It’s tough being a sports fan and a tech follower at the same time. There are instances when you have to pick your true allegiance, and this is one of those instances.
First, I should point out that I’ve always felt Bill Belichick was one of the best coaches in the NFL, and I have a detached appreciation for the New England Patriots. (Still: Go Minnesota Vikings, this is our season.) Watching the video of Belichick slam a Surface tablet against the side of a crate recently, and then listening to his rant about technology, made me wonder if he is right about how tech can be, at times, inconsistent. He’s also right that there should be equity on the sidelines. If one team has a pristine connection to fully charged tablets, and the other team is having trouble booting up their devices, it’s not fair. The NFL hands out these devices before the games start as a way to make sure everyone is on a level playing field (ahem).
Yet, Belichick was too quick to dismiss the technology. We all know there are inconsistencies. Back when I first started testing routers and laptops around 2002, there were major problems. A baby monitor could cause interference, and my local broadband provider had a hard time keeping the connection consistent. Over the past 14-15 years, router technology has improved to the point where, in the last two years, I have not had a single interference problem and my high-speed Internet connection has gone down exactly once (for maintenance). It's incredibly reliable.
So, let’s address the elephant in the room here. The Surface tablet is not to blame. Windows is not to blame. The Wi-Fi is probably very consistent. My guess is that, as always, it’s the software. Belichick said he plans to use “paper pictures” for the rest of the season at least, so that’s a clue about how NFL teams use the tablets. They are glorified picture frames. A Wired report mentioned how coaches can see four photos after a play. During the Pro Bowl, the NFL experimented with video replays as well. My guess is that Surface tablets normally work perfectly, that there is plenty of processing power and network bandwidth, but one glitch sent Belichick into a rage and he decided to abandon the device and go analog.
I get that -- it’s his choice. My view is that the benefits of technology always outweigh the temporary “gotchas” that occur. Here’s an example. Let’s say you only have access to your playbook and print-outs from the game. OK. How long does it take to view the photos? You already know you won’t be watching any replays during the game unless you look up at the stadium screens. This is not about perfect apps and hardware. Technology is a tool to help us process information and make better decisions. When we start expecting technology to be 100% reliable every time we use it, we start assuming that technology can provide all of the answers. It never will. Even in a far future society where everyone owns a driverless car and speaks to a robotic assistant (hopefully not implanted directly into our brains), there will be bugs. In some ways, you might say it is part of the human experience. Perfection has never been in our DNA and it is not in our technology, either. We can expect some aspects of technology to be almost flawless, but never totally flawless in every way.
I’m not defending Microsoft or the NFL here. My view is that we use these tools as a helpful accessory to life. Teams should have backups for the backups. Use a Surface, switch to another one if there’s a glitch, grab printouts if there’s a bug. In the end, the tools are there to help us make decisions. They add an incremental value.
If anything, the blame falls on us. We don’t use backups, we make mistakes in how we rely on gadgets when they are mere tools. If anything, the danger is that we rely on them too much and assume they will always work. Like their human creators, gadgets are inherently flawed. Slam it to the ground, sure. But pick it back up.
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