Sunday, October 9, 2016

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Leonard Kleinrock

Joydeep Biswas

Sebastian Thrun

Elon Musk

Danny Hillis

Lucianne Walkowicz

LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD              B                    
USA  (98 mi)  2016  d:  Werner Herzog              Official site

No one ever gets the future right.
—Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist

I worry -- I worry that this excitement about colonizing Mars and other planets carries with it a long, dark shadow: the implication and belief by some that Mars will be there to save us from the self-inflicted destruction of the only truly habitable planet we know of, the Earth.  As much as I love interplanetary exploration, I deeply disagree with this idea.  There are many excellent reasons to go to Mars, but for anyone to tell you that Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the lifeboats.
—Lucianne Walkowicz, astrophysicist at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium

Much as he did in his voyage to Antarctica in ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007), Herzog seems to delight in the company of distinguished scientists, actually joking with them from time to time as he offers a meditative essay on the origins and ramifications of the Internet.  Broken down into ten titled sections, Herzog covers a lot of ground in relatively short order, perhaps designed to spark questions by viewers about the vast implications of a world addicted to technology, where by this time there’s simply no turning back as we’ve crossed the threshold past the point of no return into unchartered territory.  One of the better arguments made is that one can trace the origins of government, as there are letters and historical documents describing the mindset of the individuals in the room who happened to sign the Declaration of Independence, but the same cannot be said about the originators of the Internet, yet both events are described by Herzog as among the most significant revolutions effecting human life on the planet.  Herzog himself does not have a smartphone and uses his cellphone only in emergencies, spending little of his lingering time scouring the Internet other than a search through personal emails and simple navigation, once describing social media as a “massive, naked onslaught of stupidity,” suggesting he may not be the most impartial observer on this issue, as until now he’s never expressed much interest in the Internet and has even been described as a Luddite, something he has in common with the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.  While much of his own input often feels intentionally tongue-in-cheek, like occasionally asking oddball questions, as Herzog has always concerned himself with abnormal human behavior, making this one of his slighter, least probing, but more entertaining Herzog documentaries, perhaps because the film is conceived and developed by a modern advertising agency, NetScout, whose chief marketing officer Jim McNeil hired the director to play to their brand (How A Brand And Ad Agency Made Werner Herzog's New Hit ...).  It’s remarkably clear throughout that Herzog would rather be reading a book, yet this film attempts to offer a philosophic glimpse into a future that consists of robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality connecting humans to satellites, each other, and the distant universe.  Having made over 60 feature films, the common element in all of them is Herzog himself, where there is a certain recognizable gravitas in his voice that is unmistakable, where one can’t forget the comical effect put to use in Harmony Korine’s JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999), yet almost always he’s investigating harsh conditions or extreme environments that lend themselves to dark narratives or bleak outlooks, whether it is trudging through the Peruvian rain forest in FITZCARRALDO (1982), “Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony.  It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder,” or his harsh perspective on a man being devoured by a grizzly bear at the end of GRIZZLY MAN (2005), “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy.  I can see only the overwhelming indifference of nature,” or his musings on climate change at McMurdo Station in Antarctica from ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007), “Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events.  We seem to be next.”  

I have a mobile device only for emergencies, and when I turned it on recently it stated to flash at me angrily that this device hadn’t been used for 52 weeks.  Which is fine.  I am still doing well.  I have survived these 52 weeks without a cell phone magnificently.

Herzog suggests it all began in a tiny basement room in a large nondescript engineering building on the sprawling UCLA campus, specifically Room 3420 in Boelter Hall.  “The corridors here look repulsive, and yet this one leads to some sort of a shrine, ground zero of one of the biggest revolutions we as humans are experiencing.”  Set to the momentous sounds of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Das Rheingold Act 1: Prelude-Part I ... YouTube (6:38), the same music that inspired the magnificent opening of Malick’s The New World (2005), it was here on October 29, 1969, shortly after the “Miracle” Mets, the first team with a winning record in their team history, upset the much favored Baltimore Orioles in five games to become the first expansion team to win the World Series, that a team of computer engineers, led by Leonard Kleinrock, who would have been age 35 at the time, initiated the first Internet message to a similar team of experts at Stanford Research Institute, a distance of about 350 miles away, intending to send LOGIN, but the system crashed after just two letters, sending the message “lo,” as in lo and behold, which has now been forever enshrined in the history of Internet lore.  An hour later they tried again and it worked.  Kleinrock shows us the original machine which has remained intact, describing it with “This machine is so ugly that it's beautiful,” opening it up, marveling at the “delicious old odor” associated with the extensive internal electronic circuitry.  Within weeks, a more permanent network was established, eventually linking other universities around the country.  By 1975, there was a directory listing only 57 hosts, by 1981 there were 213, while today there 3.2 billion Internet users around the globe.  Still, according to various experts interviewed, including Silicon Valley mathematician, inventor, and science guru Danny Hillis, we are probably living in “the digital Dark Age.”  We meet the self-promoting Sebastian Thrun, the former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, praising the merits of self-driving cars, while Herzog considers insurance liability, “Who is going to be liable in case of an accident?  The onboard computer?  Its designer?  The GPS system?  The Internet?  Or the driver who eats his breakfast?”  And perhaps the geekiest guy in the film is Joydeep Biswas, the designer of robot soccer, claiming the sophistication of his mobile robots will one day (target date 2050) outplay the heralded Brazilian team on the field, who seems to hold a special fascination for his lead striker, confessing openly to Herzog’s personal inquiry that he does indeed love Robot 8.  Yes, but can the robot love him back?  Despite the many wonders affiliated with the changing look of the modern world, there are also accompanying drawbacks, including electro-magnetic hypersensitivity, where we meet several patients inflicted by the radiation of a debilitating condition so rare that it’s not even recognized by medical science, where people have become bedridden with severe headaches, dizziness, joint pains, and nausea, where they are forced to insulate themselves, living in specially created safe zones to protect themselves, like Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ SAFE (1995), but the only known cure has been to live in the remote, rural environment in Green Bank, West Virginia (population 147), a 13,000-square mile area that is radiation free, home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that bans all radio and TV broadcasts, Wi-Fi networks, cell signals, Bluetooth, and other signals used by virtually every other wireless device, as the region was specifically designed to avoid the reach of all cell towers, where cell phones won’t work and you can spin the dial on your car radio but won’t find any stations.  Currently, 36 people (nearly 25% of the town’s population) have settled in and around the tiny town to escape radiation.

In another instance in 2006, Herzog describes the horrific Internet response to the tragedy of a young teenage girl with mental health problems, Nikki Catsouras, who was crushed and nearly decapitated in a car accident speeding over 100 miles per hour while driving her father’s Porsche, a car she wasn’t allowed to drive.  The accident was so gruesome the coroner wouldn’t allow the family to identify the body, even Herzog refuses a look, yet photographs on the scene were taken by the California Highway Patrol (following agency protocol) who sent them to their dispatchers.  The photos were leaked to the public and soon found their way to the Internet, including a fake MySpace page for Nikki, along with a barrage of hideous online harassment messages directed at the Catsouras family with the photos attached, one claiming “Woohoo Daddy!  Hey Daddy, I’m still alive!”  Herzog suggests this is “unspeakably evil,” while this led the family to ban the Internet in their own home, removing their youngest daughter from school where she is now homeschooled, with Nikki’s mother describing the Internet as “the manifestation of the anti-Christ.”  Under the guise of anonymity, the Internet gives people the means to express hatred with impunity.  The anonymity aspect was set up that way by design, as if the home address was known for each user, what would stop authoritarian governments from initiating raids to prevent free expression of speech?  Information technology expert Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in the 1960’s, has been disappointed that the science of the Internet has been so restrictive, and hasn’t come closer to approaching spiritual realms, literally transforming humanity, where his concept of the web comes from an organic understanding of a natural flowing of water, suggesting all things are interconnected, claiming he dislikes all computer markup language in programming communication, considering it a gross oversimplification.  While his ideas of an interconnected system of links was never used and have largely been discredited by others in his field, in typical Herzog fashion, he proclaims “You are the sanest person I’ve ever met!” generating hearty smiles and mutual photographs.   Herzog also visits a Washington state rehab center for Internet addicts, though in reality they appear to be gaming addicts that refuse to move or leave their chairs for fear of losing precious points, including South Korean marathon gamers who wear diapers to avoid having to go to the bathroom.  Attending a Las Vegas hacker’s convention, Herzog meets Greg Mitnick, jailed for 5 years in 1995 for hacking, allowing him to illegally copy software and produce false identification, now working as a security consultant.  The man was renowned for avoiding capture by hacking into the FBI’s cell phones, so he remained cognizant of their whereabouts at all times.  Mitnick spent more than four years in solitary confinement “before” his trial because the government was convinced he had the capacity to hack into the NORAD system through a payphone from prison and potentially launch nuclear missiles by whistling.  Revealing a perpetual vulnerability to cyber-attack, Mitnick describes the weakest link in any security network is the human element, describing how he managed to obtain secret computer codes simply by talking to people over the phone, making it sound like he was a professional colleague.       

While the film never gets into a deep analytical study of the problem at hand, Herzog does a good job of exploring all the bases, where through the course of the film he covers an astonishing amount of territory, often treading into murky philosophical waters.  One of the most intriguing subjects is Lucianne Walkowicz, a kind of punk astrophysicist at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, revealing a Chauvet cave animal painting tattoo on her arm, a tribute to Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (2010).  She insists we should concentrate more on the conservation of our own planet rather than on space exploration.  This from a scientist that analyzes data dumps from NASA’s 2009 Kepler mission to discover planets with atmospheric compositions similar to Earth that could potentially host life (NASA Finds 1,284 Alien Planets, Biggest Haul Yet, with Kepler Space ...).  She worked on the construction of the Hubble Space Telescope while a Johns Hopkins undergrad, but she’s also an expert on solar flares, something that routinely happens all the time, but occasionally flare up to gigantic proportions, suggesting our entire Internet infrastructure could be wiped out from one oversized, catastrophic event, literally destroying satellites and power grids.  An overreliance on computer technology may lead to an apocalyptic future, where according to another scientist, few survivors “would even remember how we lived before everything got wired,” recalling the blackouts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York City when the entire city shut down.  Imagine if that happened on a worldwide scale.  Herzog’s bemusing response:  “Our sun: the giver of life.  At the same time, it is hostile, destructive.  Protuberances unimaginable in size are being hurled into the universe.  These flares may become the undoing of modern civilization.”  Much of this speculation is what led PayPal and Tessla billionaire Elon Musk to consider building trips to Mars, including building a human colony on the planet, a project Herzog immediately volunteers for, even if it’s only a one-way ticket.  Herzog curiously asks if the Internet would exist on Mars, with Musk optimistically affirming that only a few satellites would be needed to make that a reality.  Herzog also asks provocative, yet unanswerable questions, taking us back to the science fiction era of Philip K. Dick, pondering “Does the Internet dream of itself?”  Mostly this question generated befuddled smiles, as how do technologically advanced scientists answer a question like that?  We visit the robotics labs at Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, considered the best robotics research facility in the world, where robots (as we’re discovering lately in police work) can enter dangerous, high risk, and potentially deadly areas that humans can’t go.  It is suggested that the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster might have been minimized had robots been trained to shut off the leaking valves in areas considered too dangerous for humans, as that might have prevented the release of radioactive material, though Herzog gets one expert to acknowledge that the binary intelligence of a robot is less advanced than a pesky cockroach.  At one point Herzog cuts to an empty Chicago skyline, and to the sounds of Elvis, Elvis Presley Are You Lonesome Tonight Fantastic Video - YouTube (3:18), we see a group of orange-clad Tibetan monks rooted to their cellphones.  An astounded Herzog wonders, as if the world has come to an end, “Have the monks stopped meditating?  Have they stopped praying?  They all seem to be tweeting.”  So much for dreams and artificial intelligence.  While there’s little doubt that the world has developed an excessive dependency on computer technology, where there’s a major shift of humans that might prefer the company of their mobile devices over human contact, but before we get sidetracked by technophobia, until the population in technologically advanced nations trends downward from sexual disinterest, who are we really fooling?  It’s still humans driving the acceleration of knowledge in the pursuit of newfound discoveries that can hopefully have a beneficial effect on all human existence.  As always, the future is still ours to achieve.  The question is how we get there.  This film examines that development on multiple fronts. 

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