We have frequently considered sports RFID implementations here at sportsBabel, and have described these fluid, location-based tracking technologies as possessing a tactile quality.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that one of the first locational protocols built pre-internet was called Finger. Les Earnest, author of the protocol, writes:

I created Finger around 1971 to meet a local need at the Stanford Artifical Intelligence Lab. People generally worked long hours there, often with unpredictable schedules. When you wanted to meet with some group, it was important to know who was there and when the others would likely reappear. It also was important to be able to locate potential volleyball players when you wanted to play, Chinese food freaks when you wanted to eat, and antisocial computer users when it appeared that something strange was happening on the system.

The only tool then available for seeing who was running on our DEC-10 computer was a WHO program that showed IDs and terminal line numbers for people who were logged in. There was no information available on people who were not logged in. I frequently saw people running their fingers down the WHO display saying things like "There's Don and that's Pattie but I don't know when Tom was last seen." or "Who in hell is VVK and where does line 63 go?"

I wrote Finger and developed the supporting database to provide this information in traditional human terms — real names and places. Because I preferred to talk face to face rather than through the computer or telephone, I put in the feature that tells how long the terminal had been idle, so that I could assess the likelihood that I would find them there if I walked down the hall.

The program was an instant hit. Some people asked for the Plan file feature so that they could explain their absence or how they could be reached at odd times, so I added it. I found it interesting that this feature evolved into a forum for social commentary and amusing observations.

Finger was picked up by a number of other groups with DEC-10 computers that were connected to Arpanet — software flowed in all directions around the net in those days. It later migrated to Un*x, probably via U.C. Berkeley. Somewhere along the line the idea arose to provide a network Finger service. I don't remember who suggested that but it seemed like a good idea at the time so I stuck it in.

ChampionChipThe user would literally be touching the screen, scanning through the other users time-sharing the mainframe, essentially reaching through the wires of the local network and touching the other person — what we have described earlier as vision without sight. Of course, the finger protocol only located a particular fixed terminal on the network and registered the presence or absence of a user at said terminal.

As the gap between computer and body narrows, however, the ability of the computer to shed its fixity and become mobile allows for a more pervasive tracking and control system that may be deployed over more fluid geographies while retaining the tactility of the original Finger protocol.

While the purpose of the application has mutated over time along several dimensions and the role of agency has changed as well, this is essentially what we are describing in the sporting RFID implementation.

Mimicry Squared

Does the San Antonio fan mimic Manu Ginobili or the Phoenix fan?

Nash Bloody Nose - Courtesy of Getty ImagesNash Mimicry - Courtesy of Getty Images
Ginobili Black Eye - Courtesy of Getty ImagesGinobili Mimicry - Courtesy of Getty Images

Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture:

"In mimicry, the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy. As Lacan reminds us, mimicry is like camouflage, not a harmonization of repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically. Its threat, I would add, comes from the prodigious and strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory 'identity effects' in the play of a power that is elusive because it hides no essence, no 'itself'."


How do we striate a smooth, open space such as that found, for example, in the marathon?

Striating the running space

We use the rectilinearity of the table and the code or key that links object of information to the table and tables to one another.

Towards the Invisibility of Cameras

Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," discusses the consequences that arise with the introduction of a technical apparatus (photography, film) designed to detach an artistic performance from its original space and time and transmit it to a remote audience — leaving behind the "aura" of the work of art in the process.

Specific attention is paid to the contrast between stage and film. The live stage actor performs robustly for the benefit of a present audience in a linear fashion (one attempt, mistakes and all), and is experienced uniquely by the various audience members from their various spatial locations in the theatre. The audience of the film performance, on the other hand, takes the position of the camera lens, which does not necessarily capture the actor's work in a holistic fashion. The film performance is not created spatially or temporally in the same fashion, either. Myriad performance fragments shot at various locations and times (perhaps in non-linear fashion) are spliced together to create a final film performance, which blurs the distinction between author and viewing public, as the technical apparatus thrusts the audience into a critical, quasi-authorial role.

Read from this dichotomy, the live professional sporting event appears to be a hybrid of stage and film performances: there is a game that takes place in front of a live audience in a linear fashion while at the same time a series of cameras captures this performance for a remote audience.

In an earlier era of sports broadcasting, the prestige of the sporting event taking place was signified by the concurrent existence of the television event. The television camera wished to announce its presence at sporting events, for only the most important such could be worthy of the expense of television. Today, as the cost of the televisual production apparatus falls in tandem with its prestige value, the camera attempts to become as non-intrusive as possible.

In basketball, for example, the desire is to make the baseline camera and operator as small as is feasible and visually one with the basket stanchion, in contrast with the earlier era, when the camera would be mounted on a large dolly and announce its presence. In concert with basket cams, goal cams, driver's cams, blimp cams, etc., the goal is to maximize visual exposure and minimize the appearance of technical intrusiveness, so as to organize the perception of live spectators and create the alibi that the televisual has not thoroughly permeated the structure of professional sport. And if the remote audience assumes the same line of vision as that of the camera, then a reality is constructed in which the technical equipment of reproduction is rendered nearly invisible.

Benjamin: "The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology."

The Authentic Hologram

In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco describes holography as an expressive art and science that "could prosper only in America, a country obsessed with realism, where, if a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a 'real' copy of the reality being represented."

How ironic then that the hologram, "real" copy of the reality being represented, is now used, because of the technical complexity of its reproduction, as a marker of "authenticity" and therefore of value in domains with significant threat of counterfeit, from paper currency and credit cards to driver's licenses and passports to sports merchandise and memorabilia. The authentic fake used to distinguish between authentic and fake.

MLB Holograms

While our focus is on the visual element, we cannot forget that this hologram is usually paired with a unique number or code on each produced object — that is, we are describing a tracking-image that marks authenticity for the vectors of power seeking to maintain control over their stocks of value. But ultimately it is the visual element that assumes priority, since it may provide a glossy brand recognition above and beyond its security appeal. In other words, through its slick recognizability the hologram has achieved an iconic status associated with authenticity and may actually be more trusted from a consumer perspective than other forms, such as RFID.

Sport Raised to the nth Power

Umberto Eco, "Sports Chatter", in Travels in Hyperreality (p.159):

The athlete as monster comes into existence at the moment when sport is squared, when sport, that is, from a game played in the first person, becomes a kind of disquisition on play, or rather play as spectacle for others, and hence game as played by others and seen by me. Sport squared equals sport performance.

. . .

But this sport squared (which involves speculation and barter, selling and enforced consumption) generates a sport cubed, the discussion of sport as something seen. This discussion is in the first place that of the sports press, but it generates in turn discussion on the sports press, and therefore sport raised to the nth power. The discussion on the sports press is discourse on a discourse about watching others' sport as discourse.

. . .

Born as the raising to the nth power of that initial (and rational) waste that is sports recreation, sports chatter is the glorification of Waste, and therefore the maximum point of Consumption. On it and in it the consumer civilization man actually consumes himself (and every possibility of thematizing and judging the enforced consumption to which he is invited and subjected).

A place of total ignorance, it shapes the ideal citizen so profoundly that, in extreme cases (and they are many), he refuses to discuss this daily availability he has for empty discussion. And so no political summons could affect a practice that is total falsification of every political attitude. Thus no revolutionary would have the courage to revolutionize the availability for sports chatter; the citizen would take over the protest, transforming its slogans into sports chatter, or suddenly rejecting, and with desperate distrust, the intrusion of reason in his reasonable exercise of highly rational verbal rules.

What is interesting is that this article was written in 1969 — before the launch of ESPN and other cable sports networks, before the advent of dedicated 24-hour sports talk radio stations, before the meta-competition of fantasy sports, before the internet and its echo chamber of pro sport fan blogs.