Referees check the replay during an NBA basketball game in Washington (AP Photo/Alex Brandon).

In October 1986, during an NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Dokie Williams appeared to catch a touchdown pass from quarterback Marc Wilson, cutting into the Chiefs’ 17–0 lead. The referee signaled touchdown. But an early version of instant-replay review was in effect for the first time that season and the footage clearly showed Williams’s right foot landing out of bounds. The video-replay official in the press box upstairs determined it was an incomplete pass and radioed down to the on-field officials: “Pass incomplete.” But there was a miscommunication over the walkie-talkie: the referee on the field heard “pass is complete.” The touchdown was mistakenly upheld and the Raiders stormed back to win the game 24–17. The AP wrote that the NFL’s instant replay experiment had turned “high tech into low comedy.” The replay system survived that debacle, but the owners eventually soured on it in 1992 before reinstituting it for the 1999 season. Instant replay has since become a fixture in every major sport.

Despite endless refinements, instant replay has not been able to ensure that we get every call right. Earlier this year in the English Premier League (EPL), a Liverpool goal was disallowed when a review official accidentally applied the league’s sophisticated offsides-detecting video technology to the wrong play. It’s not just blown calls that upset fans, players, and coaches, but delays, ever-changing rules about when and how replay can be applied (what is “reviewable”), the intrusion of bureaucratic administration into the realm of play, and the unsettling sense that every play is subject to potential revision—no matter how glorious its execution or well-deserved its rewards.

Referees suffer too. They are stripped of their old authority and made into intermediary servants of the technology. In the NFL and EPL, they have been instructed to let some plays run even when they see a clear reason for stoppage, just to make sure the technology gets the final say on the matter.


The beleaguered, disempowered, tech-dependent referee is all of us. Increasingly, human judgment is under suspicion when it is not at least aided by technology. Autonomous vehicles threaten to take us out of the driver’s seat (GPS has already taken over navigation duties); social-media companies deploy algorithms to shield us from what they deem “misinformation”; Google obviates the need to remember anything and, by its very existence, casts immediate doubt on every vaguely remembered fact; and AI threatens to usurp our powers of writing, making art and music, and even reasoning.

But as the examples from instant replay show, what may appear as the replacement of biased and fallible human capacities with neutral and infallible tech is actually the displacement of one kind of human agency by another. Decision making is moving “upstairs,” to the executives, bureaucrats, and committees that control the implementation of technology. They determine what information is fit to spread online, how our robo-chauffeurs will weigh speed against safety, and what AI systems will regard as true and right. They also try to determine, with scientific accuracy, the precise moment when a wide receiver can be said to have caught a football.

As agency moves up a level, so do the problems technology is meant to solve. There’s no doubt that more calls in the NFL are adjudicated correctly with reasonably good instant-replay systems in effect than without. Yet, the way calls are still flubbed is instructive. These errors are no longer errors of judgment or perception; they are errors in the implementation of technology—not human errors, exactly, but “user errors.” They may be less common than human errors, but they are, subjectively at least, much more difficult to tolerate. That’s because they are not immanent to the game being played.

The ump might be “blind” or even “out of his mind,” but we can console ourselves with the wisdom that bad calls are part of the game. Technological snafus, on the other hand, are manifestly not part of the game. When the referees walk off the field and into the replay booth, they are not just enhancing their powers of perception but stepping outside the game to evaluate it according to a new external set of criteria. This is what produces the “low comedy.” The errors that result from this system betray an arrogant authority laid low by inevitable human frailty. There are misinterpretations of baroque, poorly written rules, basic miscommunications between officials, unforeseen technical glitches, and infelicities of camera placement or angle. Like Nimrod, we have built a technological tower, climbed upstairs and outside the world, and tried to manage it from God’s perspective.

By forcing us to adopt this externalized perspective for the sake of “getting it right,” technology changes our practices, sometimes in unexpected but fundamental ways. As we outsource our memory to Google, we risk losing the kind of deep thinking that involves the reexamination and recombination of an inner store of information and embodied human experience. When we rely on the geographical abstractions of GPS, we lose a sense of our physical orientation in space. Algorithmic information flows turn public debate toward addicted, angry, and impotent spectatorial consumption and away from considered judgment. In all these cases, well-intentioned “solutionism” creates new and unforeseen problems. It devalues individual interpretive and rational capacities, and sometimes even creates confusion about what the problem was in the first place.

Referees suffer too. They are stripped of their old authority and made into intermediary servants of the technology.

The apparent advance encourages an illusion of control or, as sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls it, “controllability.” In his book The Uncontrollability of the World (2018), Rosa argues that our efforts to manage reality are not only doomed to failure but actually put reality at an ever further distance and increase our feelings of chaos. “The scientifically, technologically, economically, and politically controllable world mysteriously seems to elude us or to close itself off from us,” Rosa writes. “It withdraws from us, becoming mute and unreadable.”

Consider the evolution of rules and enforcement around what constitutes a catch in football. Before the advent of instant replay, from 1938 to the 1980s, the NFL rulebook defined a catch simply as the receiver possessing the ball with both feet in bounds. Possession was defined as control of the ball that allows the receiver to “perform an act common to the game.” That clause is vague enough to allow the referee to determine when the process of catching the ball is complete. The rule was a couple of sentences long. A more recent iteration of the same rule is, as the Ringer describes it, “649 words with three lettered subsections, six numbered items, and two notes.” In 2015, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell convened a “catch committee” to help rethink and simplify the rule. It had been modified and supplemented so much because the advent of high-definition, super-slow-motion cameras made it seem as if it was possible to produce a perfect definition that would allow every referee to consistently determine exactly when a catch was completed. As the Ringer puts it, “The league’s catch rule relies on officials to...calculate the precise moment when a physical activity was possible.”

But the elaboration of the rule and the obsessive scrutiny of video evidence did nothing to remove the fundamental vagueness involved in determining when a catch is complete. Exactly the opposite. The attempts to regularize referees’ judgment resulted in a series of confusing and contradictory calls. Officials now often rule what seem like obvious catches to be incompletions. Commentators, players, and coaches frequently comment that they have no idea what a catch even is any more. The you-know-it-when-you-see-it simplicity, which was open to interpretation but grounded in common experience, has been replaced with an alienating, technologically mediated procedure that doesn’t eliminate controversy but only further complicates it.

Another example: in basketball, replay is sometimes used toward the end of the game to determine whose hand last touched the ball before it went out of bounds. Slow-motion cameras show that sometimes even when a defender slaps or pokes the ball out of another player’s hands, it may technically still skim off the offensive player’s hand before it goes out of bounds. No referee is capable of making this determination in real time. And to a common-sense understanding of the game, the defensive player still knocked the ball out of the offensive player’s hand. Does the video evidence reveal a truth that must be honored, or a physical technicality that should be irrelevant?


The apparent advance encourages an illusion of control or, as sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls it, “controllability.”

In these cases, the common experience of sports is trumped by an ideal of scientific management. In his book, Rosa contrasts the aggressive impulse toward controllability with what he calls “resonance,” a mode of relating to the world in which one encounters something, is potentially transformed by it, and can affect it in turn, feeling one’s own self-efficacy in the process. He opens the book with the example of a child experiencing the winter’s first snow. “It was like the intrusion of a new reality, falling down upon and transforming the world around us, without our having to do anything.” This kind of resonance, for Rosa, depends on uncontrollability. If the snow were manufactured and scheduled, it would be, in effect, dead. Rosa suggests that resonance is a gift the world bestows on us only if we are receptive to its call. It is a kind of grace.

Like the winter’s first snow, Rosa writes, soccer “remains so exciting...precisely because it is inherently uncontrollable.” Of course, as Rosa acknowledges, sports are controllable to a degree—through the application of money, training, and strategy—but only to a degree. “It is the tension and the struggle along this boundary line [between the controllable and the uncontrollable] that keeps sport so fascinating.” Rosa even speculates that soccer generates more interest than other sports precisely because it is so much harder to control a ball with your feet than with your hands. Of course, the impulse toward controllability found in instant-replay systems does not kill sports; it does not completely neutralize the possibility of resonance. But it does introduce an understanding of the world as what Rosa calls a “point of aggression.” A catch in football goes from being a resonant phenomenon—in some sense uncontrolled and therefore capable of truly affecting us—to a moment that can be completely harnessed and managed, at least in principle. From this perspective, football is no longer a game to be enjoyed and, at exceptional moments, marveled at, but a process subject to control.

In football and in many other domains, technology creates the illusion that perfect control is within reach, but our pursuit of it is always foiled and leaves us further than ever from resonance. For Rosa, the consequences of controllability’s assault on resonance are dire:

Modernity is culturally geared and, given how its institutions are designed, structurally driven toward making the world calculable, manageable, predictable, and controllable in every possible respect. Yet resonance cannot be made controllable through scientific knowledge, technical mastery, political management, economic efficiency and so on. That is the great aggravation inherent in this social formation, its essential contradiction, which produces ever new waves of enraged citizens.

Controllability comes with compelling, nearly irresistible, justifications: the obvious value and utility of “getting it right,” optimizing our health and “wellness,” preventing the “spread of misinformation,” reducing traffic accidents, “engineering better outcomes” in all kinds of domains. But what it delivers is not quite what it promises. In fact, its illusory satisfactions place most of us further away from the controls and from a harmonious relationship with the world around us.

In the meantime, especially given the decline of religion and the humanities, the vocabulary available for resistance has become increasingly meager. We seem unable to articulate what it is that could possibly be more important than getting it right. Developing that vocabulary—or recovering it—does not require us to completely reject modernity and its many advantages. It does, however, require acknowledging the priority and value of a more basic way of engaging with the world.

A “capacity for resonance,” Rosa writes, “is the necessary precondition of our ability to place the world at a distance or bring it under our control.” We ought to see our ability to pull ourselves out of the world as an option beneficial only for certain instrumental ends but harmful to other, more basic and essential human needs. We should try to recognize when the impulse to control becomes counterproductive and begins to empty meaning from the world it is meant to improve. Such awareness and restraint might prevent the “worldlessness”—“the world’s falling mute, becoming gray and colorless”—Rosa finds at the heart of our many overlapping crises in mental health, the environment, and democracy.

Thus far, these crises have been addressed mainly with the greed for control that caused them in the first place. We develop new treatments for depression and anxiety but ignore the meaninglessness of an over-medicalized life; we seek alternative energy sources but, in mining them, maintain an exploitative outlook toward nature; and we settle for elite management of discontent instead of empowering the dispossessed. In each of these cases—as in the case of instant replay—we choose the illusion of control over what Rosa calls “reachability”: an openness to a world that can affect us, and that we, in turn, can affect but never fully control. The path we’re on now may end in complete command of a world that can no longer reach us.

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.