Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sporting Technology

Besides killing jobs, technology is also often credited for killing games: at various times, we’ve been told technology is a malign influence on golf, tennis and chess. The curious part of crediting technology for killing these games is that technology has in each of these cases made the ability of those playing the games better: a player with one of those fancy graphite-plus-other-synthetics racquets or clubs can do things that older, wooden-users just can’t do.

Computers, of course, have basically conquered chess vis-à-vis their human counterparts and their power combined with the internet (subtly different technologies at work) means that more and more of the game is domesticated by dint of raw power. Its conquering has added a touch of absurdity: there are endgame positions that can be solved in thirty or so moves that have been figured out by a computer where the proffered solution offers moves that no one can figure out why they work to force victory, only that they do.

This kind of surreal absurdity has not yet manifested itself as regards golf or tennis technology, and complaints about technology in these situation have a certain amount of fuddy-duddlyism about them. The accusation is that technology makes old styles and strategies obsolete via the raw application of power; the old ways had style, variety, and forced competitors to deal with the capriciousness of a tiny sweet spot on a wooden racquet, to take the tennis example.

The last reason—we liked it better when people had to deal with technology-related capriciousness—has always struck me as more than a bit dubious. We like our athletes to be tested, but typically only in relation to each other. We regularly upkeep the courts and nets to make sure the court is in tip-top condition, so as to play true; indeed, through the “let” rule tennis is perhaps the least accepting sport for capriciousness—it will replay points if something sufficiently odd happens. Tennis players are supposed to apologize to each other if they win a point through the capriciousness of, say, the net cord.

Stylistic complaints seem to me have a more legitimate complaint. I cannot tell you the number of unfamiliar players I’ve heard described as having a “big serve and big forehand”; it seems to me we ought to have some acronym or catchy phrase to convey just that quickly and efficiently. But of course it turns out you can shoot many different kinds of shots from the baseline than you used to, and it’s not as if net play is completely dead.

The chess problems that have solutions we can’t figure out; a phantom solution, almost; this is the kind of dilemma of the future: it’s impersonal, it takes the charm out of games—individual invention triumphing within a framework of rules. That impersonality is, however, something of a trend in technology: technology does not much care about what you think or feel; it’s just going to do what it’s going to do, even if that means suppressing invention for pure utility’s sake. After all, try to ask the monks who aren’t making illustrated manuscripts anymore what they think of the Gutenberg type: I bet they think there’s no soul there.

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