Did you know that people in Silicon Valley adore Werner Herzog? Yes, they do. And first of all it’s due to his strong German accent. Most Germans try to hide their “Germanness” once they start living abroad. Not him. That’s kind of cool.
A German accent can be useful in many ways. A friend recently told me that I shouldn’t try to speak English too perfectly – as if that was my problem. People from the tech industry would then explain things more in-depth to me.
The case of Herzog is even more twisted. Very often it is him, the anti-Hollywood director, who explains things to people from the tech industry. Recently he argued that Twitter was stupid and that he had never found anything interesting on the platform. In another case, he urged young filmmakers to leave Facebook.
As if everybody was looking forward to the next coup of the very German, very weird intellectual, the cinema was pretty much packed when his new movie celebrated its Silicon Valley opening night at an old movie theatre in the middle of the Castro district in San Francisco.
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He met the expectations. “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World”, a documentary in ten chapters, investigates the connected world in an insightful and provocative way. It’s Herzog’s reverse engineering of the internet.
A voice-over with a strong German accent tells the story, from the early days when scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles established the first connection between two computers, to a future of when we all could live on Mars.
Herzog’s documentary shows people who believe in the greater good of technology, for example researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in a very sweet way convinced their robots will surpass human soccer players in 2050, or Sebastian Thrun, pioneer of the self-driving car.
He also gives voice to those who were hit by its dark side, like the slightly weird citizens of a post-hippie colony in a no man’s land without cell phone or internet connection, or the parents of Nicole Catsouras, an 18nyear-old girl who died in a car crash in 2006.
Minutes after the accident pictures of the chopped body were leaked and published all over the web, a traumatic experience for the family. The event convinced Mrs. Catsouras, whom Herzog shows locked-up between bagels in her suburban kitchen, that the internet is “a manifestation of the anti-christ”.
“Lo and Behold” gives an intimate picture of the digital world, especially strong when the audience can see how fast thoughts are able to race – and not the robots, cars or rockets. Just as Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, just sits there for an eternity, silent, thinking, before he goes: “I don’t remember my good dreams. Only the nightmares.”
What Herzog gives to Silicon Valley is perspective – and I do not mean that in a judging way. It’s more that, at the west coast where everything happens so incredibly fast – the founding, the growing, the thriving – it is even more important to hold still and listen, even if just for a little while.
Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.
Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").