As the race to the start of the London Olympics moves into full speed, the media coverage includes analysis on measuring how contestants perform. A recent Washington Post article, converted into a slide show online here, describes the technologies and equipment used to measure speed, whether on the track or in the water. The discussion is fascinating, but what does measuring performance in sport have to do with how we trust digital information?
The modern Olympics began at a time when measuring the outcome was done by manual means, both to determine the winner (and other places) as well as the time in which the event was completed. But competition continues to always inspire disputes, as to both the placement of the contestants as well as their times. With each new generation, alterations were made—more officials were added to reduce the opportunity for error (or favoritism), more timekeepers were employed, and photography entered into use.
Today, electronic devices, both to better assure the fairness of the start, and to measure the accuracy of the timing and the placement at the finish, are now integrated across the venues. For example, each sprinter has a speaker mounted on their starting blocks through which the starting signal is now broadcast, in order to eliminate the favoritism of one runner starting faster due to their closer proximity to the starting gun (up to 0.10 of one second). Sensor pads detect if an athlete has left the blocks too early (used in both sports) and the finish line cameras now capture up to 2000 frames per second, supplemented by infra-red lasers and micro-chips installed in the runner’s number bib! All of these technologies serve to displace human judgment, and shift our reliance–as spectators, officials, and participants–from the human referees to the technologies.
Another example, used in professional tennis, allows a player to challenge the human umpire’s call of a ball being “out” or “in”. The technology tracks the placement of the ball and displays a video simulation of its exact landing place on the court, in full display to the participants, the umpire, and the audience! Once again, we transfer our trust to the technology and the simulation of an event—the flight of a tennis ball–that may have occurred at over 100+ mph just moments ago.
But we are not transferring our trust to the devices that record the relevant performance data of runners, swimmers, and tennis balls. We are transferring our trust to the digital output that is generated by the devices. We are allowing ourselves to rely upon that digital information—whether reported as the net difference in time, or the placement of a tennis shot—in substitution for our reliance on what we can actually see and touch with our senses. The competition has transformed itself from a sport in which human judgment (and the frailty of human error) as part of the officiating of the outcomes has been displaced.
In baseball and in soccer, there are continued calls for the increased use of video replay to eliminate the impact of human error by the officials. Those defending the status quo argue the sport is more humane without the technologies, but those who value winning, and those demanding certainty in catching the losers and the cheats, seem to always prevail in moving technology into play. Winning is an economic incentive of enormous value , and even in amateur sport, investing in our ability to rely on digital output as the decisive arbiter of what is real has become part of everyday business.
This movement toward reliance on machines to measure what is real—even events we witness with our own eyes—is critical to keep in mind as we rely more and more on computer-based information as the definitive, controlling record of events in business, government, education, social networking, entertainment and all other possible uses of the digital, wired world around us.
Historically, the law placed great value in signed, original documents—wills, deeds, contracts of sale—all were valued as authoritative records. But, in our migration to electronic commercial practices, we have moved easily from relying on the forensic attributes of the physical, tangible documents to the output of the computer programs and applications with which we create the records of our affairs. As in sport, we are substituting the digital output as the record on which we rely for more traditional artifacts and experiences. We are relying on those digital records, often without any significant thought or inquiry as to whether they actually improve upon past practices.
As the Olympics unfold, I will be watching carefully how disputes are expressed, adjudicated, and resolved. I will be curious to see what discretion exists for human officials or athletes to overrule what the machine records, and try to gain some insight into the lessons these Games will teach on how we will trust the digital information that is generated as the records of the games we play in business. There, winning matters perhaps even more than in the Games; but are we prepared to calmly salute the winner when the electronic records of those against whom we compete are in contradiction to what we believe really occurred?
I remain haunted by the fact that the second arrests following the jailing of Bernie Madoff were of the two software programmers that reported to him, and created the programs, and the output, that deceived investors and the SEC, to the cost of billions. Yet what steps do we take in business to assure the reliance of the records that are produced? It is a sobering truth that the technologies used to measure the performance of amateur athletes likely exceed the technologies we employ to measure the integrity of the records of business on which the creation (or loss) of wealth can depend.