The story of the internet, as told by the movies

Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, when I was still in high school, the internet was an activity. It was something we went on. Now we don’t go on the internet, because we more or less are it. It’s in our pores, infecting our sleep. When forced to disconnect, we feel physical withdrawal, not from some constant stream of information but from, in a weird way, one another. We feel suddenly unseen.

Oddly enough, the film that first fully anticipated this merger masquerades as a movie about TV. Videodrome, from body horror master David Cronenberg, opened in theaters on February 4, 1983. A month earlier, on January 1, the internet had been born when the ARPANET — the DoD’s system for sending data from one ancient computer to another — finished its migration onto the TCP/IP protocol, which we still use today. It was the most consequential thing to happen all year, and maybe all decade. Maybe all century. It altered reality.

Yet it was still nascent, certainly not widely understood, a glimmer in the mind’s eye of sci-fi writers, when Videodrome hit theaters. James Woods plays the sleazy president of a sleazier high-frequency TV station in Toronto who gets sucked into a bizarre world when he watches a show called “Videodrome,” which may or may not be depicting the actual torture of humans. Fascinated, plunged deeper into the nightmare, he starts to physically and mentally merge with the TV itself. The film’s refrain: “All hail the new flesh!”

A hand holding a gun with flesh stretched across the screen pushes out of a TV.

A scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
Universal Pictures

When I first saw Videodrome a few years ago, I watched it as a film about TV, and it didn’t seem quite right to me — or at least, it seemed like a dated way of understanding television.

But when I rewatched it recently, it suddenly made sense. Having a new context helped. Videodrome is the oldest of the films in “Photographing the Ether: The Internet on Film, 1983-2022,” a series that film director Jane Schoenbrun programmed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (The series runs April 8-13, leading up to the April 14 theatrical premiere of Schoenbrun’s latest film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.) And I realized that it wasn’t a movie about what TV would do; it was a prophetic peering into the future.

The series caught my eye for mildly narcissistic reasons: It represents the most consequential development in my lifetime as being exactly contemporaneous with me; I was born exactly nine months after Videodrome’s release. My age cohort, the “elder millennials,” grew up with the most rudimentary form of the internet, got social media accounts in high school and college, and have mostly migrated seamlessly into the always-online world. But we remember what it was like to just be on the internet, not constantly in it. So we may be most equipped to not just see but feel the ways the whole world, and ourselves, have changed, thanks to this weird, uncanny connectivity.

It’s also true that we’ve grown up rolling our eyes at most depictions of the internet on TV and in the movies, many of which seem to be either overly alarmist or transparently try-hard. So Schoenbrun looked beyond just films that depict the internet, which they describe as more or less “unphotographable,” to movies that take on what it’s like to live a life that’s increasingly one with the web.

Schoenbrun and I are around the same age. They know all about art on the Internet, both as a filmmaker and as a director of underground-favorite series The Eyeslicer, which curates ephemera into kind of a new-millennium variety show. In addition to We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, their 2018 film A Self-Induced Hallucination, about the Slenderman phenomenon, is playing in the series, as is a work-in-progress screening of their (terrific) film Girl Internet Show: A Kati Kelli Mixtape, made in collaboration with Jordan Wippell, which compiles the daring work of an experimental video artist. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair captures the experience of the internet through the eyes of an isolated teenager; the other films use footage collected from the internet to interrogate an important question. As Schoenbrun put it to me: “Why do we go to the internet to narrativize ourselves?”

It’s a tough one. When I asked for Schoenbrun’s answer, they were swift to reply: “Loneliness is the one-word answer. A desire for connection, a desire for meaning, that desire for some sort of narrative that will make us feel that our lives are moving toward something that matters.” At its best, Schoenbrun went on, the internet affords the opportunity to make that connection in a place where it’s easier and even encouraged to engage in identity play, to try on different identities for size. But alongside those connections and that exploration is a darker side, they said. “When the internet is scaring me, it feels more like propaganda.”

The program Schoenbrun put together to contextualize their own films starts with the disturbingly prophetic vision of Videodrome, but then keeps going, with movies that are almost entirely available to stream or digitally rent at home. (An innovation, ironically enough, that’s available to us only because of the internet.)

A computer desktop with many windows open, including images of several teenagers who look frightened.

A scene from Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended.
Universal Pictures

Watching the series in order feels a bit like taking a tour through my own psychic development. From Videodrome, we jump to the mid-90s for the punk-inflected paranoia of Hackers (1995) and The Matrix (1999), which foresaw the internet as a tool to control the unwitting masses. Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997) is a “fictional documentary” that, through the eyes of a grieving woman, acts like a surreal tour through early digital culture. Then there are two films from 2001 (the year I started my undergraduate studies in information technology and computer science, as it happens): Pulse, in which ghosts travel through the web, and All About Lily Chou-Chou, in which a pop star’s teen fans connect anonymously on the oh-so-familiar web bulletin boards.

And human connection can be horrifying and threatening. The 2014 film Unfriended, which takes place entirely on the laptop of a teen, uses tech that already feels a little quaint (Facebook and Skype) but spins a terrifying horror story about the ways the internet allows us new places to be horrible to one another. Two 2016 films, The Human Surge and Nerve, are very different from one another — one an experimental film, the other a more conventional thriller — but they both tap into the restless loneliness and boredom of millennials and the ways the internet can be the site for connection, not always in safe or productive ways. Penny Lane’s 2018 found-footage documentary The Pain of Others is a disturbing dip into the internet of conspiracy theories via YouTubers wildly popular for their channels exploring Morgellons disease, while Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s outstanding short essay film Watching the Pain of Others interrogates her discomfort watching Lane’s film.

More recently, the hallucinatory 2020 documentary Crestone follows a group of director Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s friends, SoundCloud rappers who live a kind of post-apocalyptic life alone in a Colorado desert. Hertzler’s short film Hi I Need to Be Loved (2018) has the same kind of dreamy aesthetic, as actors read lines from spam emails that Hertzler has received. The effect of Hertzler’s work is the feeling of having your brain rewired, of the real and the unreal fusing in a way that suggests a continuum between the digital and the real.

Watching the series, I found myself unnerved and astounded, as if I were watching centuries of human experience pass by in the space of a few decades. Schoenbrun’s statement, that we go to the internet as an answer to our loneliness, rang in my ears. Overcoming loneliness wasn’t just about connection; after all, there has to be a reason the internet has evolved toward video and images, rather than remaining a place to chat with strangers in text.

When I asked Lane about this, she said that her hours and hours of watching footage from YouTubers convinced her that what they needed most wasn’t just to connect with others. It was the “very basic human need to be seen,” she said, to be recognized. To be seen for who we are. “This need for recognition is so intense and so real,” she continued. “It can be really hard to be seen in real life.”

Moments after we hung up, she texted me: “There’s a difference between ‘wanting attention’ and ‘needing recognition.’” And the internet has afforded everyone the possibility of both.

A young woman stands in front of a computer, in shadows.

A scene from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.

Watching the internet evolve on my TV screen, I thought about the strangeness of the past two years, in which life-and-death events — millions of lives wiped out by an invisible and deadly virus, uprisings and cultural battles, wars and rumors of wars — have been largely experiences we had on the internet. I can’t imagine living through the pandemic without the internet, and yet, I’m pretty sure many of us have had our brains warped and mashed by the very tool that sometimes felt like it was keeping us alive.

So I’d add two of my own entries to Schoenbrun’s excellent list. One is Strasbourg 1518, a short film created by Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer in the early days of the pandemic and released to the web by A24. Strasbourg 1518, as I wrote in August 2020, is “a bit of performance art that captures the frustrations of being a physical body trapped by a pandemic, but in the way only artists of the 21st century could pull off” — that is, dancers around Europe filmed themselves performing in empty rooms alone to the same piece of Mica Levi’s frenetic music, thus collaborating in isolation.

What I didn’t anticipate in August 2020, not quite yet, was how profoundly correct the film’s invocation of the mysterious and famous “dancing plague” would feel. That mass, memeable psychosis, which went on for months in medieval Strasbourg, would grow only more literal as time went on. Now, it sometimes feels as though everything going on offline is merely an accessory to the real world online. Everyone giving their takes. Everyone repeating to one another what they’ve already heard elsewhere.

And that’s why I’d add Bo Burnham’s film Inside, which I’ve watched several times since its 2021 release, obsessed and unnerved with how it captures the wild, uncontrollable thing that is today’s internet: its deranged discourses, its glut of images, its scroll-scroll-scroll addictive quality that lights up parts of the brain our ancestors didn’t even know they had. The song “Welcome to the Internet,” with its chorus “A little bit of everything all of the time,” feels like a cackle of grinning despair, which indeed is how Burnham performs it. A never-ending merry-go-round that keeps going faster and faster, and no matter how sick it’s making you, you can’t quite get off because it’s in you now.

Near the end, Burnham reminds his audience of simpler days. “Not very long ago / Just before your time / Right before the towers fell, circa ’99,” he sings, the internet was very different, with “catalogs / travel blogs / a chat room or two.” That’s the internet the movies captured, but forward-thinking directors knew there was more going on — ghosts, hackers, surveillance, and, as Videodrome foretold, our eventual merger with the thing itself.

“Honey, how you grew,” Burnham sings. “And if we stick together / Who knows what we’ll do.”

How to watch the Internet at home, thanks to … the internet

  • Videodrome (1983) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Hackers (1995) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Level Five (1997) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • The Matrix (1999) is streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Pulse (2006) is streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Unfriended (2014) is streaming on Netflix and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Nerve (2016) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • The Human Surge (2016) is streaming on Topic and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • The Pain of Others (2018) is streaming on Amazon Prime with a Fandor subscription, or available to digitally rent or purchase on Vimeo.
  • Watching the Pain of Others (2018) is streaming on Vimeo.
  • Hi I Need to Be Loved (2018) is streaming on Vimeo.
  • Strasbourg 1518 (2020) is streaming on the film’s website.
  • Crestone (2021) is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
  • Inside (2021) is streaming on Netflix.
  • Schoenbrun’s films A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018), as well as work-in-progress Girl Internet Show: A Kati Kelli Mixtape, can currently only be seen in the series at BAM. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair opens at BAM, Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, and Chicago’s Music Box on April 15, then expands to major markets and digital rental platforms on April 22. It is slated to begin streaming on HBO Max later this year.