Monday, October 24, 2016

Lo and Behold (Herzog)

I've been holding off writing this review of Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold for a couple of months now.  How appropriate that I have been struggling so much with my internet connection for months as well.  It is sometimes the Wi-Fi adapter and sometimes the router that has to be reset, but it is very rare that I go 48 hours without having major connection problems that drive me so batty that I have to go off and read a book to cool down.  Not that spending some time off-line is a bad thing, but I want it to be on my own terms.  These are my local problems, nothing to do with wider internet outages.

Of course, most people are aware that there was a huge cyber-attack that compromised the web for several hours on Friday (Oct 21).  The wikileaks people tried to claim their supporters had did it, but that seems fairly unlikely.  The more probable claim is by a group called New World Hackers, who say that this is only a dry run for an even bigger attack in the near future.  Oh joy.  Due to the nature of the attack, perhaps the only good to come out of this is that it will slow down the "internet-of-things" where all kinds of things are connected to the internet for no good reason.  For instance, this man spending 11 hours trying to get a kettle hooked up to the internet so that he could start it boiling on his way home from work.  However, I also realize that some of these "improvements" that seem so silly to us now will be seen as essential and basically inescapable in the future.

The real problem is that after a certain tipping point, you can't go back.  It is too hard to be the lone hold-out when everyone else has migrated some particular business line to the internet.  This actually happened to me a few weeks back when I went to get my bike from a bike shop.  The merchant had no internet access and couldn't figure out a way to take payments without an internet hook-up.  I somewhat pointedly asked about the machines that took a credit card impression, and he said you couldn't buy them anymore.  I strongly doubt that, but rather he just didn't want to be bothered.  At any rate, I wasn't willing to walk four or five blocks to an ATM and he seemed pretty hopeless without the computer telling him what to do.  (He couldn't even calculate the tax.)  While this may have been a particularly inept manager, it does speak to what happens when we move too many functions to the digital realm and let computers (or other machines) do all our work for us.  (Emerson warned about this as far back as 1841 in Self-reliance, but then also Forster's The Machine Stops (1909) and Pixar's Wall-E (2008) portrayed the danger of getting hooked on mechanical aids.)

In any case, it happens that the internet of things and over-reliance on the internet are two of the ten "chapters" in Herzog's documentary about the internet.  It appears that you can already stream the documentary on Amazon, and in about a month it will be coming out on DVD/Blu-ray.  However, those of us in Canada are screwed yet again with no apparent release date.  However, we did have the chance to see the film, at least in Toronto.  Apparently, this Friday the documentary final will be screening in the UK.  I'm sure the DVD will eventually make it across the border, and of course if not there are always the torrent sites...

It's sort of interesting checking out a couple of reviews (here and here).  I would not really agree with the Guardian review that this is an overall upbeat assessment of the internet; I thought it was considerably more pessimistic about the negative aspects of the internet, not least of which it is so hard to escape it.  Actually, this Wired article about the documentary gives you a much better sense of the documentary, including the fascinating tidbit that the whole documentary was actually paid for by an internet security company called NetScout!  (Herzog retained final cut.)

I liked the documentary a lot, though I felt there were several areas where Herzog had gone in for a symbolic story and I wanted a broader grappling with the issue.  I'll come back to that shortly, but I want to digress and engage in some internet nostalgia.

Herzog manages to track down the original computer that sent the original email message.  It was supposed to type "login" but hung at "lo."  This leads to some elevated banter about "lo and behold," which of course became the title.  Another computer programmer involved from the very beginning hauls out a phone directory of everyone who was on the internet at that time.

University of Michigan was among the first universities outside California to be part of a computer network: a Michigan only network in 1971 and then they were linked into the T-1 backbone by 1988.  I can't quite recall when I first got email but I know that I was able to write the equivalent of email messages to other UM students by 1989.  Actually I had played text-based games off of a computer mainframe before that, probably by the mid-80s, but it that case you had to be seated at a terminal and log into the system.  You couldn't dial in from just anywhere.

The other thing that is a bit hard to remember is that it wasn't particularly easy to just get an email account, even if you had a dial-up modem.  AOL was just starting to take off.  I don't think I ever signed up with them, however.  And there really wasn't all that much content on-line, though it was still easy to waste lots of time.

I still remember going from a super primitive browser (probably Gopher) to Lynx, which allowed hyperlinking between articles.  This was probably 1993 when I switched over.  But within the year, everyone moved to Mosaic, since it had graphic capabilities.  Nonetheless, the internet still was fairly text-heavy in the beginning.  From my perspective, 1993-1998 or so was a great time for emails, and I still have some long back and forth missives saved.  This was a time when I was the most connected to a lot of people whom I no longer saw face to face.  It was sort of a perfect embodiment of Simmel's Web of Group-Affiliations (the part where he talks about long-distance associations of like minded people).  But the trend has definitely been away from writing emails (and long-form blogs) and towards shorter, pithier messages as well as pictures, including pictures of what one is eating.  To me, these developments have been quite a disappointment, and, in that sense, the internet has not lived up to its potential, but mostly through human laziness.  Still, it was neat to be around to see it all happen.  (However, I am particularly glad not to have lived in an era where everything ended up on the web.  The 80s are basically a black hole as far as the internet is concerned.)  My children will have no understanding of growing up in a less-wired era and they will also always have to be aware that almost everything they do will end up on line (and they will almost certainly be cyber-bullied at some point or other).

That's enough with the digressions.  I thought the documentary was quite good on robots, driverless cars, computer security (basically an impossibility as long as there are people in the loop) and the total collapse of Western civilization that will arrive once hackers (or a solar flare) can take down the internet for a week or more (essentially, we have eliminated so much redundancy in the system that there are no non-internet back-ups as that bike shop owner claimed).  Where I thought he needed to go deeper was on internet (and particularly internet gaming) addiction.  He brought up the case of the Korean parents who let their child die because they were playing an on-line game (about raising an internet baby).  And a treatment center in the U.S. for internet gaming addicts.  However, I would have liked some discussion of whether this is really any worse than the video game addicts of my day.  What proportion of internet users or even gamers are truly addicted to the internet, and is this substantially larger than other types of addicts?  I suspect that a certain percentage of the population has an addiction profile (whether truly genetic or not), so if it wasn't the internet it would be something else.  On the other hand, the way that the internet feeds the need for "the new" might make it a truly new and more challenging source of addiction.  I definitely wish the documentary had delved a bit deeper here.

I was going to write something about trolling and cyber-bullying, but this is a huge topic (only illustrated by one horrifying case in the documentary), but this review has already gone on too long, so I'll hive that off into a separate post.  It should be clear that I found this a really rewarding documentary that just was a little thin in a few places.  The Wired article hints that Herzog has a lot left in the can (including material on bitcoin) and that he is shopping it around to become a mini-series of sorts.  I definitely hope that happens, but if it does, he has to make sure that Canadians have the right to watch it too!

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