Back to The Future Perfect

In 1947, Red Barber and Babe Ruth were defined by sounds and words and photos. CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images


With the Super Bowl rising this week until it blots out the sun, maybe it's worth asking how and how much technology has changed the way we watch and think of sports.

There will be 62 television cameras tracking the big game Sunday. The game itself will run perhaps three and a half hours, and if you were to stream every one of those 62 feeds onto 62 separate storage devices, you'd collect about 217 hours of game footage. At the North American standard of 30 frames per second, this means maybe 23,436,000 individual pictures of the game. This doesn't include the images gathered by news agencies or magazines or NFL Films or by the 77,000 cell phones in the stands.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what do these 23 billion words say? Do the images help us remember the game? Or do they allow us to forget it?


Almost no original videotape exists from the first Super Bowl. Videotape was expensive then, and it was only a football game. The tapes were erased and reused.


Is it possible to see more and know less? Are sports meant to be more than distraction and spectacle? Have we digitized imagination and mythology out of sports?


New generation technology brings with it new worries about authenticity. From Te'o to Beyoncé to Tiger and Rory, we keep asking what's real and what isn't. What's an invention? A digital misdirection? A manipulation? We keep tricking ourselves. Forty-four years later, we're still arguing the moon landing.


From paintings
and newspapers to newsreels and radio, from lo-fi to hi-def and from the real to the virtual, it's worth remembering how many of the truly mythic giants in our sports -- Ruth, Cobb, Owens, Dempsey, Louis, DiMaggio and a handful of others -- were made in an age before they were very much seen. They were products of the radio and the paper and the American imagination.


Now we see too much. Tom Brady, wide-eyed, slides studs-up again and again at Ed Reed in super-slow motion. 60 inches wide. 1080p at 240Hz. Familiarity breeds contempt.


But completists and obsessives will soon curate every Patriots or Yankees or Red Sox or Brewers game ever committed to film or kinescope or flash drive. On a device the size of a credit card, they will share these with you on midnight flights across the Pacific and on the long winter bus rides home to Menominee.


In 10 years the NFL will offer streaming telemetry, with accelerometers in every helmet and in-game brain scans and real-time injury updates. There'll be a graph and a dial and a scrolling EEG in the corner of your screen. Having absorbed their punishment, players will be pulled out of the game once they cross a certain brain injury threshold. This will cost subscribers an additional $14.95 per month. Ten years later subscribers will be lining up under center themselves.


Here novelist Thomas Pynchon worries about novelist C. P. Snow's worry about the gulf between science and the humanities, between us and the data, between you and your technology. This was all a long time ago. And maybe the worry back then was that the world would come to look as Vine does now, an endless feed of jump cuts and non sequitur, of unmeaning and incomprehension. The stream has the value of making the title of Thomas Pynchon's 1990 novel "Vineland" retroactively prescient. So at the end of things maybe you can ask if the persistence of memory is worth anything to anyone but you.


In the future, much sooner than you think, everything will be remembered for you, and football will be made virtual. There will be no real players, no expensive stadiums, only avatars and simulations. Creatures of fiction, bits of software stitched from an inventory of skills, they'll be limited not by muscle or bone or risk of concussion, but only by processor speed and storage capacity. There will be no weakness.

Strangely, the attributes we assign them, those things we most admire in ourselves -- courage, strength, wit, single-mindedness, self-sacrifice, honor -- will come from the deepest part of our memory, from the stories we used to tell ourselves about what it meant to be human, from stories much older than fire.