The French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux once suggested that god does not exist but might exist in the future. This future god is the one legendary German director Werner Herzog looks for in his new documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World—the god whose mind seems to be emerging, flicker by flicker, in the global communication network we call the internet. What will this god do? How will we worship it? Will it make demands? And if so, will these demands harm or improve the lives of the god's creators?
The documentary opens on the campus of UCLA. We see students walking in the sun. They have no idea they are close to the place the future might see and honor as a kind of Mecca, where a human form of socializing would evolve into a supreme being. "The corridors here look repulsive," says Herzog in his inimitable German accent. "And yet this one leads to some sort of a shrine." As he speaks, we see Leonard Kleinrock, a computer scientist who helped develop the theoretical foundation of the internet, walking in slow motion toward an ordinary looking door. He opens it. He enters a room. "We are now [in] a sacred location," Kleinrock says. "It's the location where the internet began. It's a holy place." The system was born here in 1969, in a machine "so ugly, it is beautiful."
Herzog is having a bit of a laugh, but he's also dead serious. He is attuned to the cosmic absurdity of a universe at once grand and meaningless. The music playing as Kleinrock describes the first e-mail ever sent (from UCLA to Stanford) is reverential, but the room looks like any old classroom. Something remarkable happened in the most unremarkable place. This is how the universe always works—between the divine and the ridiculous.
"Will the internet make its own decisions? Will the communication that happens go out of human hands?" This is said by Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and leading theorist of the nature of nothingness (nothing turns out to be not nothing). All we can be sure of at this point in the development of our internet god, the brain of our brains, the dream of our dreams, is that it is not interested in cathedrals, or prayers, or the whole human morality show. Like a cold star in the sky, it operates outside the limits of good and evil. It is a process god.
Later in the film, Herzog interviews an upper-middle-class family (mother, father, three girls, all blond) dealing with the loss of a daughter. She committed suicide by driving her father's Porsche off a cliff. The crash decapitated her. But one of the first responders took a picture of the dead girl and her severed head with his smartphone and uploaded it to the web. The circulation of this grisly image exposed the internet's very dark side. The mother thinks the internet is not becoming god but his rival, Satan.
In another scene, Herzog visits the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. He has the idea that the god (or devil) that the internet is destined to become will desire to leave this planet. Its shot at immortality is in the stars and not with humans. But humans will also follow it. After reflecting for a moment along these lines, in a manner that recalls J.G. Ballard's The Dead Astronaut, Herzog comes across some Buddhist monks in saffron-colored robes. They are standing under a tree that has a stunning view of Chicago's central business district. But none of these monks are looking at the skyline or even at the waters of the great lake. Their eyes are glued to the screens of their smartphones. "Have the monks stopped meditating?" asks Herzog. "Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting."
Though it's a funny line, it's also the weakest moment in the whole movie, which, despite being beautifully shot, is not one of the director's best. Herzog should have understood that to the new god he's trying to uncover, tweeting and praying are the same thing.