Photograph from “A Man Becomes Invisible” by Gordon Parks, 1952. Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation
Photograph from
“A Man Becomes Invisible” by Gordon Parks, 1952.
Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

1. All that we are is the result of our thoughts; it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.

Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog’s documentary film, examines the growth of the internet and its existential implications. At times, the film seems less like a documentary and more like an episodic exploration of the world from within Herzog’s mind, a gallery of perverse fascinations.

Earlier that week, I had checked out the Dhammapada, hoping to alleviate
my end-of-semester stress with a dose of Buddhist wisdom. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses describing Buddhism’s prescribed Path to Nirvana. Lo and Behold is about the increasingly blurry line between the internet and the world we inhabit. The first bid me to perceive reality more clearly, the second made me wonder if I want to.

Lo and Behold begins with the internet’s first transmitted message (LO, truncated from LOG by a server crash, hence Herzog’s characteristically grandiose title), then immediately fragments into visions of arm-spinning rescue robots, refugees of radiation, and the prospect of life on Mars.

Throughout the documentary, Herzog’s narration—his German accent and halting speech sound fittingly robotic—provides the only common thread. The film moves in jarring jumps and lingers in moments of uncomfortable silence.

Between scenes, I looked down at my book.

11. Those who mistake the appearance for the reality, the shadow for the substance and the true for the false, fill themselves with desires.

A recovering internet addict avoids looking directly at the camera in a wooded rehabilitation center. He was playing video games for sixteen hours a day, often drunk. He had lost his job; he was losing his girlfriend. He watched quite a lot of porn. “When you start thinking more about the game than about real life…” The air he breathes carries dry bark, rotting leaves. “That’s when you have a problem.”

21. Watchfulness is the path to life and thoughtlessness the path to death. The watchful are alive, but the thoughtless are already like the dead.

Some South Korean school kids wear diapers when they play video games so they don’t lose points for a bathroom break, Herzog tells us. Rows of teenagers crouch over blue screens in an internet cafe, index fingers twitching nervously. They can play for twenty, thirty, forty hours at a time.

It gets worse: one South Korean couple spent so much time caring for their baby in a virtual reality game that their flesh-and-blood baby starved to death.

127. Not in the sky, nor in the sea, nor in a cave in the mountains can a man escape from his harmful deeds.

A family of five sit around a suburban dining room like wax figures. It looks like Herzog placed them there against their will, hoping to capture grief in the charged silence that follows.

Their daughter died in a car accident. When a first responder snapped a picture of her decapitated body and emailed it to friends, it went viral. The coroner reported nothing more than a missing thumb and “head trauma.” But the family began to receive hate mail with the image attached.

Her father says he relives his pain with every message.

Beside him, the mother’s bright eyes burn in their rings of eyeshadow. “I have always believed that the internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist himself,” she says.

As the credits loomed onscreen, I thumbed through the pages of the Dhammapada uneasily. The wisdom in its verses, which predates the internet by twenty-four hundred years, is remark- ably prescient. The Buddha, originally a prince named Gautama, embarked on a journey of discovery because he felt that the reality he inhabited was artificial and incomplete. Nowadays, reality is even harder to pin down.

423. He is at the end of the path. He sees the flow of his many lives and he sees what the suffering of hell is and what is the perfect joy of heaven. Now birth and death are ended for him and he has done all that should be done. He has reached Nirvana.

Even if the internet is a construction of smoke and glowing mirrors, it may be the best tool we have to understand the universe. It is made of our thoughts, and “with our thoughts we make the world.” Barring rust or flood, it will outlast us.

As terrifying as it may be, the internet is no empty construct. It reflects our likeness in all its ingenuity and depravity. Through its countless pixelated faces, we see the true nature of things.

If Nirvana is so unsettling, I wonder why we’re in such a rush to get there.

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