Following its worldwide introduction during last year’s World Cup, we have written about the use of video footage by referees in football (the so-called VAR system) and how it is representative of our overly optimistic expectations of (digital) data. That is, the VAR shows that more data (i.e. video footage) will not necessarily lead to better decisions and many decisions will remain arbitrary and controversial. Moreover, by now, the extended use of the VAR has also shown how data can develop a will of its own. There have been various instances in which the VAR forced referees to make decisions that go against the “spirit of the game”: instances of players being barely offside or a questionable handball that could be ignored by a regular referee, while the VAR compels them to follow the “letter of the law”.
What does this mean?
Similar to everyday life, in football, both the rules and actual events are often multi-interpretable and decisions are arbitrary. Despite popular belief, merely adding data will not solve this problem. Instead, it is more likely that the rules-of-the-game will change according to the kind of data that is available. In football, offside, for instance, is bound to become a matter of millimeters and will probably come to favor the defending team, even though the offside rule was once meant to promote attacking play. In everyday life, mass datafication will inevitably lead to a reformulation of (formal and informal) rules in politics and business; whatever is measurable becomes more important. To illustrate, GDP is used as the prime metric for economic success, because it is measurable and comparable, not because it’s relevant to society per se.
Again, similar to real life, the VAR seeks to reduce friction in the game (in the form of bad decisions) just as digital technology removes friction in various value chains and domains of life (e.g. in the dating “market”). However, as we have also noted before, there may be more value in such kinds of friction than we would expect at first sight. Arbitrary errors, for instance, are integral to the narrative dimension of sports and generally add to the emotional experience of playing or watching sports. So far, controversial as it is, the VAR has only added to this dimension. However, one can imagine that a next iteration of the system would produce immediate and non-debatable decisions (as in the FIFA computer game) that would also render the game more clinical and less emotional, hence less engaging.