Technicism and the World Cup

I confess that now that the US is out of the World Cup, I have not been paying much attention to the matches, but I have still been hearing an interesting argument come up from time to time.

Some have been complaining that the new ball is causing problems and that a newer, better ball needs to be developed. Others have been frustrated by some key missed calls by the referees and say that what we really need is new laser-sighted goal-line technology. There are dozens of news stories about FIFA considering “in-game technology” to deal with various problems that fans have noticed.

What is Technicism?

What is interesting about all of this is that it appears to follow the pattern of something Stephen V. Monsma calls “technicism” which is the unending pursuit of more and more complex technologies designed to make human life better, But when those devices cause problems, the solution is always additional technologies that solve the problems caused by the previous technology, and then even more technology to deal with the problems of that technology, and so on.

For example, when it rains the material on a soccer ball is affected, and so there are calls for a more water resistant ball. Someone goes and invents a new material, but then players complain that the new material changes the way the ball spins and curves through the air. So another ball is developed. We then complain about the Gen3 ball, ever certain that there will be a technological solution that will finally get it right.

The deeper trouble is that each time we make a change, hoping that technology will solve a problem, we also introduce changes to the game that we later lament. In tennis, Paul Kedrosky observes a similar pattern happening and conclude that, “Modern technology has created a tennis monoculture.” One can find similar discussions in baseball, basketball, and so on.

Avoiding Technicism

The point of course is not to demonize technology or act as though it never actually does any good (after all, we wouldn’t have “buzzer shots” without buzzers), but to point out two important things.

First is that human life doesn’t work like a machine. Our technology supposedly does everything right all the time, but we feeble, fleshly creatures do not. Sadly, players go offsides. Referees miss calls. Perfect games are broken, and the wrong team sometimes win. But that’s all part of what makes games wonderfully human, and why it is we care more about what happens in a “real” games than the simulated ones on our PlayStations. The more automation and technology we add to a game, the less of it’s “gameness” we retain.

The second point is that while we like to believe that new technology only brings benefits, we have to recognize that new technology also brings change, and sometimes that change removes the very thing we value. Then the hope that technology can solve all problems (technicism) trickles down into other areas of our lives, we run the risk of perpetually adding technology in such a way that we lose our humanness. Just as the game stops being the game with too much technology, so also humanity ceases being human.

So this weekend, enjoy the game and enjoy being human.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

20 thoughts on “Technicism and the World Cup”

  1. I am for substance. Blogs have substance. I wrote a book with substance. But instead of Twitter and Texting, I am going for real people. Real conversations in person. When I can’t do that because of distance, real long distance phone calls and thanks to technology the phone rates are cheap. Also, snail mail. I write letters to widows who don’t have computers–it’s biblical to be concerned about the widows and the orphans.

    We are saving $30 a month by not texting any more. Not only that, but is truth contained in the limited space of a tweet? Granted that the tweet can point to a site or a blog with substance. But sometimes a tweet or a text is just a cry for attention.

    I read an article that teenagers in our area aren’t getting their driver’s licences as much now because they don’t have to go visit friends. The article pointed to Social Media as the reason.

    1. Carol, those are all great observations about technological usage in our culture. But I just want to clarify that “technicism” as Monsma uses it is talking about something a little different from just “social usage” and instead refers to a belief that all problems are technological problems with technological solutions (as we see in the World Cup technology debates).

  2. I was thinking something similar as I listened to the World Cup commentators express their confusion over why FIFA didn’t allow refs to use instant replay for various calls. He was sure they’ll use it in 2014. The pressure to do so will certainly be immense, simply because TV provides that technology to the viewers. It creates a culture in which not using technology is nearly impossible, or at least excoriated–like not having an iPhone, or not having a savings account. The structures are in place that make those things possible. If we’re not going to use them, we must have very good reasons. Yet, even those structures influence what we call good reasons and what we call bad ones.

  3. “But that’s all part of what makes games wonderfully human, and why it is we care more about what happens in a “real” games than the simulated ones on our PlayStations.”

    I respectfully disagree. Mistakes and errors don’t make the games “more human” and wonderful. They mar and destroy the true purpose of sport: for athletes to determine an outcome, who is best.

    This is very often what is said by those who resist technology’s use in ref’ing games: “mistakes are part of the game.” Yes they are but they don’t have to be!

    1. Mark,
      Thanks for the great pushback!

      I only mean to use sports as an example of the modern cycle of problem/solution/problem/solution/problem created with technological change. Whatever benefit we gain by a new technology, with it also come other changes in how the game itself is played (see the tennis example above).

      We tend to tell ourselves that technology only brings benefits, but we often forget that it brings changes with it.

    2. Sorry Mark…I respectfully disagree. Where would futebol be without the “hand of God” play by Maradona or many other examples. The very reason futebol or soccer has held out on adding technology is to continue to focus the human, strategic and beautiful flow of the best game in the world.

      To make it perfectly accurate would only disrupt the beauty and flow and as John says “human” side of the game. While I digress thoroughly on the game of futebol…this applies to life!

      Would we rather be right or in relationship? One of my favorite quotes right now is by Pittman McGehee, “The opposite of love is not hate but efficiency.” Something else to think about.

      1. Todd,
        In quoting Pittman McGehee you remind me of Stephen R Covey’s comments on the ‘One Minute manager’ method, a rival philosophy of management. Covey said that it can’t work well, because (in the long term) you can only be efficient with tasks. With people you have to be effective.
        Remembering that helps me to remember that the best gifts I can give anyone are my time and attention.

        John – another great blog.

  4. I think this is a good observation, but when it comes to referee calls that can be automated… Is that a bad thing? I don’t think it’s valid to say that a game is less human because we have technology that tells us when we go out of bounds or score with a laser lined goal line. But the observations about the ball are well taken.

    1. “Is that a bad thing?” – Oh no, I’m not evaluating good or bad. I’m just pointing out that it will be a different game.

      You’re right to point out the difference between the case of the refereeing and the case of the ball. Thanks for pointing that out!

      1. OK, fast-forward 100 years to the present :-)

        Today, many believe there is no reason we can’t soon (50+ years) replicate the human brain in every respect. If this proves true, how is consciousness differentiated from a machine? Or say we first replicate a fly brain – same question, only on a different scale.

        Another way of asking the question: is there true randomness in the universe? Or does everything follow immutable natural laws? Or are these simply two sides of the same coin?

        Or we could ask – in what physical way (vs. spiritual) is man not a machine? I’m just asking because it makes a big difference in how we perceive technology and our relationship to it.

        1. People are not machines because people are unique. If we view people as machines we run the risk of treating 10,000 people as if they were 10,000 iPods. Machines are designed to be uniform. Humans are designed with the exact opposite intent.

          As for the post-humanist desire to put one’s consciousness onto a substrate of some kind, I’m not sure what to think. I would just wave my hands and say something about God and souls. How it works is unknown to me.

        2. As an engineer who designs things that are built in a factory by both machines and humans, I can say without a doubt humans aren’t machines. There are certain things machines are good and and certain things humans are good at. Machines are very good at doing repetitive, tedious actions over and over again. Humans are not. So there is one physical way that humans aren’t machines. I can list more if you need them.

          I don’t doubt that many people do believe that we may soon replicate a human brain in every respect. I’m sure there are just as many who think the opposite. This is all speculation and does nothing to answer the question. As far as I know, most biologists find the machine metaphor for biology to be just that – a helpful metaphor but not a literal description of what organisms are (and some biologists think the machine metaphor has been unhelpful).

      2. …And since man was in existence long before machines, can’t we–at the very–least say that machines work like us (not vice-versa); that we have “created them in our image” to a degree. Semantics, maybe?

  5. As a soccer fan, and as a fan of Mexico and USA, I found that I was quit disappointed with bad calls made. I feel that in the US game against Ghana the ref. perhaps made some wrong calls that would have perhaps changed the result of the game in USA’s favor.

    I agree technology will change the game 100%. But it might help the game too. When instant reply was being tested in American Football, at first it seemed to slow the game down, with coaches crying for instant reply every few minutes. But as time went on, it seems like the NFL reached a balance. You lose a time out if you lose the instant replay ruling. Also they limited how many you could ask for in a game.

    Over time, FIFA could reach a balance in soccer too. Soccer is worse than football, because soccer is traditionally played for 45+ minutes without time outs.

    But FIFA could limit instant replays, to red card reviews and only after a coach requested it, and with the consequence of losing ability to change a player if ruled against. In the same manner penalty calls could be reviewed by ref. request, or by coach but not without a consequence for a wasted request. Also offsides that result in goals could be challenged not any offside.

    I don’t think ref’s want to admit that some off sides are almost impossible for the human eye to be seen or caught. Lines men are looking at a lot of things. Just like in tennis some line shots are impossible to see.

    Technology has come to soccer already, and I think it has helped more than hurt. The fourth ref showing time left. Previous to that refs were notorious for letting games go long or short. I think it makes them scared to cheat knowing that the fans have any idea of how much longer the game will be. Also the refs are using the head setts and mics.

    I agree the game will be changed. It will be twicked over and over, but over time a good balance of ref and technology might be reached. But I hate the way it is now. Especially that in soccer showmanship by the player is involved but sometimes to the determent of the game.

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