“Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” (the title is a mild spoiler) traces the internet’s rise from its bewildering inception on California college campuses in the late 1960s and offers postulations about its future and possibilities from experts, some of them dread-filled and others hopeful. Mr. Herzog, who says he sporadically uses Google Maps but never any social networks, spoke on the phone about his own relationship with technology, the similarities between Paleolithic caves and the internet, and why he chooses not to carry a cellphone. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Given where you have shot films before — the jungles of Peru and deep caverns in southern France — I was wondering if you saw the virtual world as just another wilderness to explore?
I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything. When you see the Paleolithic caves in southern France, it is a virtual world as well, so it’s very much about perceptions. The internet is a new phenomenon, but it is a very human sort of phenomenon. We do perceive and examine the world in true applications [via the web], and when we perceive the jungle, what I see is a field of dreams.
But the world of the net did pique your curiosity.
Of course, because it’s such a new and overwhelmingly effective sort of thing that we have. I say thing because we can’t really define it very clearly. What is significant also is that nobody saw it coming. Even the pioneers of the internet didn’t see it coming. Science-fiction writers didn’t see it coming. It is something that was a very big surprise.
I read that you don’t carry a cellphone. Sometimes you consult Google, but you’re kind of a neophyte?
Not a complete neophyte. I started using the internet, but basically for emails. Very early on. But I do not have a cellphone, because I don’t want to be connected all the time. When I look among the circle of my friends, almost everybody’s complaining about being a slave of their two cellphones. They exaggerate, but they are partially addicted. I thought, I don’t need to be connected all the time.
What about the addicts? Do we have to have sympathy for the internet addicts that you interview?
They’re people who are professionally dealing with addiction, they tell you it’s as serious like an addiction to heroin.
Are you concerned about the power of the web?
We have to be aware that the internet is very vulnerable to attacks. Be it cyberterrorism or be it natural disasters, for example solar flares, which may stop all communication between ground-based tools. We have to be cautious because it’s not only our communications that will be affected. Our electrical grid. Our water supply. In my opinion, the talk of getting rid of cash money is frivolous. When you are out of electricity, you can’t even buy a hamburger at the fast-food chain. You can have $100, but they can’t give you change. You better have some cash money on you in small denominations, $1, $5, $20.
There’s a moving scene in the film where someone says that the net was designed for a community that trusted each other. No one could have conceived of a cyberattack.
Or spam or something like that. The internet has its glorious side. As I show in the film, millions participated in a video game in order to decipher a complicated enzyme. The most powerful supercomputers in the world could not solve it, but the community of video gamers called to the task solved it, and it’s now of huge importance in research in basics of cancer and AIDS.
Is that the exception to the rule?
No, that’s the rule. I think the exception is the dark side.
Could it be the internet “starts to dream of itself”? This is a question you ask many of your subjects. What do you think?
I call it my von Clausewitz question. Originally it comes from the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz in Napoleonic times. He famously said, “War sometimes dreams of itself.” I found it a deep observation, and I asked several individuals, and no one had a real answer. Sometimes a deep question is better than a straight answer. I think we should start to develop deep questions of what we are doing here with the internet and what the internet is doing on its own. Nobody has a clue.
You interviewed the SpaceX founder Elon Musk and seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of traveling to Mars yourself.
Only with a camera. Only with a camera. If I had a chance, I’d like to do it.
To make a documentary?
No. Maybe I’ll send back poetry of landscapes.