The Culture of Moving Dots
Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics. Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck. Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.
Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players. But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use. They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture. That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching.
At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves. So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”
There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots. After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.
But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing. He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.
So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:
And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.
Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that
it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.
Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:
Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.
Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:
Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.
To some degree, I am with him on most of this. However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.
I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite. I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life. For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran. And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.
I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.
I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values. People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.
Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.
But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling. When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use. As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient. But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.
We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.