A Sportscape's Silicon Silk

Let us consider each vector of digital representation at the modern sports space as a thread of what I have termed the silicon silk. A quick list of these threads offers the following:

  1. official score heading from scorer's table to a central database
  2. score is then syndicated to various web sites in real time
  3. surveillance of players by television
  4. surveillance of spectators by television
  5. surveillance of spectators by closed-circuit cameras (Bale)
  6. game replays shown on Jumbotron
  7. spectators shown on Jumbotron
  8. television camera feeds sent to truck
  9. video truck to satellite dish
  10. radio coverage
  11. bar code scan for tickets at front gate
  12. ticket info sent to ERP system
  13. cell phone calls out of stadium enclosure
  14. cell phone calls into stadium enclosure
  15. wireless ordering of food/concessions from spectator seats
  16. wireless access to real-time in-game stats
  17. aerial surveillance photos in football
  18. scorer's computer to the Jumbotron and smaller arena scoreboards
  19. scores from other arenas on in-house scoreboards
  20. technologies to produce virtual graphics like the 1st-and-10 line in football
  21. a referee's use of instant replay during game
  22. speed radar gun in baseball
  23. RFID chips to measure offsides in soccer
  24. RFID chips to measure race times in marathons and other road races
  25. GPS technology attached to golf carts

We cannot forget other affiliated threads of silk, which vector away from the chrysalis only to branch back and return again. These include videogames, fantasy sports, gambling markets, scouting videos and more. And of course there are others, some of which I am missing, and some of which haven't been realized at this point.

Military - Science - Entertainment?

Virilio theorizes at length about the rise of a "military-scientific complex". Haraway, on the other hand, discusses "high-tech repressive apparatuses" of an entertainment nature in which the fruits of military research and development are incorporated into the latest leisure spectacles. Rheingold also alludes to this cozy relationship between the military and communications interests in the development of virtual reality and spectacle.

Is it possible, then, to merge the two ideas, and consider a military-scientific-entertainment complex, in which the militarization of science (Virilio) is normalized in the production and consumption of techno-fetishized entertainment?

In the context of sportsBabel, can we say that it is the trickle-down of advanced military research into professional sport spectacles that serves to render intelligible and normalize our implicit participation in the project of empire?

Evidence suggests that the relationship does exist. A few examples:

It seems we can answer in the affirmative for the first question, but, so as not to simply offer trite observations, I will suggest that the second question requires substantially further investigation.

Atari Means "Territory Will Be Captured"

First, PONG is used to represent the athlete. Now it is used as the testing ground for the manipulation of that athlete. Put another way, the athlete has been ripped asunder, with the body a collection of bits floating in the digital ether and accessible to any mind.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the digital representation of the athlete was the easy half of the equation; where the real challenge rested was in manipulating that athlete solely with one's mind, which has now been accomplished thirty years later. The irony lies in the fact that the incredibly able-bodied and virile athletes garnering such media accolades are not the ones leading this second technological revolution; if anything, they are partly responsible for engineering the seeds of their own demise. Rather, as others have already noted, it is the disabled that are the vanguard of this cyborgian (r)evolution, leaving the athletes as technological facilitators, little more than vehicles for cruising the information highway.

The developments we have seen in sports videogame representation in the time since PONG have been nothing short of remarkable, from two lines bouncing a dot back and forth on a black and white television screen to an account from Howard Rheingold only two decades later about his experiences playing virtual reality racquetball complete with haptic feedback on each stroke. There is no reason to believe that development on the side of cognitive manipulation won't follow a comparably dramatic arc. A thicker coaxial cable for more sophisticated avatar control? Perhaps a wireless substitute for cable, period?

Basketball and Bimodern War

A short essay entitled "Michael Jordan Mogadishu" from Kroker and Weinstein's Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class (1994). (I am not sure if this journal post contravenes the copyright notice included in the book or not, so I will post the link where you can freely download the book and decide for yourself. Boldface emphasis added.)


The NBA championship game between the Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls is flickering on the screen. It's half-time, and the news announcer suddenly appears to say that the game will be interrupted for a military news burst from the skies over Mogadishu, Somalia. It was the Persian Gulf video all over again: greenish night vision, shadowy C-131 attack planes fading away in the darkness, brilliant phosphorescent explosions of the bombs as they blew away the headquarters of Aidid, a Somalian clan leader. I was prepared for this: the mediascape had signalled my electronic body for days that this was an "uncooperative" clan leader who needed to be punished (he was held responsible by the UN for giving orders to attack the Pakastani contingent). I also knew that after Clinton's passivity on Bosnia, and his shrinking away from Lani Guinier, that the President needed a quick military kill, particularly one that could be done at a safe telematic distance without the direct involvement of American ground troops.

Curiously, as this screenal display of pure war flipped back to the NBA game, the sports announcer said: "And now for the always awkward transition back to basketball." But, of course, this was the true confession which was a lie. My electronic body felt only a deep symmetry between the war scene in Mogadishu and the virtual war on the basketball court in Phoenix. Maybe there was not the slightest disjunction between these two screenal economies because we witnessed two coeval wars: real (Mogadishu) war and virtual (NBA) war. Or was it the reverse? Mogadishu as the virtual war, with its electronic mapping of the geographic coordinates of Aidid's military base and TV headquarters (were they the same?) and its application of the laser weaponry of pure technology to achieve a virtual kill? And was the Suns/Bulls game, with its violent match-up of the god-like Jordan and the super-intense Barkley, complete with a brilliantly arrayed rhetoric of strategy, tactics, and logistics, the real war in the android hearts of the virtual population?

Or something different? Not virtual war versus real war, but the superannuation of war into an indeterminate doubling: bimodern war. In this case, the violent bombing of Mogadishu provided the cycle of primitive energy necessary to sustain the pure technology of NBA championship basketball. And the in-your-electronic-face basketball of Jordan and Barkley provided the tactical clues guiding the American air force as it flipped Mogadishu into the electronic trash-bin of a computer application: total aggressivity, electronic scanning, networked virtual simulation of the target population, and specular publicity. In this case, the night bombing of Mogadishu, under the sign of basketball tactics, issues in the use of AC-130H gunships as the military equivalent of 3-point shots (safe from grasping hands); and the "end-game" of Mogadishu displays all the finesse of a half-court press. Mogadishu as the real virtual sport? Why not? This was a sacrificial scene where an accidental range of victims is selected for purposes of enhancing the internal (telematic) moral cohesion of the home team (US/UN). Michael Jordan Mogadishu, then, as the first and best of all the virtual Air Force Generals. The only question remaining is this: was the disappearance of Mogadishu timed perfectly for the half-time of the NBA game: a final deft touch of bimodern war as the leading edge of promotional culture under the sign of pan-capitalism?

Habeas Virtualis?

I was just reading the blog published by the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, appropriately titled What is The Message?. While there, I came across a post by Mark Federman, Chief Strategist and head of McLuhan Management Studies in the program, imploring us to question how our identities (which he terms digiSelves) are constructed, challenged, and potentially violated in digital environments. He concluded the post by asking: "Physically, we are protected in law by habeas corpus ? literally, 'you have the body'. Is our digiSelf protected by habeas virtualis ? 'you have the effect'?"

This reminded me of a conversation I had about sport videogames with a colleague of mine, Dave Parkatti, who was enrolled in the combined MBA/LLB program at the University of Alberta, and is a very sharp tack as well as a good friend. My question/probe and his speculative, thoroughly generous response are posted below:

Imagine a case scenario where a kid is playing in a virtual environment "as" Kobe Bryant. While attempting to "be" Kobe (ie. "assuming" his identity in cyberspace), the kid slips and breaks his neck. Is it possible that the kid's mother can sue Kobe or the game maker for damages? Can Kobe sue if the kid performs some defamatory action while "in" Kobe's cyberbody at an online pickup game? Finally, athletes (I believe) grant their likenesses to appear in videogames. Is there a limit to how far this relationship can go? For example, consider a videogame that wants to add biometric data such as VO2 max and heart rate in order to provide a realistic fatigue simulation: is there such a thing as public information and private information? Or would the franchise own that data when they test the athletes in preseason?

Regarding the sports tort liability topics themselves, they certainly are intriguing. If you want my opinion, the defamation issue is most fascinating.

In the kid-slipping-as-Kobe scenario, one could expect both a defence of consent (kid knowingly & voluntarily assumed risk of sporting/gaming activity) and defence of contributory negligence to possibly come to the aid of a game-maker defendant. It is nevertheless an interesting intersection of product liability cases and sport injury cases; whereas the latter hold no negligence to arise at all on the part of other participants if the injury occurs in the normal course of a game, the former cases do obviously hold manufacturers liable in negligence if they ought to have reasonably foreseen consumers incurring injury through use of their product in the way in question.

Here, though, I think the proper analogy for virtual gaming systems would be roller blades: the product is merely enabling a participant to engage in a sporting activity, and so long as the product itself is not defective by reason of negligent manufacture, the participant's inability to reasonably use that product is their own fault. Of course, what constitutes reasonable use becomes the crucial question, if, unlike roller blades, a virtual gaming system conflates Kobe's virtual abilities with those objectively ascribable to the participant.

In other words, if a reasonable user would be led to think he or she could actually and safely jump higher or move faster than their normal abilities through use of the virtual system, as counter posed to the reasonable rollerblader who knows or ought to know that going too fast for his own skill level is dangerous, then liability may exist for the game maker (subject again, importantly, to the aforementioned defences). As for Kobe however, I couldn't see liability arising for him, barring actual endorsement by him of such extraordinary abilities being made possible through the system.

The question of appropriation of personality in the context of videogames is likewise interesting. As that tort currently operates, a person will always have the legal right to protect against exploitation of their own image, personality, voice, identity, name, etc. so long as such exploitation occurs for commercial endorsement purposes and without that person's consent. Hence, the contractual agreement which contains athlete consent in the context of sport videogames holds as I see it the key to any suit possibly brought by those athletes; if they actually agree to a contract so broadly worded as to essentially include every and all aspects of their "personality", then as a matter of contract law there should be no reason why a game maker couldn't utilize biometric data.

While this implies that private information of personality not included in such a contract is off-limits to game-makers, even then the neat question of a subject-matter defence arises: if athlete personalities come to be no longer seen as selling games as they would Wheaties in a commercial, but rather as constituting the actual subject-matter of a work of art (big case law example pertains to an unauthorized book about Glenn Gould), then Electronic Arts might very well someday be as in the clear as Kitty Kelly is today.

To think of a non-sports example, it is very possible to imagine a legit virtual reality experience based on unauthorized autobiographical information pertaining to Princess Di, where the user could interact with Diana, her actions and responses based on an amalgam of personal information already known to the public or newly extracted from insider sources. Hence while one might think that biometric data is something wholly private in the absence of consent, the paparazzi has shown the private sphere to be fleeting in regard to subject matter information, and if a game maker were to discover that biometric data from an inside team source, then a subject-matter defence would potentially cover it.

This of course does not discount a likely equitable cause of action against the disclosing team doctors or officials, who could be personally liable for breach of confidence or breach of fiduciary duty vis a vis the athlete. These individuals or the team would only "own" such information, and be free to disclose or sell it without liability, if - as mentioned before - they had already extracted a (broad) contractual waiver from the athlete.

As indicated, I think the defamation question regarding virtual pro-athlete experiences is most fascinating. Certainly, it is plausible that the tort could be made out quite easily- take the example of a notorious virtual team of Kobes who are known in the gamer universe as playing with a basketball in one hand and a court-side metal chair (WWF-style) in the other. Such conduct by these players, observable by the gaming public, could be argued to raise an inference in right-thinking members of society generally that Kobe endorses that way of playing, thereby causing Kobe to be lowered in their estimation or shunned.

Aside from actions against the gamers themselves (probably successful but not prone to substantial recovery of damages, or wise from a PR standpoint), the more lucrative action to be taken by Kobe naturally would be against the deep-pocketed game maker, which would have to show that it had no control or responsibility for that specific action of its gamers. If, for example, the experience was programmed such that only Kobe (and no other b-ball persona) could pick up a chair, then the game maker probably would be liable for defamation. If not, though, the game maker is obviously not like an employer and vicariously liable for defamatory actions of its gamers. Also, a whole can of worms exists with respect to mods being developed by hackers, thereby distorting what was intended or made originally permissible by the game maker.

The whole issue is pressing, given that a la Barry Bonds as we discussed, an athlete's reputational capital is oftentimes more valuable these days than his or her human capital/athletic skills.

Many thanks for your assistance, DP.

To return to Federman, the study of the digiSelf is certainly both interesting and crucial, but this is even more true for the study of the fusion of digiSelves.

Will Art Save Sport?

The sport-media complex, in particular sports videogaming, is evolving towards a state of virtual sport. Some of the technologies enabling this evolution are improved processor chips and graphics accelerators, virtual reality and advances in haptics, and peer-to-peer networks. Future technologies may include genetic engineering, molecular computing and nootropics. It is the march of positivism, for positivist research pays in a capitalist system.

Every shred of empirical data that is collected means a more robust simulation, or what I am calling virtual sport. But there is a limit in spacetime as to how robust a virtual world may become. It is the essence of that which cannot be captured by numbers. It is art.

Art, then, is the postmodern response to sport.