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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tractor Pulling

Phyl Speser blogs some reflections on tractor pulling as an example of disruptive technology change. But how much does tractor pulling really tell us about technology change in other contexts?

In a sporting context, technology change is subject to enormous constraints. Most of the technologies that would really disrupt sports (such as remote controlled baseball bats and performance enhancing drugs) are regarded as cheating and therefore disallowed. So what's left? Are we to regard the switch from wooden tennis rackets and skis and racing boats to carbon fibre as disruptive? Or the introduction of electronic line judges and video replays? Or air travel, which allows Russian tennis hopefuls to train in Florida?

In some sports, technical innovations to the equipment have allowed improvements in performance. But modern sports are so highly regulated that the opposite is also possible. For example, the javelin was redesigned (respecified) in 1984 to reduce the distances thrown [source: Wikipedia].

The technology that has disrupted the sporting world the most is surely television, having hugely increased the earning potential of top sportsmen and introduced a significant secondary economy of coaches and commentators and so on. Many sports have been forced to abandon the glorification of "amateur" status.

To understand the role of technology in any system, it matters how you frame the system. There are lots of aspects of technology change that we cannot understand without including economic factors within the system - stuff like "the means of production" and "the relations of production".

The curious thing about tractor pulling as a sport is that it takes the tractor away from its normal economic function. Of course that's true of many other sports as well. The original function of the javelin was catching and killing food. The original function of the marathon was long-distance communication; the technology innovation that separates the modern runner from the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides is that we no longer need to run 42 kilometres to carry news, we run to raise money for our pet charity. Or something.

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