Basketball, Big Data, and the Military Entertainment Complex
The Golden State Warriors are famously owned by a sinister cabal of Silicon Valley vampires, so it should be no surprise that the team has embraced the latest surveillance technologies and concomitant collection and analysis of data. The Warriors were among the first wave of NBA teams to install SportVU cameras—sophisticated data-tracking systems—in their arena, a move that has since been copied league-wide. In case you were wondering, SportVU cameras are owned by STATS LLC, which, in turn, is owned by Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm founded by Robert F. Smith, previously a Silicon Valley tech investor for Goldman Sachs.
When considered solely within the context of basketball, the ubiquity of SportVU cameras does not seem disturbing at all; in fact, the move to install them in every arena has by all accounts been a wonderful development that will no doubt revolutionise the way we understand and play basketball. However, when viewed in a wider context, as one of countless manifestations of the Silicon Valley imperative to impose a panoptic environment on an unwitting society, the Warriors’ thirst for data is representative of a far more unsettling trend. Just as Oakland’s basketball team was an early adopter of SportVU cameras, so the city of Oakland itself was among the first American cities to install ShotSpotter systems. Another Silicon Valley innovation, ShotSpotter networks consist of hundreds of hidden microphones and sensors placed throughout a city that alert police to the sound of gunshots (and, potentially, other noises) while also triangulating their location.
Silicon Valley’s tech entrepreneurs have been buying up NBA teams for quite some time now, yet the figures that make up the Warriors’ ownership group appear significantly more menacing than their counterparts in Los Angeles and Sacramento: comically exuberant Steve Ballmer did us the favour of displacing Donald Sterling, while comically impotent Vivek Ranadivé’s curious vision of an “NBA 3.0” has yet to bear any fruit. By contrast, Warriors’ majority owner Joe Lacob has made it absolutely clear that he and his consortium of noble venture capitalists intend to apply the poisonous neoliberal logic of the Valley to their NBA team (and to accept credit for its success), condemning both players and fans to increasingly invasive surveillance practices.
While much has been written about the gentrification of the Golden State Warriors by Silicon Valley parasites (ticket prices have risen to outrageous heights, affluent tech nerds view Warriors games as “networking opportunities,” the team will be moving from the traditionally blue-collar city of Oakland to a new arena in its more prosperous neighbour San Francisco in the near future, etc.), my intention is not to bemoan the death of the “real” sports fan at the hands of these contemptible Bay Area hipsters. Rather, I am interested in what the Warriors’ success in embracing the Silicon Valley ethos signifies to basketball viewers everywhere. If Hollywood films convey the ideology of the American establishment distilled into its purest form1, can the spectacle of the NBA Finals tell us something about our relationship with Silicon Valley tech companies, “big data,” and the global panopticon? Perhaps. Warriors’ co-owner Peter Guber is, after all, a Hollywood producer.
The Warriors have quickly transformed into an analytics giant, the quintessential Smart Team. This has caused some to dislike them, notably television jesters like Charles Barkley and assorted old school types who still believe in asinine mantras like “live by the three, die by the three.” The team has come to represent Silicon Valley, and much of America (and indeed the wider world) resent them for it. They’re successful and we enjoy what they produce, but they’re arrogant, and there exists a vague but persistent sense that they’re changing things in a way that doesn’t necessarily make us comfortable.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have been cast as the gritty, downtrodden team of the proletariat. The city of Cleveland itself has endured a sustained neoliberal onslaught that has wrought all manner of economic hardship—declining industry, rampant unemployment, transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private, etc.—and in terms of professional sports its citizens have had little to celebrate.
As for the players, LeBron James’ stubborn orthodoxy provides a stark contrast to Stephen Curry’s iconoclastic style. While Curry has turned basketball convention on its head, routinely attempting—and making—what would traditionally be regarded as “bad shots,” James plays with the familiar chauvinism of the archetypal basketball star: the ball is always in his hands—often as he stands stationary for ten seconds at a time—and he invariably falls back on heroic isolations in tough situations. This familiar basketball logic has been with us for decades, and while it has in recent years been abandoned by some of the more forward-thinking teams (Spurs, Hawks, Celtics, Warriors), it persists throughout the NBA today.
The Cavaliers, of course, are owned by Dan Gilbert, not the city of Cleveland. An NBA championship will not alleviate any of the crushing economic problems currently afflicting the city’s residents, but will rather empower one of their greatest antagonists. Gilbert’s mortgage lending company has been accused of, among other things, fraud, falsifying loan documentation, and scamming customers with deliberately misleading interest rates. Moreover, LeBron James, far from being an archetypal people’s champion, had previously left Cleveland for a state with no income tax in order to form a super team so that he could more easily win championships (an endeavour he abandoned when a more lucrative situation presented itself).
Nevertheless, the 2016 NBA Finals will be regarded as an instance of traditional basketball values defeating new-fangled data-driven methods, of the common man succeeding with his meagre means in the face of elites with infinite resources at their disposal. Heart-warming stuff!
On a deeper level, however, this represents the apparent triumph of the atomised individual over the slick and seemingly irresistible powers of Silicon Valley tech monopolies. Yet this isn’t a heart-warming or inspirational narrative precisely because it adheres to the very neoliberal logic that the Valley touts as the solution to our collective ills. The hacker and the entrepreneur may occupy polar positions, but they are analogous, as their intersection in Silicon Valley clearly demonstrates.
As the welfare state crumbles throughout the world, Silicon Valley has stepped in to provide us all with tantalising solutions. Private tech companies will take care of our health and replace our inefficient public transport systems. The problem of obesity, rather than being overcome on a collective level by creating better city infrastructure and regulating powerful food corporations, can be solved—we are told—on an individual behavioural level with fitness devices that track our activities (and generate a wealth of data for private companies). Instead of working with labour unions to reduce working hours, Google Now will act as our secretary and afford us more free time without our having to lift a finger. Our problems, we are to infer, can be overcome with “ethical consumerism” and “political awareness.” Vote with your wallet! Write to your local politician!
Yet such platitudes are not only insufficient, but harmful. Monopolies own the infrastructures that allow them to provide these services, preventing the development of any viable alternatives. Moreover, politicians appear incapable of conceiving of alternative models and simply advocate appropriating the same tools that private companies already use and applying them to the same evil ends, only under a different brand.
We cannot solve the problems that we face today—or oppose the kinds of “solutions” offered by Silicon Valley—if we insist on acting only as individual consumers, applying the logic of the market to political revolution2. Just as Max Schrems will not succeed in toppling Facebook, so the isolationist cannot, in the long run, defeat the type of basketball that the Golden State Warriors typically play. Team basketball is good basketball. The Warriors won a record 73 games this year for a reason: it’s the best way to play basketball. Their eventual defeat at the hands of the Cavaliers does not change this fact; NBA teams are not suddenly going to begin running isolation sets all game (though the Toronto Raptors must feel vindicated to some extent). This Cleveland victory was a mirage, a comforting myth in the same vein as the Hollywood film. It provides the citizens of Cleveland with vicarious relief from the unending torment of a life lived in Ohio, and it tempts the rest of us with the erroneous notion that in order to thwart global capitalism, we need only alter our individual behaviour and can comfortably elide the underlying systemic issues that give rise to, among other things, wealth inequality, environmental destruction, and war.
By defeating the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have embraced and advanced the pernicious ideologies of Randian objectivism and hypercapitalist globalisation. The Golden State Warriors may have lost the NBA finals, but this was a decisive victory for Joe Lacob and the diabolical legion of Bay Area tech nerds that will ultimately be the ruin of us all.
1 This, incidentally, can be seen clearly in the Independence Day adverts that aired incessantly during the Finals:
The United States Army assures us that the heroism and virtue depicted in Hollywood films is inspired by the real heroism and virtue embodied by the United States Army. Thus, the audience may use a film like Independence Day as a stand-in for actual war coverage, substituting the brutal realities of American imperialism for sanitised and satisfying battles between Americans and belligerent, incomprehensible aliens. This is not just about cinema, however: “when they find a way to win, no matter what”—this is clearly a reference to the basketball broadcast that the advert interrupts, and is encouragement to view the struggle on the court as having wider implications.
2 This should under no circumstances be read as an endorsement of the European Union.