Tennis and the Right-Left Deadlock, Part 2

Introducing culture and technique as the new axis.

The American political conversation is in trouble at almost every level: from Main Street to Wall Street, White House to Ivory Tower, Silicone valley boardroom to the growing unemployment lines.  Americans are frustrated with the disconnect between what we want for our country and how we envision our solutions.

In the first article in this series we observed that the rising political discord is caused in part by the limitations of our our language: an enthusiastic but one-dimensional tug-of-war war between our two big ideas, "free market" and "regulation".

Our automatic assignment of every conceivable issue to a "right" vs. "left" axis not only limits us but actively conceals two other big ideas that are powerfully at play in our socio-political spectrum.  Like market and regulation, these two other ideas/systems are also in tension with each other, forming another axis that is fully operational in our social behavior, impacting every area of our lives.  When it comes to our public political vocabulary, however, these two other ideas barely exist. The axis is not included in our political problem-solving and ends up beyond our powers of influence.

The Missing Links

In search of this new axis, we return to tennis.  What would tennis look like if it was defined along the same simple-minded axis as American politics?  This would place the incentive of winning at one end; and the rules to be followed, enforced and managed at the other.

Would this be the game we love?  A knee jerk response might be "of course!"  Isn't winning after all the main point in sports - paired with a basic need for some rules and enforcement to set a standard and protect the players and fans?

Two recent tennis articles - one in the NY Times and the other in the Wall Street Journal - suggest this is not how tennis works.  In fact the authors inadvertently identify the two other systems that are foundational to the game and that also form the 'missing axis' in our dysfunctional American discourse.

A Web of Meaning, Manners and Values

The first article "Strung Together: Why Rivalries in Tennis are the Most Intense and Intimate in All of Sports" appeared in the NY Times Magazine on August 27th.  It begins with the heated competition that has fueled tennis' resurgent popularity: strong personalities and the drama of vendettas, vindication and "fierce individual striving."

As the article unfolds, however, something more mysterious appears.  Other forces seem to be channeling the behavior of the players: Manners, values, symbols and meaning that "...outsiders will never be able to fathom" are at least as important as the competition.

Irrespective of the individual player's desire to win, or the explicit rules, something invisible is guiding these iconic players.  This invisible 'something' belongs neither to competition nor to a line-judge.  Yet it is a game-changer.

The trespasser in the neat axis of competition and regulation is the "culture" of the game - a vast system of shared meaning, values, habits, traditions, even myths and aesthetics. Culture is guiding the actions of the players, the fans, the judges - even the ball-boys and the sports reporters.  In their actions, communication, and motivations, we see a different kind of "invisible hand" connecting generations of tennis players and a force so powerful that it seems capable of determining outcomes amidst, or even against, the forces of competition and regulation.

Culture has been with us as long as we have been human, but our understanding of culture as a "symbolic system" that profoundly shapes decision-making and problem-solving is much younger.  Even definitions of culture came relatively late in the game.

Responding to the increased use of the word "culture" after the Second World War, theorist Raymond Williams chose it as the most important word in his famous Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a dictionary of terms that were new, changed or definitive in the postwar landscape. Williams could see the role of vocabulary in the way society functioned.

Around the same time, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz captured culture's complex and essential nature by claiming that: "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun" and defined culture "to be those webs."  Everywhere, inescapable and constantly reconstructed. A far cry from some kind of elite social practice or "the arts", culture became understood simply as: "the way we do things around here."

Despite culture's ubiquity Americans often have a hard time talking about it, which is understandable given our unique history. We are the first nation that was founded on an "a-cultural" foundation.

Unlike every nation before us, America created a framework of rules first.  Then people came from all over the world to inhabit this framework. They brought culture with them, but there was always an understanding that any native culture was secondary to the grand and optimistic project of America.  In many cases, culture was something to be "left behind" as repressive, or to be concealed or subjugated in order to "fit in" on arrival.  An older friend of mine tells of how as the child of imigrant parents in the 1960s he was forbidden to speak Italian in the home, breaking ties with the native culture and forcing assimilation.

For better or worse, the American value proposition was not based on culture but on freedom and opportunity: freedom to reinvent who we were, freedom to compete in a free market, to vote and to regulate our nation as a democracy.

These essential ideas soon began to dominate: Freedom of exchange, and freedom to define regulatory structure as needed.  Thus the two-idea system was born.

This is not to say that Americans had no culture or that they had lost culture altogether.  That would be impossible - humans are cultural creatures.  We have culture as birds have feathers.

And history shows great cultural production in America at every stage of our development at the hand of our activists, inventors, artists, writers, mechanics, industrialists and religious leaders.  Meanwhile the many sub-cultures that had arrived with each wave of immigration were digested, recombined and reshaped by local rhetoric, leaders and poets, and became new ideas and new habits.

This cultural melting pot led to the formation of many glorious shared ideas, values and traditions.  Free expression, openness and hospitality, directness, pragmatism, self-reliance and standing up for the downtrodden are just a few attributes of American culture that have helped our nation thrive and change the world. But the same melting pot did not necessarily lead to a stewardship or cultivation of culture.  We made good use of the bounty that arrived, but were we intentionally growing culture ourselves?

It is easy to see that Tennis' deep roots in civility, sportsmanship, aesthetics, and craftsmanship help to make it the game we love to watch or play.  Culture is clear, evident and protected. Without reference to the rule book, any new tennis recruit quickly finds the "web of significance" that connects his behavior to the history, vocabulary and pantheon of past glories.  We talk about beauty and poetry, or the game as a "religious experience."

When culture is really working we do even more than just talk about these values: we elevate them, cheer or boo for them, and aspire to them ourselves.  Within cultures people advocate for the values they think belong and shun incongruity and ugliness.

When a tennis player disrespects these values, screams at the judges, cheats or spits on the grass, they find themselves at the margins even if they 'win'.  Being "booed off the court" is culture-change at work.

If, on the other hand, if a player exemplifies the shared values, something incongruous happens: the player becomes a leader and is given the right to stretch and even transform the culture according to their own ideas and aesthetics.

A prime example of this cultural-change is the aculturation of "grunting" at the hand of the great Jimmy Connors and later Monica Seles. Until Connor's and Seles' "cultural leadership", grunting was unacceptable - tacitly forbidden in Tennis culture.  Now it is practically embraced as an indication of athleticism and determination.

This example shows that even when leaders impact culture, the new meaning, stories and aesthetics they create do not belong to them; they are no longer "personal."  They become part of a system that is shared by many - shared ideas and values strung together by small things like all-white clothing, waiting until your opponent is ready, well-kept grass, fair line-calls, the sound of the ball on clay, quiet fans in the stands, and congratulatory handshakes at the net.

We can see culture working so clearly and definitively in the game of tennis, but it is much harder to see it, let alone draw on it, in our national discourse.  Despite America's impressive cultural production over the centuries, we have also been from our very beginning losing our ability to discuss and protect culture - to talk about how it helps us solve problems and how it can be cultivated to ensure the good life we all desire.

For many Americans, perhaps, culture seemed outdated.  And starting in the industrial revolution, a new system was bursting onto the scene that would make culture seem even less important and push it further into the margins of obscurity.

The Secret Weapon - "La Technique"

If "manners", "meaning" and "myth" in tennis all sound a bit colonial, backwards or chafe-inducing, there is something else channeling behavior in the game that is completely foreign to culture, regulation or even free-market competition.  And it is also pervasive, powerful and obscured in our American political conversations.  This other 'thing' is the subject of the article Wall Street Journal "Tennis Star's Secret Weapon; Djokovic Puts his Faith in The Pod.

The article reports that the top seeded player is using advanced technology to boost his performance: a de-pressurized egg-shaped chamber which simulates high altitude and "improves circulation, boosts oxygen-rich red-blood cells, removes lactic acid, and possibly even stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis…" Photographs of the space-age capsule and a string of enthusiastic testimonies are intriguing and compelling, and raise questions of fairness and even inevitability: if it works, won't we all need to use it?

Further details of "the pod" are basically irrelevant, so familiar are Americans with its everyday story: A technological product, service or approach offers a 'leg up,' and a prescribed solution to a problem. Results are tested, monitored, measured and marketed. Sales results reflect the perception of effectiveness. Does the device do what it claims? Other consequences are not part of the equation.

When they work, these devices, formulas and approaches become pervasive, 'normal' and often even essential to how we work, live or play. Carbon fiber, digital video analysis, advanced rubbers, high-tech swimsuits, blood doping, and performance-enhancing drugs are just a few of the technologies that radically redefined various sports and that are now commonplace. Just try winning a gold medal in any sport without the latest technology. Based on Djokovic's "pod" the quest for new technical solutions continues unabated.

Americans live immersed in a highly technical milieu. But like fish trying to describe water we have a hard time understanding or taking about how this milieu works. We often fail to see that this "technical approach" is a system with its own unique demands, promises, trade-offs and outcomes just like "free market," "regulation," and "culture."

This technological system was defined by French philosopher Jacque Ellul in his famous book The Technological Society in 1965. Ellul saw society's growing dependence on measurement, calculation, devices and analysis as something unique in world history; a new era. He calls this new system "la technique;" a web of highly integrated scientific premises, methods and tools that operate in increasing autonomy from the other systems that traditionally guided social behavior and helped society solve problems. ("Technique" is not to be confused with our common use of the same word to describe "skill" - such as a carpenter, chef or tennis player demonstrating "good technique")

Techniques of all kind began to spread rapidly during the industrial revolution and quickly developed into a general approach to life, a social system in which any and all life challenges must be met with a technical solution: Education, health, security, economy, food-production - even tennis.

In this system, what matters is the cold, hard efficiency of meeting measurable objectives. Technique employs science and experimentation, research and objective methods, and it gets results. We see the impacts of technique all around us: High colesterol? Try Lipitor. Want to access your emails from anywhere? Blackberry. Movies at home? Netflix. Books? Amazon or Kindle. A great meal fast? GrubHub or Seamless Web. Of course it is not long before these techniques are no longer "choices." Try telling your corporate boss that you prefer to not receive emails after 5pm. Try renting a DVD at the corner video store (oops, out of business). And how many Americans have time to cook at home, or go to the library anymore?

Americans perhaps more than any other nation enjoy the benefits of technique, but we have not been as successful at understanding how technique works as a larger system, or its many risks and downsides. Our recent experiments with: VAR (value at risk financial modeling), GMO (genetically modified organisms), SchoolBook (online education data-tracking), FRS (facial recognition software), MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), Drones (autonomous military robots) all promise enormous advantages in solving problems, but all have profound unforeseen consequences.

Only when technique is understood as a system of thinking with its own protocols and demands can we see and modulate its interaction with free market, regulation and culture.

When technique interacts with culture it has its greatest impact.  Culture is particularly vulnerable to technique given that these two systems are based on opposite foundations. Were technique offers objectivity, culture is subjective and democratic. Where technique focuses on a discrete problem or at best quantitative integration, culture always connects a particular problem to many other questions of social value. Where technique is relentless in its drive for quantification, culture grapples with qualities and the immeasurables of the human condition. The tension between these two approaches is the begining of the second axis.

It should be no surprise to Americans that when we embrace more technique we often do this at the expense of culture.

The iPad may be convenient and even beautiful, but it can quickly displace the intimacy of a bedtime story that a physical book once necessitated.  Why would we talk to our neighbors when we can chat with anyone in the world on Facebook or Skype?

We may think that because culture has been with us for millennia that its foundations cannot be shaken, but we increasingly see that culture can easily be overpowered or displaced by technique.

In the next article in this series, we'll further explore the relationship between culture and technique, how they interact with each other, and how the new Culture vs. Technique axis interacts with the more visible American axis of Free Market vs. Regulation.

Scott Francisco is a designer, strategic consultant and cultural theorist in New York City. He is the Founder of Pilot Projects and teaches at Parsons the New School for Design.  Read other articles by Scott Francisco or other articles on Politics.
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