Of Gold Medals and Algorithms
After two years of effort and a clutch of 2nd and 3rd place finishes, I finally came out on top. I won gold at a jiujitsu tournament organized by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), the sport’s highest governing authority. It wasn’t my best match technically speaking. I won by referee decision rather than by points or submission. But it was sweet victory, nonetheless.
After the ref raised my hand for the last time, I thanked my opponent for a hard fought match. Off the mat, I hugged my son, my coaches, teammates and friends. We posed for photos. I sent text messages and updated social media. To compensate for all the stress, granola and dried fruit; I gorged on a Five Guys cheeseburger followed by beer. By 9pm, I passed out in front of Netflix, exhausted and complete.
The next morning I woke up sore — reminded that middle age isn’t defined by performance so much as it’s defined by recovery. I walked delicately to my Sunday coffee.
It’s a simple question. Why do it? All this effort, time, sweat, pain and financial expense for a lump of metal held by a ribbon. True, I am in better physical shape than the vast majority of men my age. However, I could taken off the same pounds on a treadmill or at the gym.
But that wouldn’t be much of a story.
Find time to walk the halls during a jiujitsu tournament and observe people re-enact their matches just completed or describe their matches yet-to-come. You’ll see taped hands grappling with invisible collars or blocking a phantom leg that’s snaking around a shoulder for an omoplata. Technical language peppers the air — “Dude! The way you submitted him from the back with that bow and arrow choke was just fucking sick!” It’s not literature. But it compactly expresses the months — often years — of training necessary to make a complex movement work under pressure.
Laid out next to the podium, the medals animate and channel this manic drive to push past real and imagined limits. Medals also raise personal goals into something bigger. In addition to reaching an individual milestone, my gold medal earned 9 team points for Gracie Barra, which was in tight competition for the overall title with Atos — a rising jiujitsu power from California. Anyone who’s ever contributed directly to a team victory knows how good that feels.
That Sunday morning, I hurt like hell but felt incredible. I drank coffee and checked Facebook updates from my friends, my opponents and others who competed or attended the day before. Whether or not they won a medal, everyone had a story to tell (…took silver today at the Seattle Open…one of the toughest opponents I’ve ever fought…made it to the semi-finals and…well, it wasn’t the outcome I planned but…). The news feeds bulged with pictures and appreciation to coaches, spouses and friends who came to support. In that sense, people’s dreams and sweat transformed the lumps of metal into hard currency that denominated a day of intense, shared living.
The psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi believes that identity and meaning we invest in physical objects serves as cognitive amber for the moments in life that matter. I need only look at my gold medal and — in an instant — my training partners, the workouts, the setbacks and the advances flood my mind in HD.
Circa 2015, I’m reasonably confident this process of investing meaning and identity flows one-way from me to the various objects I choose. Objects acquire stories through experiences that build my relationships with people. A gold medal is simply one of the most clear examples. But I’ve done much the same thing with empty champagne bottles from the first day of a new job or the first New Year’s Eve in a house. One year, an elderly aunt wrapped the wrong item and gave 200 sanitary examination gloves as a Christmas present. In a stroke, a box of disposable items became the stuff of legend.
That said, I’m realizing that in more of my interactions with physical objects, the “thing” is starting to have a say in the matter. A growing amount of the meaning in my daily life emerges from two-way conversations I’m having with data and algorithms via connected objects. My smartphone, my semi-smart car, the sensors in my house and other electronic servants are talking to me — typically banal stuff like I’m too close to the car in front.
However, the technology industry promises that such conversations will become more sophisticated, more personal and increasingly ambient over time. I believe it. I’ve also accepted the fact that — being servants and all — these objects incessantly gossip about me. Currently, the gossip revolves around how to serve up more targeted suggestions (“ads”) for what I should consume next. It’s a pretty boring dialogue actually.
But it’s only a matter of time before chattering networked objects and places find their “voice” and become direct participants in the telling the story of my life. Instead of serving as props for a shared experience like a jiujitsu tournament, they become fellow characters drawn from larger, digital worlds. Of necessity, my life’s performance must include them on the playbill. Daily life has begun to feel like the grid from Tron the more we blow up the Internet to human size and start swimming in it.
One of the William Shakespeare’s most famous lines is Act II Scene VII of As You Like It, “…All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”
What happens when data and algorithms transmute objects into active characters rather than just props for the stories we make with our lives?
I’ve been at a conference this week in San Francisco where the topic has been the changing nature of work and the economy. A number of speakers have addressed profound disruptions in society caused by an accelerated merging of data, algorithms and culture. Connected objects are just one area where people and algorithms are experimenting with new forms of leverage. Our challenge will be to understand the situations where that leverage works for us or works against us.
It feels like grappling. I’m down with that.