Friday, August 12, 2016

How Rio Got Super-Smart


How Rio got super-smart

‘Spectators were using their phones to navigate the city, download tickets, hail taxis — or just catch up on the medal tally’
Image of Gillian Tett
© Shonagh Rae
Last week, as Olympic fever gripped Brazil, I travelled to Rio de Janeiro to watch the opening ceremony. I found it an unexpectedly powerful and moving experience, not just because of the exuberant Brazilian music, joyous dancing and visual beauty but also because the event carried earnest political messages about national resilience, climate change and the need to protect refugees.
There was another factor, however, that made the ceremony so memorable: it delivered spectacular digital visual effects, producing an immersive experience akin to sitting inside the Matrix or Insurgent movies. Over the course of several hours, a breathless kaleidoscope of computer images was beamed on to the walls and floor of the stadium, creating worlds of urban skyscrapers, seascapes and jungle scenes.
The net result was an experience as visually thrilling and emotionally powerful as anything I saw in the London 2012 opening ceremony (which I was lucky enough to attend) or Beijing’s, in 2008 (which I watched on television) — so much so that when the athletes finally stepped into the area, it was almost an anticlimax.
In many ways, this is no surprise: most large events use computer projections these days. London 2012, for example, employed dazzling lighting. But the fact that digitisation now dominates the Olympic opening ceremony is a symbol of how our 21st-century world is changing.
When I was a student, I was heavily involved in set design: I spent almost every spare minute inside theatre workshops, sawing wood, painting pieces of cloth and assembling scaffolding. It was a messy, physical job and my ambitions were constantly frustrated by gravity or the cost of moving scaffolding. At the Brazil event, the designers were liberated from gravity — the hard “work” was done with light beams and a computer mouse, not scaffolding. It was as if the set designers had been given cyber wings: they could switch scenes with a flexibility I could never have dreamt of — and at a far lower cost.
This partly reflected an artistic choice: Fernando Meirelles, the lead designer, is a renowned film-maker. It was also driven by expediency: the crisis-plagued government of Brazil was under pressure to keep costs down (and the budget for the Rio ceremony was reportedly less than half the £27m spent in London, and a small fraction of that spent in Beijing). But the key point is this: digitisation is giving designers more bang for their artistic buck; even — or especially — in cash-strapped emerging market nations such as Brazil.
This is very cheering, particularly since it echoes a bigger pattern that cuts across the modern world. A few decades ago, anybody who wanted to attend an Olympic event had to either apply for tickets by mail or go to the venue itself — and they had to use paper maps to find their way there; it was a costly and time-consuming process.
But last week in Rio, one thread that united the spectators — aside from an interest in sports — was that, irrespective of where they hailed from in the world, they all seemed to be clutching smartphones or tablets. These were used to navigate the city, book tickets, hail taxis, connect with friends, track the medal tally — or to post on social media.
Local Brazilians were similarly engaged: whenever I hailed cabs, the taxi drivers not only used the maps on their phones to find venues and dodge the worst traffic, they used Google Translate to communicate with me, across the Portuguese-English language divide, with remarkable levels of “efficiency” — and low costs.
This digital power did not always circumvent all the real-world, human obstacles: there were still traffic jams, long security queues to enter events, confusing on-the-ground logistics, and so on. Nor could those computers remove the whiff of sewage that was a constant reminder that a few hundred metres away from some smart Olympic arenas, there were favelas where many people are so poor that they are excluded not only from this digital largesse but also from a properly maintained sewer system.
But for those lucky enough to have digital power at their fingertips, the 2016 Olympic experience is a constant blend of the real world and cyber space, which echoes the opening ceremony in every sense. Digitisation is truly giving us wings. And the only thing that is more remarkable than this shift is that most of us now take this magic so completely for granted that we barely ponder it at all — not unless we think about how the world used to be experienced four, eight, 16 or 32 years ago, before humans started to love digital technology almost as much as their real-world sports.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae