Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Technology & Tennis

I was watching the US Open last night, and believe it or not, something made me think of the e-voting controversy. It all boils down to the use of new technology. For years now, audiences watching tennis on television have been able to see the "Mac" cam (named for John McEnroe who was famous for arguing line calls in his day and is now an announcer at the US Open) showing the precise landing of the ball next to or on the line. I, and many others, have advocated for the institution of instant replay where the players could challenge the call on a close line call, and instant replay using very high speed cameras could definitively answer the question of whether the ball was in or out. This year, the tennis association finally adopted instant replay at the US Open, and it was on display for the first time yesterday.

Late into the second set, Andre Agassi was having a tough time in his first round match against Andrei Pavel from Romania. Agassi had lost the first set, and it was 4-4 in the second - a very tight match. Pavel hit a ball down the line that looked like it clipped the line, but Agassi was sure it was out. John McEnroe in the announcers booth stated that it was clearly out, and that Agassi should challenge. So, Agassi challenged the call, and the close up slow motion replay showed that in fact it was good. Then something happened that I thought was amazing. McEnroe stated that "you have to question the technology." I couldn't believe it. McEnroe has been preaching for years that we need to add a camera on every line and have instant replay. Now he has what he wants, and the replay (which is actually a graphical simulation of the trajectory of the ball) shows that the ball was in, and so rather than accept it, McEnroe questions the technology.

I find that people in general are perfectly happy with technology, unless it disagrees with their inherent notion about something. When the results of something technologically enabled appear counter-intuitive, the first instinct is to challenge the correctness of the technology. This does not bode well for trusting elections to technological systems that require trust in the computers. As long as the election results are as expected, or as someone wants, that person will be happy. But, the minute there is a controversial election, a close race, or a disgruntled loser (and disgruntled supporters), the technology will come into question.

John McEnroe, long-time advocate of instant replay, had an immediate instinct to question the results of the technology when it disagreed with his observation. That comment by him undermines the entire efficacy of the solution. Similarly, if we continue to move towards election systems that require trust in software and computer systems, the public will justifiably lose confidence in the results as soon as they are unhappy with them.