Basketball, Solutionism, and Medium Theory
So we went down the bank of the foul ditch,
Going a little further into the pit
Which is stuffed with all the evil of the universe.
I recently happened across a video by BBALLBREAKDOWN creator and fellow communist Coach Nick in which he and Scooter Barry attempt to entice their viewers with the SOLIDshot smart sleeve. SOLIDshot, headquartered in Mountain View, California, have apparently created a compression sleeve—made from imported, high performance Italian fabric—that incorporates electronic sensors and promises its users “instant feedback + analytics.” The sensors in the sleeve track the movement of your arm, recording your shooting data, telling you whether your form is good or bad, and suggesting adjustments you may wish to make. Your data is stored on the sleeve, but you are encouraged to use the SOLIDshot app in order to “sync your data to the cloud.”
Sounds useful. So what’s the problem? Before we get into that, I should like to make it absolutely clear from the outset that I am not a Luddite. I am well aware that quaint theories warning of the inherent evils of new technologies have been articulated (and invariably dismissed) since at least the fourth century BCE when Plato cautioned in the Phaedrus that the advent of writing would cause people’s memories to atrophy. Neither am I about to suggest that the use of such technology is a form of “cheating.” Media, as defined by Marshall McLuhan, can be “any extension of ourselves”—glasses, for instance—or “any new technology.” Professional basketball has always been mediated: players wear shoes, uniforms, headbands, mouth guards, use fitness equipment, etc. That basketball players make use of new technologies to augment their bodies is not of concern (although players who engage in body modification surgery in order to gain a competitive advantage must be policed more vigorously).
In what way, then, does SOLIDshot differ from other sports technology? We can clearly see how this new smart sleeve has evolved from a long line of familiar low-tech ancestors, including an eerily similar product peddled by Scooter’s own father; if its forerunners are merely harmless gadgets, what makes SOLIDshot so dangerous? To invoke McLuhan1 again, the medium is the message: “the personal and social consequences of any medium…result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs.”
And it is precisely in terms of scale, the sheer quantity of data collected and shared, that these new-fangled smart devices—that is, any device with sensors that harvest data—differ from their predecessors. NBA players already operate under the all-seeing eye of the SportVU camera (another Silicon Valley innovation), which tracks and records their every move while on the court. The media establishment was swift and uncritical in its gushing endorsement of the SportVU system, hailing its leaguewide adoption as a revolution. Now, three years on, the unremittent surveillance of NBA players, the hoarding of data by teams—data to which players have limited access and which teams use to make personnel decisions—has been completely normalised. And we should not doubt for a moment that smart sleeves and other similar devices will soon become equally ubiquitous at the professional level. If the notion of players wearing smart tracking devices during live games sounds implausible to you, head on over to SOLIDshot’s FAQ section:
Rest assured, the tech parasites of Silicon Valley will stop at nothing.
It will not be long, maybe a decade, before full-body smart suits (perhaps funded by EA Sports, the better to realistically capture and render player movements for their games) are adopted as part of the NBA’s compulsory uniform code. Just think of all that extra space for corporate logos! These suits, combined with the camera’s gaze, will provide an unprecedented quantity of data to be harvested and put to the service of private interests. Such innovations will not be limited to the professional sphere, either; amateur and recreational players will continue to mimic the pros, generating staggering amounts of data, most of which will be utterly meaningless to them and will no doubt be sold on to third parties without knowledge or consent.
We have, after all, been given every incentive in today’s neoliberal wonderland to self-surveil wherever possible: sharing our location and our interests will allow us to view more relevant and personalised content online; diet and fitness apps will help us live healthier lives if we let them track us; “personal assistants” like Google Now or, more recently, Allo’s Google Assistant2 will afford us more free time if we simply surrender all of our personal data, and so on and so on. The basketball community in particular has been carefully primed to accept such concessions to Silicon Valley tech companies, viewing them as inevitable—even desirable.
Observers of the NBA cannot have failed to notice the swift rise of so-called “analytics” in recent years, as well as the accompanying rhetoric of efficiency, disruption, and other Silicon Valley jargon. While there are legitimate reasons to be sceptical of the kind of mass surveillance engendered by SportVU cameras and smart sleeves—its potential consequences for contract negotiations, for instance—these are rarely discussed. Instead, professional straw man Charles Barkley, the de facto leader of the NBA’s counter-analytics contingent, has plunged the discourse into the depths of the figurative toilet bowl with his inane blathering: “All these guys…who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: they a bunch of guys who ain’t never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school.”
More circumspect and critical observers have either had their voices drowned out by a parade of anachronistic technophobes and chauvinistic macho men or are reluctant to speak up for fear of being associated with this crowd. Who, after all, would want to align themselves with Charles Barkley? His analytics tirade on Inside the NBA could have come straight from the script of Moneyball, a film in which Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill harness the arcane power of analytics to outwit and ridicule rooms full of befuddled old-school scouts, constructing their improbable super-team by reducing baseball to a maths equation. Disruptive!
You’re not even looking at the problem.
The language in this scene is particularly interesting. Of note is the focus on solving problems by thinking differently: the film is a transparent love letter to the solutionists of Silicon Valley. The solution that Brad Pitt has in mind does not, of course, involve collectively addressing the systemic problem that “it’s an unfair game,” that the uneven distribution of wealth precludes certain teams from competing. Rather, in the style of the glib tech nerd in his t-shirt and jeans, the solution our protagonist is searching for is wholly superficial, a stopgap measure that may work for his team, and for a time, but ultimately does nothing to promote parity in baseball (it is perhaps worth noting that since Billy Beane took over as general manager of the Oakland As in 1997, his team has managed to win a total of one playoff series). Likewise, the “solution” Silicon Valley has proposed to remedy the stagnant wages, unemployment, and obscene inequality fostered by neoliberal capitalism is for workers to engage in increasingly precarious work, front all of the costs that would previously have been covered by their employer, and work incessantly for poverty wages. Your day belongs to you.
To reiterate, with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the NBA itself all insisting that analytics and the invasive data-gathering techniques that fuel it are bringing about a new golden age of basketball, there is unlikely to be any real resistance from players or fans when the time comes to introduce smart uniforms. NBA teams will soon be granted access to a pool of data drawn from every (complicit) player on Earth, and once that happens they will inevitably contrive an arbitrary set of criteria for prospective players (must replicate a particular shooting form, possess certain physical qualities, take x number of shots per day, etc.). This predictive scouting will usher in a horde of counterfeit Stephen Currys, the original’s own movements and habits having been digitally captured and rendered as a formula for basketball greatness. The Curry blueprint3, which will be sold to every other NBA team, and perhaps even to college teams and international teams, will serve as the standard for all incoming players, against which they can be measured “objectively” by algorithms.
If the word “algorithm” doesn’t immediately fill you with dread, consider the fact that the supposedly objective algorithms increasingly utilised in the American criminal justice system have turned out to be blatantly racist tools of oppression. What, then, are the implications of predictive scouting for basketball? Firstly, it will erect a new and expensive barrier for entry into the world of professional basketball. Aspiring players will need to purchase costly basketball suits and other smart devices to monitor and record their body’s every move and function, and they will have to adhere to whatever strict regime has been determined—objectively, remember—to produce the best players. Those who cannot or will not submit to such invasive practices will simply drop off the basketball radar. Just as you are considered a deviant today if you do not maintain a social media presence, refusal to plug yourself into the basketball matrix will undoubtedly be viewed as evidence that you have something to hide.
What sort of player is this arrangement likely to affect the most, I wonder?
As for those who are lucky enough to make it to the NBA in this grim dystopia, they will all play the same—most efficient—way for coaches who all coach the same—most efficient—way, rendering basketball games bland and joyless. Kemba Walker will languish on the bench; DeMar DeRozan, last of the dunk contest purists, will be excommunicated; John Shurna will be given an NBA contract (just kidding—not with his shooting mechanics). “Nudging” and “incentivisation” will inevitably produce a particular kind of basketball subjectivity. Not only will all players be encouraged to master only one of a limited selection of skillsets, they will not have had cause to cultivate any sense of flair or creativity at any point in their playing lives (streetball and even idle practice having also been subordinated to the dictates of predictive algorithms). The NBA of tomorrow will penalise players who are short, inefficient, and who love to isolate. We must ask ourselves again: who is such a system likely to exclude?But what about the Spurs? Perhaps you enjoy watching five basketball androids dispassionately firing the ball around the court until they can find the best shot. Perhaps you can live without seeing Pierre Jackson score 30 points per game. Let’s examine the likelihood that the new analytics order will in fact deliver on its promise of crisp, efficient basketball.
Consider Uber, that ubiquitous and villainous taxi service posing as a technology company. Its standard sales pitch has always been that it offers individualised services (for the sacred individual), and that these services are more convenient and efficient than anything the bloated government bureaucracies can hope to offer by way of public transportation. However, Uber have been able to provide their services at such competitive rates only because they’re prepared to operate at a (staggering and unsustainable) loss in order to maintain their stranglehold on the market. Moreover, Uber have been quietly moving away from their individualised services, offering customers various incentives to walk to “unique pick-up spots” rather than have a driver come directly to their location, and to share rides with other passengers.
If Uber customers end up waiting at designated pick-up spots and catching rides that they share with other passengers, in what way will Uber’s service differ from public transport as it is currently deployed? Could it be that those responsible for administering public transport for decades did in fact know a thing or two about efficiency and sustainability after all? For all of its blustering about efficiency and personalisation, Uber has proven itself to be nothing more than a cuckoo in the nest, supplanting existing forms of public and private transportation without actually improving on their services in any appreciable way. What we’ll soon be left with, then, is the same expensive and inefficient transport system most of us are used to, only it’ll be run by a private monopoly, utterly opaque, unaccountable, and profit-driven. If you have any doubts whatsoever about the very serious dangers of letting private monopolies handle essential public transport, I invite you to catch a train in the UK.
By the same token, we should be suspicious of the transformative rhetoric issuing from the sports media establishment concerning the rise of analytics. Could smart suits help NBA teams uncover talented players that would otherwise have slipped through the net? Certainly this will be the pitch from the grinning Silicon Valley ghoul as he reclines in Vivek Ranadivé’s office. You want the next Stephen Curry? Our algorithms will find him for you by matching his data against our index of player profiles from around the world.
The Kings accordingly sign Jimmer Fredette and Seth Curry to max contracts. Is this the future you want for your children?
1 McLuhan was a big fan of electronic mass media and probably would have loved the internet, and possibly even the Silicon Valley perverts who wish to colonise it for themselves: “Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree” could, with a little tweaking, be Facebook’s new slogan. But insofar as medium theorists like McLuhan invite us to consider more thoroughly the profound effects that new media can have on all aspects of a society, their work remains extremely valuable.
2 Google Assistant promises to save you time by reading all of your messages, learning to mimic the way you communicate, and then replying to your messages on your behalf so that you don’t have to interact with your friends. I’m not making this up.
3 Followed to its logical end, the current paradigm will bring us cybernetic body suits that can be programmed to imbue the wearer with the playing style and abilities of specific NBA players. The most talented basketball players will no longer compete professionally: a small elite will provide the suits with their abilities and professional basketball will be played by only the biggest and most athletically gifted people. Basketball will subsequently become a tactical game in which one’s strategy consists in determining when to deploy a particular player’s skillset: driving? Activate James Harden; shooting free throws? Activate Stephen Curry; committing a personal foul? Activate Giannis Antetokounmpo. But enough of this—I don’t want to give tech leeches any big ideas. If you want to make this into a big-budget dystopian sports film, get at me.