Future Perfect: Tense

In sport sponsorship, there is almost always a contractual obligation between the athlete and sponsor in which the former bears the brand marks of the latter during most, if not all, public appearances or press conferences. To the best of my knowledge, there is no industry standard template regarding image rights, but rather specific provisions are contract dependent.

This had dramatic implications in 1992 when professional athletes were first allowed to compete in the Olympics. Reebok was the clothing sponsor for the entire U.S. Olympic team, which meant that any American athlete who won a medal would wear the official Reebok track suit on the medal podium. But the "Dream Team" of NBA basketball players was creaming everyone in sight and Michael Jordan (among others) let it be known that as a Nike endorser, he wouldn't wear the Reebok uniform on the podium and would instead skip the medal ceremony. For someone whose recognizability at the time rivaled that of the Pope, this was scandal. But eventually a compromise was reached in which the Nike athletes stood alongside their teammates on the medal podium with U.S. flags draped over their shoulders to cover the offending Reebok logo.

Clearly, the hotly-contested athlete image rights are key to the value of immaterial intellectual properties. For the visioning economy to extract this value, the (two-dimensional) surface of the athletic body must continually be photographed, while images of body volumes have assumed increased significance as well. But what about the interiors of athletic bodies and the flows that pass into, through, and out of them? Will they become subject to the vision machine? Though this control of the athlete is already happening to a degree in the context of anti-doping practices, we might wonder if such visioning will ultimately contribute directly to the pancapitalist profit motive?

As mentioned already, the extended skin of the athletic uniform is sponsored; the actual skin may become sponsored as well (tattoos representing gambling or casino web sites?); and professional sports teams have insured various athlete body parts to minimize investment risk. Now I am wondering about a related, but slightly different proposition: What if the intellectual property under consideration was DNA?

The NBA currently runs mandatory workshops for all rookie players in which they learn about various risk factors and occupational hazards, among them the "nefarious" women who use various methods to try and get impregnated during one-night stands in order to sue/extort for palimony at a later date. Now these women are ultimately doing it for the money, but what if instead of getting pregnant they were trying to save the ejaculate for copying or resale? Does the sperm of world-class athletes have immense revenue potential? If a black market grows for this type of service, how long before capital moves in to capture the rents?

Can't you see Nike, in the age of database-powered dating services and recombinant genetics, prospering in the insemination brokering service?

It's happened for years in the horse racing business.

What are the racial implications of the marketing and sale of high performance athlete DNA? ("If you want a white child, you may choose from these athletes; black athletes begin on page 5 of the catalogue. I'm afraid you can't have Michael Jordan's size and jumping ability with white skin — we don't have the technology to blanch DNA at this time.")

From there, what about the vat-grown eyeballs and assorted body organs suggested by Gibson in Neuromancer? What template are they built upon — perhaps snippets of an athlete from the Nike stable (in shades of hooks' "eating the Other")? Can the genetic qualities of Jordan's muscle fibres be synthesized with the antibody capabilities of one's own cells to create a new marketable class of personalized products (cf. CAE)?

Sponsorship just uses the arena or the billboard — or the surface of the athlete — as a vector for sign communication. As such, it is not very interesting in and of itself. A more interesting proposition is to ask what new vectors will transmit the sign, for it is the sign that is the source of power and wealth in the immaterial economy. DNA is one answer and must be examined in any critical futures analysis of the sportocracy.

The Control Room

Camera 1

Several years ago my mother picked me up at the Ottawa airport on a trip home from university. Before leaving Ottawa to begin the final leg of the journey to Kingston, we were going to spend a few hours with my grandparents — not at their home, however, but rather by meeting them at the Rideau Carleton Raceway. Scots to the bone, my grandparents had always enjoyed a modest wager, whether over a game of golf, darts, bingo or the lottos, and in their twilight years they had taken a fondness to Rideau Carleton's horse racing, slot machines, and all-you-can-eat buffet.

On this trip home, though, the outdoor racetrack was closed for the season, so after exchanging greetings my mother and grandmother went to play the slots, while my grandfather hurried me upstairs to the off-track betting parlour, where he had already established residence in front of a huge bank of televisions.

Off Track BettingAs I sat down, he attempted to explain things to me: "That's Woodbine. That's New York." And so forth. It was a furious blur of simulcast action: harness racing in California, thoroughbreds in Hong Kong; numbers of all manners and meanings crowding the screens; contrails of colours and lights blazing in every direction. I stood there, numbed by the action. But my grandfather was drinking it all in, selectively processing that which concerned him while somehow ignoring the rest.

Camera 2

Virilio might have described it as a state of polar inertia: central nervous system outered and accelerated to the virtual nexus connecting these myriad racetracks simulcasting from around the world, while meat-body remained inert on a factory-made bank of chairs in a room on the outskirts of Ottawa. His spare bodily movements came in the form of staccato walks from chair to parimutuel betting wicket and back again — polar inertia, yes, but also Everyman as real trader in the global market economy.

Camera 3

The scene described above has a rich pedigree that develops along two dimensions: The first stretches back to the earliest optical technologies responsible for the remoting of vision — Galileo's telescope, Daguerre's photographic process, the Lumière brothers' cinématographe, etc., all may be found along this dimension.

The second, which developed in parallel, constitutes the political economy techniques of disciplinary society documented by Foucault, a shift from the public spectacle of torture that ensured the moral authority of the King to the more fluid techniques of surveillance and panopticism that foster docile and productive bodies in the modern age.

Clearly, the tie that unites these two dimensions is the bias towards the visual. Foucault recognized that the Panopticon wasn't simply a model for the ideal prison, but rather a general strategy of power that played on sight and in/visibility, and as such "must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system" (D/P, p.205).

Camera 4

TV Control RoomTelevision took a great leap beyond the film of cinema when it substituted for the archival substrate of celluloid film the pure signal of the electromagnetic wave. Live optics became truly remoted — tele-vision.

Most importantly, in distributing the image stream to multiple recipients, it eschewed the archive in favour of the transmission — the celluloid substrate of film yielding to the pure signal of television's electromagnetic wave.

For the longest time, the technological apparatus required to produce and distribute television signals was extremely costly, and thus only attainable by large corporations or government agencies. During this time, live events — in many cases, live sporting events — were driving innovation in television practice.

One such innovation was the use of multiple cameras to provide different viewing angles of the action, which were then synthesized into one processed image for distribution. The processing or filtering of these multiple perspectives takes place in the control room, where a producer has the unique role of surveying several monitors at once and simultaneously deciding what will be shown to the television audience. This process of viewing the same game action from multiple spatial perspectives may be thought of as the technical reproduction of the spectator viewing a Cubist painting.

Camera 5

As the cost of videocameras and the rest of the televisual production apparatus decreases, reducing the barriers to acquisition mentioned earlier, cameras begin to proliferate like mushrooms and appear anywhere that remoted vision is desired. One of these applications is in the field of security and surveillance, which should make sense to us.

Foucault notes that the function of discipline is to make the object of its power more politically docile and economically efficient, hence the desirability of the Panopticon tower and it's possibility of a guard or other observing gaze being present. The greater the number of towers, the greater the degree of discipline. In theory.

Camera 6

But does the mandate for economic efficiency not also encompass those who would, metaphorically, occupy the observation tower and wield the (potentially present) gaze of authority? In other words, is Bentham's tower guard not also subject to the same logic of production as the rest of society?

To improve the efficiency of the gaze we have two choices: increase the capacity of Bentham's guard, so that several observation towers are monitored simultaneously, or automate the function of the guard with some sort of computer technology. In practice, we witness both solutions, though for the "object of information" being monitored by the cool, unblinking glass eye of a camera, both appear functionally the same.

Camera 7

Chicago SurveillanceWe will often see a security guard monitoring several remote locations at once with the aid of surveillance cameras and a bank of monitors, a role not unlike that of the Cubist producer in the television control room — except that the guard is often monitoring different locations rather than the same location (and act) from different simultaneous viewpoints.

We also frequently see the automation of the surveillance function by having an unmonitored camera connected to some sort of external archiving or memory device (tape, minidisc, hard drive). With this reintroduction of the archival substrate, an image stream is inscribed on the substrate along with a rich information stream of meta-data. Classic optical vision by a human and its corresponding action — since Bentham's guard only functions if the threat of punishment exists — occurs at some later time. Put another way, we introduce a lag in the perception-decision-action process, such that the surveillance archive becomes useful only after an infraction has taken place (witness the London subway bombings last year).

As a result, we now seek to either shrink the perception-decision-action time lag (which requires networked computer assistance) or return proactivity to the surveillance function (which requires bio-recognition systems and their sophisticated filtering algorithms).

Though God is dead, as Nietzsche tells us, at least we don't have to wait long to replace His omnipresent gaze.

Camera 8

NFL Sunday TicketWhile we have seen technological developments in terms of the reduced size, increased performance, and lowered cost of the videocameras that produce remoted electromagnetic image streams, there have also been important developments on the side of distribution and consumption.

Once again, sport plays an influential role in the development of the vision machine, this time in a consumptive role. The NFL and DirecTV have partnered to create NFL Sunday Ticket, a premium television package that, among other features, allows one to monitor up to 8 games simultaneously, not unlike how one monitors several racetracks around the world from one off-track parimutuel betting parlour.

At first glance, the home viewer of the NFL Sunday Ticket package is like the producer in the television control room, able to choose from multiple feeds to produce a customized video stream for an audience of one.

This, however, is not entirely accurate. In fact, the home viewer of the NFL Sunday Ticket package is rather like the security guard monitoring several surveillance cameras at once. In other words, DirecTV has turned the production efficiencies sought by security and surveillance into opportunities for the consumption of sportocratic culture.

Why? Beyond the ability to change channels easily from a dull game to one that is more exciting, it is to serve gambling purposes.

Each of the eight image streams has already been pre-processed by the producer located at the remote site. A rich stream of meta-data accompanies each image stream, indicating score, time, possession, channel, etc. Furthermore, there are interactive features that allow one to monitor the statistics of several players at one time (as for fantasy sports, etc.). It serves to increase the density of information that flows to the televiewer.

NFL football is hand in hand with horse racing as the sport most wagered upon in North America. In this light, we see that the DirecTV package resembles the Rideau-Carleton offtrack betting scenario, in which the consumption of video feeds from various locales exists primarily to stimulate or facilitate the productive aspects of multiple simultaneous wagers. The strict boundaries between production and consumption dissolve into the flesh and circuitry of the global network and the connected intelligence of millions of bettors continues to appreciate.

The Daily Racing Form

Last year I took my first trip to Woodbine Racetrack and posted my observations about it afterwards. As part of that post I wanted to scan a few pages of the daily racing form that is available for a couple of bucks at the track. Now that I have my new scanner and a few free minutes, I can!

(click on the image for a full-size PDF file)


Woodbine derives neither its power nor its profits from the capital that is concentrated in the racegrounds proper. Rather it is through the control of information that Woodbine asserts itself: it is flatly impossible to do a decent job of wagering on the horses without the sophisticated information contained in the daily racing form; it is equally assured that the majority of track goers do not want to share their programs — and their scribbled meta-analyses of the information contained therein — so that they may retain as much of an edge as possible against the betting odds.

I think that a glance at the racing form lends support to this analysis. That this is an extremely sophisticated piece of information technology is perhaps patently obvious (to understand better, see the legend here and here). But if one visualizes each piece of information contained therein as a cell in a database, one begins to have a greater appreciation for the vast tidal flows of information that must circulate in order to create the form in the first place on a daily basis — and what kind of power the vectoralist possesses by controlling it.

By the way, my scantly "scribbled meta-analysis" didn't win me a damn red cent.

The Privilege of Absence

From Virilio's Pure War (p.87; excerpted here from Steve Redhead's Paul Virilio: Theorist for an Accelerated Culture, p.114):

[T]he serious problem is that those present, those who participate, those for example who attend an auto race are disqualified by the absentees. The billion people who watch the Olympic Games in Moscow, or the soccer championship in Argentina, impose their power at the expense of those present, who are already superfluous. The latter are practically no more than bodies filling the stadium so that it won't look empty. But their physical presence is completely alienated by the absence of the television viewer. There's a complete inversion, and that's what interests me in this situation.

Virilio is certainly correct here to an extent, in that the stadium becomes a sort of television set, with each game filmed before a live studio audience. I remember when our Acadia basketball team reached the National Championships at Halifax Metro Centre and proceeded to lose our first round matchup. Canadian sports channel TSN, which was covering the semi-finals and final, paid our school band to stay on for the rest of the weekend to improve the 'atmosphere' of those telecasts.

What I think he misses, however, is how this inversion has doubled back on itself, to the point where the absentees are watching a broadcast of the participants watching a broadcast, in a weird twist on reality TV. When at the track, we spend the majority of a horse race watching the steeds on the big screen television in the centre of the infield, only to turn to the charge down the home stretch. At a basketball game, only a small portion of the crowd need actually watch the game at any particular moment to alert the rest as to when live action should begin — the rest of the time we will socialize with our friends and catch replays on the Jumbotron between the commercials.

Virilio continues:

Once the stadiums were full. It was a magnificent popular explosion. There were 200,000 people in the grandstands, singing and shouting. It was a vision from ancient society, from the agora, from paganism. Now when you watch the Olympics or the soccer championship on television, you notice there aren't that many people. And even they, in a certain way, aren't the ones who make the World Cup. The ones who make the World Cup are the radios and televisions that buy and — by favouring a billion and a half television viewers — 'produce' the championship. Those absent from the stadium are always right, economically and massively. They have the power. The participants are always wrong.

Of course, if we forget about the importance of those present, we risk an explosion on the order of the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster. Which is perhaps why Bale suggests a "surgical" space that eliminates the "problem of spectators" altogether — a space that would "satisfy perfectly the norms of achievement sport".

Notes From The Horse Races

Some notes from my first ever visit to Woodbine Racetrack the other day:

Powershift at the Races

Interesting example of Toffler's Powershift thesis at work. In the case of Woodbine, it does not charge admission to the racetrack, instead making its money on gambling and concessions. Of particular note in the latter category is the Official Race Day Program, which promotes on the front cover that "Admission And Parking Are Always Free" and is symbolic of the shift from Toffler's second stage of power — wealth — to his third stage of power — information.

Woodbine derives neither its power nor its profits from the capital that is concentrated in the racegrounds proper. Rather it is through the control of information that Woodbine asserts itself: it is flatly impossible to do a decent job of wagering on the horses without the sophisticated information contained in the daily racing form; it is equally assured that the majority of track goers do not want to share their programs — and their scribbled meta-analyses of the information contained therein — so that they may retain as much of an edge as possible against the betting odds.

So Woodbine, then, possesses intelligence that its patrons absolutely must have and are unwilling to share amongst themselves. The sheer volume of information contained in the Woodbine track database virtually guarantees that competitors won't be able to threaten its monopoly. And at a couple of bucks a pop, printed on cheap newsprint every day, its margins are extremely high. Combine this with the gambling that takes place at various electronic terminals around the complex and it becomes apparent that Woodbine does not operate a racetrack but rather a sophisticated financial exchange market.

Now that is power.

Watching the Race

We spend most of the race watching the competing horses on the big screen television in the centre of the infield. It is only when the horses come down the home stretch that we shift our focus to the live action (aka a different camera angle). Is this final few seconds of the race the sole difference between being at Woodbine and consuming the event from an off-track betting parlour elsewhere in the world?

Declining Horsepower

The horses are in many ways irrelevant to the race. It is only the information that the punters are concerned with: the handicapping data in the daily race program, the short pre-race forecasts on the in-house TV, the ever-shifting odds on the race board. Despite the sport's efforts to imbue these "athletes" with personality (in parallel to what Benjamin pointed out occurring with film actors), and although physically only a short distance away, they are actually far removed from the true locus of horseracing consumption.

In this sense, does the horse prefigure the future of the professional athlete, with its overwhelming reliance on information for its identity?