Werner Herzog on Revenge Porn, Adult Diapers and the Internet's Future

"It's not the Internet that's evil — it's human beings that are evil," says filmmaker on new doc that looks at the dark side of our online world

Werner Herzog talks revenge porn, what the Internet will be like 100 years from now and his new documentary 'Lo and Behold, the Connected World.' Credit: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Since 1969, Werner Herzog has chased mirages in the Sahara desert, examined the plight of Nicaraguan child soldiers and documented the harrowing lives of Antarctica scientists. But in his new film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, the 73-year-old director tackles the most expansive project of his career: the Internet.

Told through a revolving series of profiles, Lo and Behold examines the history and future of the online world, dissecting everything from Internet addiction to hacktivist culture and self-driving cars. "Each one of them could have been a movie by itself," the filmmaker says, and while there's still his singular, meditative voiceover that has been admired and parodied for years, the movie's frenetic excitement and quirky characters feels more like a lost Errol Morris film than the veteran German documentarian's recent work.

In 2014, Herzog was asked to do a short clip about the Web after the success of From One Second to the Next, a 34-minute doc on the dangers of texting and driving. But he quickly realized how futile that format would be. "It had to be something much deeper because my curiosity became so deep right away," he says. "It started to become very expensive and I knew it had to be a long, feature-length documentary." The director waxed both practical and metaphysical to Rolling Stone about cyberbullying, why "stupidity cannot be legislated" and the question of whether the Internet "dreams of itself." And yes, he's OK with you imitating his voice online.

The film shows numerous Internet addicts. What were your first impressions upon meeting them?
When I knew about the problem, I first thought I should go to China because there is a boot camp near Beijing that's the roughest and toughest of boot camps. But that would have been too far out and the problems of language, all these things. But I saw footage of a boy looking out a window and crying; he was asked, "Why are you here?" He played an [online] video game for literally two months, almost nonstop. He was almost dead and that's why his parents brought him there.

I found it very strange at first that [Internet] addiction can be as severe as heroin. In the cases we know about, young people would play until they die at the computer. Or in South Korea, there are these video arcades where young people would go and put adult diapers on so that they wouldn't have to interrupt [playing] their games and collecting points. They spent 56 hours nonstop doing this until they literally collapsed.

But more people would probably awkwardly laugh at the idea of an Internet addict versus a drug addict.
Right, because it's too new. By now, we know there's a long history of gambling in Las Vegas. I think the casinos have been proactive and they look out for addicted gamblers at the slot machines; they will escort them out and try to point them to some sort of rehabilitation. But for the Internet or video games and things like this, we do not have enough experience yet in our societies. It's just such a new phenomenon. [In the future], it will be the same sort of recognition of something quite serious like gambling or heroin addiction. That is the logical results in our brains with endorphins, and our brain reaction will be recognized and will be understood much better.

You touch on cyberbullying in the film — how did you want to approach the evil side of the Web's capabilities? 
Well it's not the Internet that is evil. It's human beings that are evil. They only have a new, different instrument to make it manifest, but it's the same thing. Is the internet good or evil? That's not a question that has any relevance. It's the same thing like, Is electricity good or evil? You don't ask this question.

But the technology can allow people to drive others to suicide in a way that wouldn't happen 30 years ago.

Sure. And I think that what all these young people have to do sooner or later is to create some sort of a filter. What does this instrument mean for me? How do I use it? Where do I draw borderlines in the sand which shouldn't be crossed? So all this is new terrain and we haven't gotten very far into that. But it's a question of conceptual thinking. Schools need to make young people understand that this tool should be used with a certain filter of understanding.

Do you think there should be classes taught in schools on-

[Interrupts] No, no, no. You shouldn't make everything into this kind of awful school curriculum. The principal telling you how to use a cell phone would be awful. That's where young people should start to contemplate burning down their schoolhouse.

You talk to the family of Nikki Catsouras, the teenager whose gruesome photos following a fatal car accident leaked on the web. What was emblematic of her story that you wanted to focus on?

I think it just showed the collective ugliness in our society, but you cannot prevent it completely. Of course, legislation is problematic because when you are dead, you don't have the right of a person anymore. I think this question about viewing images cannot be legislated anyway. How shall I say this? Meanness or stupidity cannot be legislated. 

What about revenge porn? Not every state has laws mandating consent from both parties when sexual images or videos are posted online.

I think there is some legislation out anyway because as a living person, you have certain rights to your own image. I see that every single day as a filmmaker where no network or distribution company would ever show my film if I did not present release forms from people who are appearing onscreen.

There are certain rights and I do believe they are fairly sufficient. You cannot legislate everything. A person who is evil ... let the person be evil. You can't change that. But if this evil person somehow commits a transgression, crossing a line where the act becomes a criminal offense — then of course you can do something.

There's a great quote in the film from cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who says, "Will our children's children's children need the companionship of humans, or will they have evolved in a world where that's not important?" What did you think when you first heard that quote?

There's a deep and disquieting thought behind it. It somehow dissolves boundaries of humanness and our understanding of the self. Sometimes, it's more important to raise a big question than ever getting a full answer to it. We don't have an answer. [19th century general Carl von] Clausewitz said in the 1820s, "Sometimes war dreams of itself." And I find it a stunning observation. And now my question: "Does the Internet dream of itself?"

That's a very Herzogian question.

[Laughs] Well, I took it from Clausewitz, but it doesn't really matter. You will never get a full satisfactory answer, but it's much better sometimes to just pose a question that stirs your intellect, and engages you for a long time.

"Well it's not the Internet that is evil. It's human beings that are evil. They only have a new, different instrument to make it manifest. It's like, Is electricity good or evil? You don't ask this question."

Do you think a teenager raised on the Internet has worse social skills because there's less face-to-face interaction — or better because interaction in general is more pervasive?

I think that [being online] is a secondary way to interact with other people. Our examination of the world around us should not be prominently delegated to a very artificial, substituted level of the Internet, or something that is not really palpable. I think that there's always been a great value in children digging a hole in the ground.

There is a paradigm shift in that the default communication for many people is this "secondary communication." I only get phone calls from two people: my mom and my girlfriend.
Yes, but today, your mother and your girlfriend are apparently not the only people with whom you communicate. How do you communicate today? Do you write emails or what do you do?

Mostly texting.

But the texting would probably be very short sentences and very short thoughts.

Right, that's the point. It's hard to communicate thoroughly via text but if you call someone to say "Hello," they'll think it's an emergency or something's wrong.

Why don't you simply prepare a wonderful steak? Have them at your dinner table and switch off all cell phones.

What effect do you think the Internet has had on the way the younger generation interacts?
Quite often you can tell that they don't have a real grasp on the real world. And it's funny because when Grizzly Man was released [in 2005], many comments on the Internet came in from young people who needed to discuss that all of this footage could only have been created in the studio with digital effects. No man can reach out with his hand and touch the nose of a 1,000 pound grizzly bear. So they admit that it's inconceivable that this could be an event filmed without digital effects.

Does that concern you or make you laugh?

No, it is just ... it is. And you have to watch out when people do not have a solid basis in the real world anymore. It can have other consequences. They don't understand why we are going to war. They do not understand what is going on when they are drafted, sent out and deployed to a foreign country. They are tossed out into a situation that they cannot comprehend anymore. It's unsettling. You better prepare the soldiers that are going out into combat. You better prepare them for something real out there.

What do you think the Internet will look like in 100 years?

I think fundamentally the same. It will only be faster, and you can move [larger] amounts of information to more sites at the same time. It's the same thing 100 years ago [about] the first telephones. Today, a telephone still is basically the same type of telephone, only that it is less expensive and it goes via satellite. I think, fundamentally, cars are the same too.

There's a segment about self-driving cars in the film and in June, the first fatal crash involving one occurred. Do you think that they'll be realistic in the near future?

I think it's realistic, but it's not ready yet. A fatality like this is a very sobering moment. I like that we are not just blindly walking into new possibilities. Let's say Amazon is sending out packages via drones. Wait until the first drone has been sucked into a jet engine of a Boeing 747 and everybody's killed onboard. Wait until the first drone slams into a school bus and cuts the face of a little girl. Then all of a sudden, you will understand safety concerns and there's something which doesn't feel right.

I think it's an erroneous route being taken. It's fine if you're somewhere rural and you send a drone from the local post office to the isolated farm house. But it's not going to become the mass phenomenon that the skies are going to be abuzz, like swarms of hornets with drones. It's not gonna happen.

Do you think machines will ever be able to fall in love like humans?
Uh. [Long pause] Well it's a hypothetical question. I would say no — although it's a cautious no. Let's say 1,000 years from now, we may have machinery with such deeply implanted artificial intelligence, that emotions might become part of their existence.

What do you make of all the Werner Herzog imitators who parody your voice?

I think it's good to have a certain amount of, um, how shall I say, irony. And it's quite OK that there are voice impersonators. They're like my unpaid bodyguards. They do battle out there, and I'm glad that they exist. The root of all of this is I have given my voice to a guest figure in The Simpsons and have become one of the villains in Jack Reacher. It's simply because I love everything that has to do with cinema.