Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: I Want My Curling

The difficulty of watching the Olympics online reveals the dangers of a more restricted Internet.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm not much of a sports fan, but I love the near-surreal quality of the Winter Olympics. It's puzzling enough to wonder how one ends up doing the two-man luge. But then you get to curling, that combination of furious sweeping, ice ballet and shuffleboard.

It's hard not to wonder a) how curling got to be an Olympic sport, and b) did Norman Rockwell get together in the Swiss Alps with Hieronymous Bosch and Salvador Dali to dream up this frigid vaudevillian escapade? (The truth may be weirder: it came from medieval Scots pushing rocks around frozen ponds, presumably when they were done tossing tree trunks.)

Until this winter weirdness arrives on television every four years, those who venture to the screen in search of the surreal are stuck with excruciating second-rate weirdness like Lost, an experience that appears to be easily reproduced by sniffing glue while reading a poorly translated instruction manual.

I was excited to hear that Vancouver was kicking into gear, anxious to watch Bode Miller rocket down some slopes while the Nordic set shuffled around looking for something to shoot.

This led me to a problem: I don't have (or want) cable television. I do have a digital converter box and an imposing set of rabbit ears, but NBC simply will not come in. I would send a letter of complaint to Channel 22, but I figured it would be a lot like writing the Department of Public Works about the lack of proper equestrian facilities on the Mass Pike (not a single watering trough!). Alas, NBC is gone forever for some of us antenna lovers.

I do have a fine DSL connection. Easy enough, then—NBC, I heard, is offering live streaming. I happily browsed on over to the NBC Olympics site. I finally noticed some small text pointing me toward live broadcast. I hit the link.

NBC asked me to download Microsoft Starlight. I hit the download page. Uh-oh—I use Linux. Microsoft was not impressed, and sent me chasing the related Novell product, which I installed.

Back to NBC. NBC asked me to download Starlight again. No other link was live. Suffice it so say this loop of joy apparently goes on forever.

That, however, doesn't really matter. Get Starlight working and you get to part two: "Verify you subscribe to a cable, satellite or IPTV provider in partnership with NBC." (No mention of rabbit ears.)

If you already pay for NBC, it stands to reason, you wouldn't have to stream it. If you're trying to watch for a crazy reason like not being able to watch it already, too bad.

The other way to get the Olympics online is a bit more esoteric—go through a proxy server to fake being outside the U.S., enabling you to watch live feeds from other countries.

Don't know how? Find it too time-consuming? Wonder if you're breaking some law that will have black-suited Interpol agents spritzing breath freshener as they knock on your door? Keep tuning those rabbit ears, friend.

Flannery O'Connor had it right: everything that rises must converge. That is, ask the likes of NBC and the Olympic Committee, and everything which might rise to profitability must converge in the hands of a single service provider. One that's incapable of dealing with Linux.

All of which points to the vision of the Internet apparently shared by providers who want to find fresh ways to monopolize content: the Web as just another for-profit broadcast medium, one which started as a free place to enjoy unfettered weirdness and creativity of all kinds.

When historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote about the power of a frontier to drive culture in new directions, he thought the frontiers were closed until such time as space exploration became commonplace. But Mr. Webb didn't know about his near-namesake, the Web with one B. Had he seen it, he might have considered the power of a more internalized frontier, one which could externalize any and every idea with equal power.

I'll live through not seeing the Winter Olympics. But it serves as an important reminder: if we don't pay attention, the online frontier, too, could lose its vitality, becoming just another arid playground for purely commercial concerns, another place where unprofitable incarnations of culture and art go begging.

And curling? Thanks a lot, NBC.

If you want curling, your best bet is to find a frozen pond, a broom, a bunch of rocks and a bored Scotsman.

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