Distraction Free Reading

Teaching (Non)Technological Determinism: A Theory of Key Points

How can we account for the radical uncertainty of change when we think about the future, but its seeming inevitability when it comes to the past?  This is, arguably, the hardest part in doing the history and anthropology of technology.  It is also, not surprisingly, the hardest to teach our students.  In what follows, I suggest that the experience of watching (and playing) sports might be of help here.

A picture of two men playing tennis, taken from up in the stands. Specifically, Djokovic serves to Federer in the US Open semifinal.

Djokovic serves to Federer, US Open semifinal, 2011. Photo: Madeleine Ball. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Coming into the 2011 US Open with a track record of winning all but one of the Grand Slam matches that he played that year, Novak Djokovic was facing Roger Federer in the semi-finals, the man responsible for his only Grand Slam loss that year. And ominously, he lost the first two sets, 6-7(7), 4-6 before rallying to take the next two 6-3, 6-2.  It was now the final set and Federer, having just broken Djokovic’s serve in the final set to go up 5-3, was serving at 40-15, with two match-points.  Upset at the crowd, which was cheering Federer on wildly, Djokovic seemed out of sorts, angry at himself, perhaps, for being in this position despite playing a flawless third and fourth set.

The interpretation of what happened next remains hotly debated in tennis forums, YouTube comments, and the blogosphere (see the video above).   Federer served out wide to Djokovic’s forehand. It was not a bad serve, but Djokovic swung at it hard, and literally smashed it cross-court for a clean winner. There was shocked silence for a second before cheering erupted. Djokovic walked to the other side of the court, raised his hands and looked at the crowd. Appreciate me, he seemed to be saying. The crowd obliged even as a bemused Federer stood waiting to serve on the other side of the court.

It was still match-point.  Federer threw a good serve straight at Djokovic’s body, and a small rally ensued, which ended, heartbreakingly for Federer, with his shot striking the net-cord and then dropping back on his own side.  Deuce.  Djokovic went on to win the game breaking Federer in the process.  He then won the next three games as well, winning the final set 7-5 to defeat Federer and reach the final.  It was, in fact, a daunting deja vu:  in their semi-final at the same event in 2010, Djokovic had saved two match points in the fifth set to go on to win the match.

Both players themselves offered contradictory interpretations of the return.  “It’s a risk you have to take,”  Djokovic told Mary- Joe Fernandez in the on-court interview. “It’s in, you have a second chance. If it’s out, you are gone. So it’s a little bit of gambling.” Federer, on the other hand, was having none of it.  “Confidence, are you kidding me?” he scoffed in his post-match interview, hurting, no doubt, at squandering match points in two successive years. “I never played that way. For me, this is very hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point.”  He continued: “To lose against someone like that, it’s very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go.”   Djokovic acknowledged that he needed to “get some energy from the crowd. Look, I was a little bit lucky in that moment because he was playing tremendously well with the inside-out forehand throughout the whole match. This is what happens at this level. You know, a couple of points can really decide the winner.”

The first Federer-Djokovic match point is often what both tennis players and tennis analysts refer to as a “key point.“  These key points, as Djokovic points out in his post-match interview, are often the ones that “decide the winner.”  This notion of “key points,” I want to argue in the rest of this post, might be relevant to those of us who do the history and anthropology of technology, particularly as a kind of teaching aid in helping our students understand non-deterministic theories of technological change.

What is a “key point”?  A key point is a point (possibly among a set of points) which seems to have determined the outcome of the match, as seen by the players or the analysts (or both).  Players often sense that a point will be key during the match itself and go all out in their effort to win it, perhaps by hitting extra hard, taking a risk, or by running down a ball they would rather have left alone to conserve their energy.  Analysts too, as interested observers of a match, can sense whether a point will be key to the outcome (if you’re watching it live, that’s the one when your heart seems to be hammering against your chest).

But while an upcoming key point can be sensed by the players and the spectators, key points can be definitively identified only after the match is over.  In other words, the identification of key points is contingent on the outcome.  In the Federer-Djokovic encounter, the courageous (or reckless, depending on your POV) Djokovic return at 15-40 is a key point only because Djokovic won the next four games to win the match.  If Djokovic had lost the next match-point, this point would never have been talked about as a key point but as a fluke.  Instead the game in which Federer broke Djokovic at 4-3 in the final set would have turned out to be the key to the outcome of the match.  To restate this point, the key to winning a match is to win the key points, but the points that are key to winning a match can only be determined after the match is won (or lost).   This is essentially a Latourian point: mobilizing “actants” is the way of building both technology and society; but it isn’t clear what needs to be mobilized until an outcome is achieved.  As Nick Seaver put it in his post on “auxiliary motives” and technological design: “life happens in the woods,” and in the heat of things, the technical and the political are often difficult to tease apart.

It is worth discussing an alternative explanation of match outcomes: that the more talented player wins the match.  I quoted a part of Djokovic’s post-match interview above.  On actually watching the interview, it turned out that the quote left out a crucial part.  Djokovic actually said: “This is what happens at this level – when two top players meet. You know, a couple of points can really decide the winner”  (Italics mine).   The implication here is that it is only when players are evenly matched in terms of “talent,” that the outcome hinges on a few key points [1].

These two theories – the “more talent” theory vs. the “key point” theory – could be mapped to theories of technological change.  One theory, called technological determinism, is that a new technology gets deployed when it is better at producing certain desirable outcomes (more profits, more efficiency, better living conditions, progress, and so on); this is the “talent” theory as applied to technology.  The other theory, that we STS-types espouse, is that technological change happens because certain groups of people are able to defeat, or persuade, their opponents through the particular, contingent, channels available to them at certain crucial junctures; this is the “key point” theory as applied to technology.

Thinking in terms of key points, especially in sports, can highlight the dilemma in thinking about the question of change.  On the one hand, social scientists need to account for the sense of contingency and unpredictability that their actors often feel while thinking about the future (the actors who don’t feel any uncertainty are often the ones who want to make that future happen).   They also need to account for why their actors feel that certain actions are the key to changing the future.  On the other hand, they (historians in particular) need to account for why the events of the past seem so inevitable, the way they seem to lead to the present so unproblematically.  

A theory of technological change that looked at “key points” as determining certain (technological/social) outcomes could be one solution to this.  First, the actors themselves should have some dim awareness that something important is happening and that different visions of the future are at stake.  Second, the outcomes of these key points should result in the victory of one group over others, thereby setting in motion a certain kind of future.  Third, these key points can only be determined authoritatively in retrospect once the outcome is known.  In tennis, someone wins or loses but in real life, victories and defeats are themselves matters of social assessments.  Which, of course, means that as new events emerge, what counts as key points should change.  For example, historians now agree that Barry Goldwater’s defeat by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, and the subsequent rise of grass-rootsconservatism, is a key to understanding American politics today, even if no one seemed to be paying attention to it back then.  It was a key point for certain actors who were mobilizing to achieve their vision of the future, even if their ideological opponents were largely unaware of them.

Tennis key points are heuristics, of course.  And they can be difficult to find, even in tennis matches (it can get even more complicated for sports like soccer where there are no discrete “points” and worse, there’s a team to think about!).  But that’s the point.  One point seemingly leads to the next: if the Djokovic screaming forehand winner was a key point, what about the points before that one?   What about the two dueces that followed after Djokovic saved two match-points?  What about points that decided the first four sets?  Would it have mattered if Djokovic had won the first set–which he lost narrowly in a tie-breaker (9-7)?  The boiling down of a match outcome to a series of key points shows us both how events can be simultaneously contingent and patterned. A match between Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych is more predictable than one between Federer and Djokovic.  Those are the kinds of explanations/narratives of technological change that the key point theory would ask us to look for: highly contingent, built out of specific events, but with specific patterns that are by no means law-like.

[A modified version of this post appeared on the HASTS blog.]


[1]  Talent, of course, is a wildly problematic category, hiding the years and years of practice that often go into seemingly-effortless performances, as well as the efforts of coaches, trainers, and equipment-makers into shaping the performance.  Still, a black-boxed category of “talent” will do for now.

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