legislation."
For Herzog, however, there's another glaring injustice here:
"I ask myself: the head of the NSA was in a congressional hearing, and he lies to Congress - clearly he lies - and after they've sworn him in."
"Yeah, it's perjury," says McNiel.
"Perjury, yes," replies Herzog.
"But on a very high level. You just don't lie to Congress or a Senate hearing. If you do that, before you even walk out of the door there will be federal marshals who arrest you.
"So now I ask: has the NSA boss been taken in by marshals? In which prison is he languishing? What sort of trial has he had to stand? Did he answer in court? Who arrested him? Tell me who arrested him."
The answer, of course, is nobody. And that's perhaps one of the only succinct and definite answers available as Herzog continues to tussle with even starting to make sense of the connected world, its effects on humanity, and how it will continue to shape and grow either with our guidance, or entirely on its own.
If and when Lo and Behold finds a distributor for mainstream release, Computing highly recommends it. An offbeat and utterly unique insight into a world we, in our industry, are immersed in on a daily basis, it's an excellent opportunity to begin some essential self-examination.