Aug 16, 2008

World - Technology at the heart of Beijing Games

This year’s Olympics perhaps more than any other are about far more than the goal of pushing the human body to excel in sporting competition. Embedded in the multiple narratives of the Beijing Games, technology stands out as one strand deserving of some unpacking. Both the Olympics and the experience of their audience are increasingly shaped by technology which has begun to exert a profound impact on our ontological certainties.
Take the most anticipated and watched episode of the Games as an example: the opening ceremony on the eighth of August. The show was a technological marvel of jaw-dropping sophistication, featuring 15,000 performers who transformed the National Athletics “Bird’s Nest” Stadium into a scroll upon which 5,000 years of Chinese history was enacted with perfectly coordinated precision.
Watched on TV sets by over two billion people or around a third of the world’s population, according to global media market research company Nielsen, the opening ceremony was clearly designed for audiences at home rather than the mere 90,000 spectators actually present at the venue.
The bird’s eye views of the unfolding spectacle afforded to TV audiences would have been impossible for those physically present to take in, as would have the zoom-ins to the dimpled face of nine-year-old Lin Miaoke singing “Hymn to the Motherland” when the Chinese flag made its entrance into the stadium. The experience of following the fountains of firecrackers exploding in seamless waves across the city was likewise a privilege reserved for those who were far away rather than up close to the ceremony. Controversy
The fact that large, live performances are increasingly catered towards TV audiences is no longer a novel enough phenomenon to generate much social anxiety or discussion. However, certain details that have subsequently emerged regarding the technologically “enhanced” nature of the opening ceremony in Beijing have stirred much controversy within and outside of China.
To begin with it was revealed by Beijing Games Executive Vice-President Wang Wei that certain parts of the televised footage of the ceremony had been pre-recorded and digitally created for maximum effect. These included the 55-second sequence of fireworks “footprints” exploding in consecutive ripples along a south-north axis across Beijing from Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest.
The newspaper Beijing Times further quoted Gao Xiaolong, a member of the video team for the opening ceremony as saying that the sequence was “mostly an animated three-dimensional video that was made over a year. It was not actually live footage except the final stage,” at the stadium itself. Mr. Gao explained that the decision to replace the originally proposed live broadcast with a recording was made due to flight restrictions on the helicopters required to film it, and the timing and complexity of the challenge.
What needs clarification is that the fireworks in question were actually burst at the opening ceremony and witnessed live by tens of thousands. However, what television audiences saw was a pre-recorded version.
Fireworks aside, an additional revelation has come to light. The little girl Lin Miaoke whom the China Daily newspaper declared to have captured the “heart of a nation” with her singing, was in fact merely miming to the voice of a younger seven year old, Yang Peiyi.
Yang’s uneven teeth apparently had the organisers deem her appearance as unsuitable. The musical director of the ceremony Chen Qigang told Beijing Radio on August 10 that the decision to use Yang’s voice and Lin’s face was taken because “It was the image of our national music, our national culture. And especially since it accompanied the arrival of the national flag in the arena, this was an extremely serious matter.”
Both these disclosures have led to outrage in China with tens of thousands of netizens posting comments on chat sites describing feelings of having been “duped” and “cheated”.
On the one hand such reactions seem but natural. They should however also lead us to ask the question why logically speaking we feel the way we do. The very fact of watching a show on TV or the Internet in itself means that our experience of the event is technologically enhanced. Moreover, the fireworks in question did go off at the opening ceremony, even if what was broadcast was a pre-recorded semblance.
The philosophical issue raised by the “fake” bits of the opening ceremony has to do with the assumed intrinsic value we seem to ascribe to authenticity. But is the authentic always “better” than a replica? If the pleasure derived from viewing a fake is as much or perhaps even greater than that drawn from the original, is the authentic still of more value?
Objectively speaking “authenticity” is ethically ambiguous or neutral. It has no superior moral value in itself. Indian visitors to China are often horrified to discover “authentic” Chinese food and experience far greater pleasure from gobhi Manchurian than bona fide chicken feet.Issue of authenticity
The issue of authenticity also problematises the relationship between sports and technology as a whole. The idea of pure human endeavour unsullied by technological intervention is widely accepted as a chimera. Who wins at the Olympics has as much to do with individual talent or “natural” athleticism as it does with high-tech training, scientifically-monitored diets and cutting-edge equipment. To compete at the Olympic-level sportspeople today must be technothletes.
At the swimming competitions in Beijing this year for example, world record after record has tumbled. But does this have to do with talent or the new Speedo LZR Racer streamlining body swim suits that the majority of the swimmers have begun to wear?
Technology is at the heart of nearly every aspect of this Olympics. These are the first Games to be broadcast live on the Internet. Virtually every device that can receive a signal is receiving them from Beijing — as podcasts, RSS feeds, e-mail alerts and videos. The American network NBC that has bought broadcasting rights to the Games will present more than 3,600 hours of Olympic coverage in total, more than the sum of all the hours of Olympic TV coverage ever.
People around the world are moving beyond spectating and actually participating in the event on web blogs and other virtual communities. Individuals who have never met in the “natural” world are busy interacting in cyberspace, swapping, buying and selling tickets.
Regardless of where one stands on the authenticity debate, what the 2008 Olympics really drive home is how enmeshed technology is today with both sporting talent and the experience of its audience. For worshippers of the “authentic” the Olympics can only disappoint.