I’m fascinated by the report that said that part of the footage of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony was faked, and since it was top story on this website yesterday, I’m evidently not the only one. The organisers went to great lengths to show us what the giant footstep-shaped fireworks would have looked like, had it been possible to film them. The 55 seconds of footage apparently took the head of the visual effects team, Gao Xiaolong, almost a year of his life to create, and sadly for him, the ultimate result is that everyone’s now shocked that some of the footage of a supposedly live event was in fact completely artificial.
But does it matter whether they show us what’s actually happening, or a shot that simulates what it would have looked like if it could have been filmed? If you’ll forgive me tapping into a part of my arts graduate learning that’s actually, for once in a blue moon, relevant, this reminds me of the famous argument made by Baudrillard in 1991 (sorry, I did try to warn you) that was ultimately published as the book “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“.
Its observation was that from a Western perspective at least, the first conflict with Iraq was almost entirely virtual – it was observed and experienced primarily at a distance, on screens. Even for the pilots flying on bombing missions, it was all about the “smart bombs” whose cameras broadcast back their success in locating the targets. Vietnam may have been described as the first armchair war, but the first Gulf War was practically fought in armchairs by the allied combatants.
So, Baudrillard’s point was that the whole thing could have been an elaborate simulation, and many of the participants would have been none the wiser. Of course, for the people killed, the Gulf War very much did happen, and quite definitively so. But his point was that so often in the modern era, our sense of reality is derived from images on a screen, which we trust as being an honest representation of reality, but don’t necessarily reflect it.
Now, I don’t want to get all first-year philosophy here, and start blowing everyone’s mind by asking how we know anything at all is true, and how we know we aren’t just brains sitting in a bucket with scientists feeding us stimuli, or trapped in Matrix-like pods. That sort of thing only really creates a sense of wonder when you’re pretty intellectually inexperienced, and/or consuming quite a lot of pot.
My point is this – if China will go to such lengths to ensure that its Opening Ceremony is perfect, why not just computer-generate the entire Olympic Games? It’s not that big a difference from what the Games has already become, to the point where the main swimming competition is between Speedo and the other manufacturers, rather than between athletes. (Pity it’s not an Aussie company any more, or we’d already have taken home a lot more golds.) And of course, as we’ve recently seen with cycling, there’s also an ongoing competition between the labs that test drugs and the ones that develop masking agents.
With a computer-generated Olympics, you could even tailor the results to every country, so everyone thinks they’ve won gold. For an Australian audience, surprise losses in the basketball competition would be a thing of the past, and Thorpie could have competed in Beijing after all, instead of wussing out and making public appearances exclusively on Top Model.
Authoritarian regimes have always kept the punters happy with a combination of bread and circuses, so it’s no surprise that China wanted every element of its biggest circus ever to go off without a hitch. And I’d be fascinated to know what the domestic coverage is like over there. With near-total control of the media, what’s to stop China pretending they’ve won every gold medal? Defeats for Chinese athletes could be erased as quickly and efficiently as Tiananmen Square was. And if they can computer-generate amazing fireworks sequences, what’s to stop them generating better news to tell the billion people who are glued to their televisions, waiting for China to dazzle the world?
And, while they’re at it, why not computer generate some peaceful images of Tibet, where the local population welcome the influx of Han migrants that’s slowly but surely wiping out their culture, and monks welcome the PLA instead of opposing them? Perhaps the next Dalai Lama will be entirely computer-generated by some whizkid in Beijing, and inserted into fake news footage so he can say nice things about the Communist Party?
Whereas once television was the great source of truth, bringing the real world into our lounge rooms through footage of events like the Vietnam War, which ultimately put pressure on the US Government to pull out, it can now be used for the opposite effect. We probably never could, in truth, but we certainly can now no longer believe what we see on our TV screens. I always dismissed the theory that the moon landings were faked as the ravings of cranks, but if it was impossible then, it’s safe to assume that it’s possible now. And that’s a disturbing thought.
That said, more computer-generated content might dramatically improve reality television. A computer-generated Daryl Somers couldn’t possibly be as annoying as the real one, and just think – with entirely artificial contestants, Ten might actually be able to make Big Brother interesting.