by Edward Cone
I left a weekend showing of Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s meditation on the internet era, thinking about this post and podcast by Dave Winer.
Herzog is a non-techie who worries about what the net is doing to people. Dave is a techie who worries about what people are doing to the net. They were kind of made for each other.
Questioning the content of Lo and Behold is like critiquing the plot of someone else’s dream, and Herzog shares a spellbinding vision. But the documentary’s ten chapters are light on the actual user experiences that give the net its addictive pull—things like the power of social media and the democratization of creative expression. These are subjects to which Winer, an inventor of blogging, brings a doomy spin that would fit in well with the rest of the movie.
The podcast explains Dave’s concern for the fate of the World Wide Web. He’s afraid that this beautiful commons is being strangled by Facebook, which does not allow people to post work produced outside its walled garden directly onto its pages, complete with embedded links, simple text styling (e.g., bold and italic type), titles, and MP3 enclosures. Dave’s a realist who knows Facebook isn’t going away any time soon. He just wants to co-exist. “It’s the place where people go to read stuff,” he says in the podcast, “So why can’t I get my blog posts over there in full fidelity?”
The stakes are high. “We’re going to watch the web die a slow death at the hands of a juggernaut,” he says, sounding very much like a character in a Herzog documentary. The use of hyperlinks, which he calls “the most basic innovation of the web” is in peril. “Without Facebook supporting linking, it’s basically dying.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, he says. A technical fix is simple, and the business opportunities for Facebook are enormous if it can capture the creativity of people who prefer to work on the open web. That last idea is already a recurrent theme in Lo and Behold—Herzog is fascinated by the net’s ability to harness brainpower far beyond institutional borders, from online students outperforming Stanford undergrads to gamers helping crack the codes of molecular science.
As is, the movie gives us plenty to think about: How the guys who built the internet seem like characters from The Right Stuff by way of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Chuck McGill syndrome; the amount of very interesting footage of Elon Musk that must have ended up on the cutting-room floor. Just watching Leonard Kleinrock mark up a chalk board— Herzog’s sly reminder that the technology he portrays as essentially magic is really math and engineering – was worth the price of entry.
But it would have been better with more about the ways people actually use the net for creative endeavors, and Dave Winer’s story would fit right in. Maybe it will make the director’s cut.
Edward Cone is Deputy Director of Thought Leadership at Oxford Economics.