If audiences had ever wanted a guide to the internet, here it is, courtesy of a 73-year-old Bavarian who barely owns a mobile phone, never mind actually switches it on. Werner Herzog's film covers nearly everything, and yet answers almost none of the questions our new interconnected world raises – most importantly, that at some point, will the internet outsmart humanity?
Herzog last made a non-fiction film back in 2011. His enthusiasm for being back in the documentary field means that he crams every one of the 90 minutes with his thoughts – which splatter here, there and everywhere. One minute he is examining the history of the net, the next the effects of social media, the next he explores robotics. He diverts to interview those for whom the internet has become an addiction and those to whom it is a sickness – humans forced to become refugees and hide in communes in the woods, far away from the rest of humanity's all-important 'signal'. He interviews some of the best brains, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist credited with inventing the world wide web.
Every one of Herzog's 'chapters' – and there are nearly a dozen of them in the film – would make a documentary by itself. What redeems it all is Herzog. His unique delivery, his deadpan narration, his ability to draw out the unexpected from his subjects – that's what rivets his audience, sometimes in fits of hilarity about the mundane sentences he delivers. "This is a robot called Chimp," Herzog intones, "trying out his legs". He is a brand all by himself, two provoking words.
Finally, Herzog gets to the 'future'. What preoccupies him is the idea that the internet "could dream of itself", as he puts it. Will it develop its own artificial intelligence, able to fall in love and make moral decisions? Or will it become a malevolent, godlike presence, making humanity irrelevant?
These are all good questions, but not answered in any satisfying form. The nearest anyone gets is when a scientist says that if the internet has already developed an artificial intelligence capable of rivalling humans, "it wouldn't necessarily reveal itself". Hardly comforting. No wonder Herzog refuses to switch on his phone.