Legendary director Werner Herzog loves cat videos. “It's purely something that goes viral on the internet, and there's nothing wrong about it,” he told BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer podcast in an interview. “When you are really down, you better switch on your laptop or smartphone and watch 60 seconds of crazy cat videos. It just lifts your spirits. Nothing wrong about it.”
It's something Herzog — director of classic films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and documentaries like Grizzly Man — has been thinking about, thanks to his new documentary about the internet and technology called Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, which will be released on Aug. 19. The film is a series of interviews with pioneers of the early internet, theorists, scientists, weirdos, hackers, robotics engineers, and space dreamers like Elon Musk.
It’s a perspective on “the internet,” both the term and technology, that's different from the one that I, and I imagine most BuzzFeed readers, generally share. To digital natives like us, “the internet” is shorthand for people. When we say “the internet turned Michael Phelps’s game face into a meme” for example, we mean people did it; not a series of tubes and wires and code. It's the same way political insiders mean the president and his cabinet when they refer to "the White House," not a literal historic white building. To examine the internet as a piece technology that was created in universities in the ‘70s and is related to robots is to look at it through an architectural viewpoint, not anthropological.
But Herzog's viewpoint makes sense considering he doesn’t use a cell phone (he does own one in case of emergencies) and admittedly doesn’t use the internet much. Well, he does, “but in a very limited way,” he said. “I use it to correspond with my brother who is in Vienna in Europe and we are nine hours apart. Or I send a longer text to a friend of mine and I would ask, 'Can you send it back with corrections and ideas, write some notes about it?' I would use Skype for family. It doesn't replace a real meeting but if some family member is in say, Berlin, it's still better than no contact at all.”
And he doesn’t have much FOMO about not using social media. “Everything important has always reached me,” he said. Although, he is amused by the accounts that parody him, which he thinks are good satire. “I think nobody has become much happier by being on Facebook,” Herzog said. “I do not believe it. I think when we look at the depth of Facebook and this kind of shallow virtual friendships and collections, many of us will understand that just sitting together with friends and cooking a meal, leaving your cellphones behind and laughing and enjoying an evening has its own unparalleled value.”
Herzog’s past films have a reoccurring theme of man versus nature, where the latter is a murderous and unfeeling thing, and those who naively think it’s good or try to tame it, like Fitzcarraldo or Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell, end up with grave consequences. So, it seemed natural, seeing as it's an intersection of his past and recent work, to ask Herzog about Harambe, the gorilla who was shot when a child fell into his cage and who has become an ironic internet meme. Is the internet so callous that we are laughing about a dead animal? Or is this our way of dealing with our tenuous relationship with our mastery over nature? “I haven't seen any of this, but I do believe there are new forms of parody out there – new forms of irony, new forms of vile, anonymous interference of individuals into the internet,” Herzog said. “So there's quite a few new phenomena out there, and I haven't quite started all of it. I'm just curious what you are saying of course. I think the internet is starting to develop its own humor.”