Author Archives: brianspisiak

Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

halifax-harbour-theodore-tugboat_smaller

The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

BOATY

The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

13727196-sign-for-slippery-deck-on-the-cruise-boat-Stock-Photo

Advertisements

The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

millertime

Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

131943-largest_julie_miller_620

When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.