Not Waving, But Filming

The athletes in the Olympics opening ceremony seemed more interested in mindlessly recording the parade than actually experiencing it. What they plan to do with a thousand near-identical trackside recordings is anybody’s guess, but their behaviour was matched by a ceremony which celebrated our hypersocial, gadget-obsessed era, an era which will have matured beyond recognition quicker than we may realise.

I remember as a kid growing up in Europe, there was a widespread stereotype regarding Japanese tourists, who seemed to always be brimming with excitement at the most mundane of sights, and taking lots and lots of photos.  Initially the cameras were big chunky SLR film cameras, then over the years they became smaller and shinier.  But while Japan’s obsessive camera habit remained, the stereotype did not.  Of course that’s because in the meantime, we all became Japanese.  Being the hyper-civilized culture that it is, the first to hit full economic development, Japan serves as a bellwether of what’s to come for the rest of us.  So alongside zombie banks and high life expectancy, we also now share their obsession with cameras.

I include myself in this, I take far too many photos.  But even to my jaded eyes the athletes were completely out of control at the Olympics opening ceremony in London.  One by one each national team came out following the same formula: flag, name placard, novelty matching clothes, and a forest of phones and cameras on outstretched arms.

[All screenshots attributable to BBC]

OK that’s as far as B, you get the idea.  I watched until H and the camera overload was pervasive throughout.  I actually suspect athletes were encouraged to record the event on their own gadgets, audience members certainly were.

This wasn’t something that just happened by chance, it was written into the script.  Every Olympics involves some degree of showing off how flashy and modern your city and country is.  But this isn’t 1889, you can’t just build an oversized steel monument anymore, we’ve moved on, you need to give something more subtle, a bit more experiential.  We all had the Internet in 2008, so the London organizers couldn’t just focus on that (besides, the Chinese opening ceremony had it well covered with their superb blurring of the lines between man and pixel).  But over the last four years we all bought smartphones and got Facebook accounts, so that’s what London had to work with.  That’s why they tout the games as the “Social Media Olympics”, to the jubilation of journalists everywhere (600,000 Google mentions so far).  That’s why there’s an Olympics app.  And that’s why the opening ceremony was a glorious, indulgent homage to social media, designed with the digital screen in mind at every level.

Take for example the opening sequence, a masterpiece of big-budget pageantry.  The stage was transformed from an agrarian idyll into an industrial wasteland, where workers forge the five Olympic rings out of magical glowing, floating iron.  The stadium spectators just saw a shower of sparks, the television audience saw a stunning aerial view of the glowing logo.

The digital spectator was even more privileged as the pageant progressed.  Intimate on-stage scenes were interwoven with pre-recorded footage and imagery that was only visible from helicopter cameras.  The most undiplomatic sequence, a prolonged gloat about the British health service, was particularly filmed with television in mind.  It ended with an unmistakable nod to British families watching the show at home, a bedtime sequence which gave parents a 10pm cue to send their kids to bed.

The mobile phone remained a pervasive motif throughout, appearing in the footage of the Queen “arriving” by helicopter, and again during a Rowan Atkinson skit with an orchestra.

But this was only a taster of things to come. Social media literally took centre stage in a fantastically overcooked sequence about digital love.  The story was simple: one nightclub reveller finds another nightclub reveller’s phone, they message each other, fall in love, and an army of iPhone-wielding zombies dances in celebration. It’s all narrated through social media conversations bubbling on and off the screen.  Again, for those in the stadium the story only made sense when watched through a digital screen.

Just to hammer home the theme of Internet veneration, a full-scale model of a classic British home floats into the sky to reveal Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.  The audience seats are emblazoned with the words “This is for everyone”, followed by some whizzbangery involving lots of exciting network imagery.

(Side note: I love how American sources say the Internet came from the US military in the 1970s, while European sources tend to say the World Wide Web came from CERN in 1990.  They’re both correct, a playful difference in emphasis).

Was there any restraint in this digital phantasmagoria?  Or a word of caution?  Maybe a little.  There is at least one scene where the phone-wielding dancers look like an intimidating mob.  And the digital love story culminates in the gadget-free intimacy of an attic.

Only one sequence was truly sacrosanct — the tribute to victims of the 7/7 bombings (which took place the day before London was announced as the host city).  It was an unnerving piece of interpretive dance, with aggressive choreography based on a faster tempo than the music and heartbeat backsound, and at least one scene directly mimicking a crashing train.  Sadly it was seen as too demanding for American audiences, and cut from NBC’s broadcast.

The ceremony is on the BBC website in HD, and will remain available until January 2013.  Its true beauty may only be apparent to future generations.

Snapshot of a bygone era: French athletes give the ambiguous Olympic salute (Berlin, 1936)

The 1936 Berlin Olympics opening ceremony wowed audiences with its radio broadcast and newfangled CCTV, but only years later could be appreciated for the truly vivid snapshot of an history that it was.  Similarly, the 2012 Olympics ceremony captured the mood of a world still getting to grips with social media, and that’s exciting, but it’s even more exciting to think how showy and naive that will seem in a few years time.  When the athletes march into the stadium in Rio in 2016, they’ll still be taking photographs, but they may not be holding the cameras in their hands.

Finally, I enjoyed reading the different reactions to the ceremony from around the world, and I’m especially glad that the Japanese loved it!