For something that permeates so many aspects of our daily lives, we know surprisingly little about the internet. Just think about a typical day: We wake up and check emails, social media, and the weather forecast on our phones, laptops, or tablets. We check traffic and train schedules on Google Transit, and perhaps even listen to a podcast, or stream music, on our way to the office. Millions of Americans spend a good portion of the day working (or not working) on the web — on email, news sites, doing research, and using internal networks. Then, after a long day many of us go home, chill out with Netflix, and order a meal from Seamless.
The internet is such a vast topic that only a filmmaker as formidable as Werner Herzog could do it justice in one shot. And his latest documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, does the job beautifully. Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) takes us from the first message ever transmitted via the internet (the letters L-O in 1969, as in "Lo and Behold") to the web of the future (think: Mars). We look at the web's myriad miracles (the information explosion, unprecedented collaboration) and pitfalls (addiction, hacking, cyber war) along the way. (And it's not just the internet — Herzog also covers tech fronts like artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.) Most eerily, he has us imagine two equally frightening scenarios: A post-apocalyptic world without technology, and a world controlled by technology but devoid of human interaction.
We highly recommend taking the time to have your mind thoroughly blown for 98 minutes. But here are the 10 wildest facts about the internet we learned from Lo and Behold.
1. There used to be a list of all the people on the web. In the early days of the internet, there was a directory of every single person who was on the internet in the U.S. It contained the name, email address, and phone number of each individual on the web — and it was no larger than your standard phone book. If they tried to print a directory like that today, if would have to be 72 miles thick.
2. The WWW belongs to all of us because of one guy. Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web, which he innovated around the model of the internet. Lucky for all of us, he chose not to patent his invention. And today, nobody can claim to own the web.
3. It's hard to even conceive of the amount of information on the internet. Here's one crazy visualization that might help: If you burned CDs of the worldwide data flow in one single day, they would form a stack so high that it would reach Mars — TWICE.
4. There is rehab for internet addicts. The first center of its kind, reSTART, is outside of Washington. It treats people who exhibit classic signs of addiction — manipulation, isolating, lying, putting the addiction before everything else, including their own health — in relation to the web, video games, social media, technology use, etc. For example, one patient came to the center after having his leg amputated. He developed thrombosis from lack of movement after playing video games for days at a time.
5. There is an emergency plan for Wikipedia if the world ends. It's called the Wikipedia Terminal Event Management Policy. Basically, it's a how-to for Wikipedia editors in the case of a civilization-threatening event. It details how to save the content of the web encyclopedia in a non-electronic form. In other words, if the apocalypse is nigh, start printing stuff out ASAP. There's also the possibility of compressing all of Wikipedia and transmitting the data to the 300 nearest stars using radio telescopes.
6. In the future, war will be on the web. There have already been hacks into mammoth entities like NASA, the U.S. military, the World Bank, and the White House. Cyber warfare is much more attractive than traditional warfare because it is so much less expensive and risky than physical war. Smaller nations can compete on the same playing field as countries with massive armies.
7. We could create an interplanetary internet. If Elon Musk's SpaceX ever makes it to Mars, we could not only set up an internet on Mars, but establish a web connection between Earth and Mars.
8. We could be in a digital dark age. Some experts think that historians will call our current era some kind of a Digital Dark Age. If a catastrophic event destroyed all of our digital records — including everything stored on servers, clouds, and our devices — there would be little paper evidence for historians to rely on.
9. The internet helped scientists make a huge leap in medical research. In 2010, the National Science Foundation started EteRNA, a crowd-sourcing research game where the players — of any age or profession — solve puzzles pertaining to the complex patterns in which RNA molecules are folded. Figuring out what designs work is too complex for high-powered computers, but not the human brain. Stanford scientists then synthesize molecules in the lab based on the players' designs.
10. The Internet of Things is a dangerous proposition. Concerned experts point out that the more devices, appliances, and systems we connect to the internet, the more civilization relies on the internet. This is risky because, should the internet ever be compromised by a catastrophic event (like a giant solar flare), everything that functions using the internet will be rendered inoperable.