Desert of My Real Life

The 2012 Summer Olympics are nearly over. I haven’t watched them much, mostly because I can’t stand the way they are covered by NBC and its affiliates, especially in prime time, when I’m most likely to be watching. I don’t think this video aired on national television but it sums up NBC’s attitude about the Olympics–it’s only marginally about the sports and performances. The main focus is on disembodied female athlete body parts moving in slow motion, sometimes during the execution of an athletic move but often just as the athlete moves around the playing area. It’s soft core porn. Interestingly, I watched the video earlier today on the NBC Olympics page but now it’s gone. I guess someone at NBC came to their senses and realized that it’s inappropriate to focus on female Olympians bodies without emphasizing their athleticism. But anyway, sexism in the coverage isn’t what I was planning to write about tonight.

I wish NBC would focus more on the performances of the athletes. An athletic performance can be interesting and amazing even in the athlete hasn’t overcome significant life difficulties to be an Olympic athlete. Each of those athletes, even the ones who have had fairly mundane lives outside of their athletics pursuits, has overcome incredible odds to make it to the Olympics at all. For every athlete that makes it to the Olympics, there are probably thousands of others who tried and didn’t make it.

That said, one athlete that caught my attention for overcoming incredible odds to make it to the Olympics is Oscar Pistorius. He is the sprinter from South Africa who has a double below-the-knee amputation but who has now competed in the Olympics using prostheses, earning him the nickname “The Blade Runner.” His participation in the Olympics has been controversial. Some have claimed that the prostheses he uses give him an advantage over other athletes and, as a result, in 2008, the IAAF banned their use, which meant that Pistorius would not be able to compete with able-bodied athletes. Although the ban was overturned that same year in time for Pistorius to participate in the 2008 Summer Olympics, he failed to qualify for the South African team. But this year, he was on that team and both the 400 meter individual race and the 400 meter relay. I saw his heat in the 400 meter individual race and although he came in last, it was an inspirational moment.

Pistorius’ historic run reminded me that over time science fiction often becomes science fact. Remember The Bionic Woman? I loved that show when I was about 13 years old. Jaime Sommers was beautiful, brave and bionic. She nearly died in a skydiving accident but she was lucky to be the girlfriend of Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man, who had had his own life-threatening accident a number of years earlier. He loved her so much that he begged his boss to save her by giving her bionic legs, a bionic arm and a bionic ear to replace her damaged parts. Unlike Pistorius’ legs, Jaime’s clearly were “better” than human legs, allowing her to run more than 60mph. Her bionic arm was far stronger than a human arm, allowing her to bend steel with her hand. I always loved her bionic ear, which allowed her to hear things that no human could possibly hear, but only if she pushed hair out of the way first.

Speaking of hearing, I love the story about the technology that is being used to make the Olympics sound like the Olympics to home viewers. The Olympic games have a sound designer named Dennis Baxter. He is the reason we can hear the arrow swoosh through the air in the archery competition. This is a sound that folks at the event probably can’t hear. And yet, Baxter sets up microphones so that we, the television viewing audience, can actually hear that arrow move through the air. Baxter claims that this technology makes the event seem more “real” to the viewing audience.

This raises such interesting questions about augmented reality. We can never directly experience the “real.” It will always be mediated by at least our senses. We know for a fact that our brains fill in holes in our visual perception. Our brains augment what we perceive via our senses. When we perceive an Olympic event via transmission technology (like television or the Internet), are we witnessing the “real” event? Is it still “real” when technology augments some aspect of our sensory perception, like when Baxter adds microphones to allow us to hear things we wouldn’t hear even if we were attending the event? When does technological augmentation become unreality? Where do we draw the line? And most importantly, does it matter? Do we care whether we’re experiencing something “real”?

Media outlets of all types see April 1st of each year as a time to play with their audiences.  These stories rarely “catch” me because they typically have to be so outrageous that it’s clear from the outset that they are April Fool’s Day jokes.  This morning, however, National Public Radio ran a minute and a half long story that totally caught me.  I spent about 60 seconds planning my blog response to it.

The story is about the fact that 3D viewing technology has really exploded in the entertainment market but the technology still requires us to wear cumbersome 3D glasses.  An opthamologist claimed to have pioneered an eye surgery that would allow us to watch 3D entertainment without having to wear those glasses.  They even had one of the first people who had the surgery talk about how great it was to watch Gnomeo and Juliet in 3D without those glasses.  The line of the story that really made me want to respond was about how this surgery would allow us to live in a 3D world.  In my head, I was yelling “We already live in a 3D world!”  And that was the moment that I knew it was an April Fool’s Day joke.  The beauty of this story is that it mimicked real stories of this type, where people do crazy things to further immerse themselves in online entertainment.  I’ve been reading a bunch about how Reality is Broken and what we can do about it so this story didn’t seem particularly far-fetched to me.  Good job, NPR!

{August 2, 2010}   Nothing is Real

I got back from a visit to England about two weeks ago.  Throughout the trip, I thought about my friend, Robin, and her recent NEMLA panel on Post-Modern Tourism.  Ann and I visited a number of tourist sites that reminded me of Baudrillard and the hyper-real. 

The Sherlock Holmes Museum was a special treat.  It is housed at 221B Baker St in London, the home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.  It is a three-story apartment, set up to look like the apartment described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.  But let me repeat: Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character.  There was no person called Sherlock Holmes.  And yet, here is his apartment.  And his belongings.  And we were greeted by Holmes’ good friend, Dr. Watson, with whom he shared the apartment.  I’m not sure you can get any more hyper-real than a museum housed in an apartment lived in by a fictional character.

Well,  perhaps a living museum on a ship might be more hyper-real.  Sir Francis Drake’s galleon sits on the banks of the Thames River in London.  Sir Francis, of course, was the English hero who was the first person to circumnavigate the world, claiming many territories in the name of the English crown.  While the English claim him as a hero, the Spaniards consider him a pirate, who attacked Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico.  But in London, he is definitely a hero.  And so people apparently clamor aboard the recreation of his galleon.  Not the original, of course.  But a recreation.  And for those so inclined, the galleon is available for sleepovers and other “living history” experiences.  When Ann and I walked by, the galleon was awash in pirates.  Or at least there were many people dressed as pirates milling about.

There were many, many more examples of the hyper-real on this trip.  While Ann was at her conference in Oxford, I bought a copy of England, England by Julian Barnes.  This amazing work of fiction, written more than 10 years ago, tells the story of an entrepreneur who claims the Isle of Wight off the coast of England so that he can create the ultimate tourist experience, a recreation of England in miniature on the island.  So there is a mini Stonehenge and a mini Buckingham Palace and a mini Lake District.  Along with these “real” places, there are also recreations of “fictional” places, such as Sherwood Forest, complete with its own Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, including Maid Marian, who in this version is a lesbian to explain the fact that she won’t have sex with Robin.  This is a brilliant little book that illustrates and explains Baudrillard’s idea while at the same time being prescient in its portrait of post-modern tourism.

Coincidentally, my immediate family is taking a trip to Niagra Falls in a few weeks.  I was telling my friend, Pat, about this trip and she recommended a non-fiction book called Inventing Niagra: Beauty, Power, and Lies for me to read before I leave.  I haven’t started reading the book yet but the book jacket tells me that the book “shows that the famous natural wonder is in reality a prime example of man’s manipulation of nature, constantly exploited to attract tourists.”  In other words, Niagra Falls is unsurprisingly not “real” but is instead a site created with tourists in mind.

I’m not sure yet what all of this means.  It just seems amazing to me that my entire summer has been hyper-real.  Maybe my whole life, all our lives, are hyper-real but we’re all too busy to notice.

et cetera