Baseball, Steroids, and the Arms Race of Technology

As an advanced society full of technological wonders, perhaps it’s time we consider upgrading our idea of sports and rethinking what constitutes an exemplary athlete.” –Zoltan Istvan

ARod“Exemplary athlete”? “tainted slugger”? Whatever your judgment, Alex Rodriguez returns to baseball after being suspended for the entire 2014 baseball season. Rodriquez was suspended for using various “performance enhancing drugs” or PEDs which are prohibited by Major League Baseball. At the time of his suspension he was the highest paid player in the history of the game and his suspension remains the longest ever handed down. With his return, baseball once again attempts to turn the page on what has been called the Steroid Era.

The story of Alex Rodriguez could be told as a modern parable warning of a danger more relevant to those of us who can’t hit a baseball as far as Rodriguez can—with or without steroids.

Peformance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)

Not everyone thinks that PEDs ought to be banned in professional sports. Like recreational drugs in widespread use, it is argued that regulation would be more effective and health risks could be minimized if PEDs were used openly and without penalty. Questions of fairness could purportedly be addressed by ensuring that all athletes have access to PEDs and therefore were competing on a level playing field. It is also argued that use is so widespread that prohibitions are ultimately futile; cheaters are going to cheat.

There are, no doubt, a lot of bad arguments for banning PEDs…but they are not all bad.

The most compelling reason for banning the use of PEDs by professional baseball players is that the use of PEDs by some creates undue pressure on others to do likewise. In order to remain competitive, many are compelled (would it be too far to say “coerced”?) to take what would otherwise be unnecessary risks to their health. It begins as a free choice by an individual and quickly becomes almost requisite for those who wish to play the game. And it does not only affect professional ball players, which is admittedly a fairly small group of people, but rather affects all who aspire to compete at that level—a considerably larger group of people. A study commissioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame makes the point:

Even if every single player in Major League Baseball used steroids, that would be approximately 1,300 users, when in contrast, considering that there are about 16 million private and public high-school students in the U.S., between 350,000 to almost a million are using steroids illegally,”

It may be suggested that professional athletes are well compensated for taking such risks but most young people with such ambitions will never be so compensated; they are gambling with their health for a payoff that more often than not will never materialize. Shockingly, many minor league baseball players earn poverty level wages.

Philosopher Jacob Beck has compared the use of PEDs in baseball to a vicious arms race in which “everyone winds up worse off than if the arms race had never begun”. Beck argues that preventing such an arms race is in fact the only good reason to ban PEDs in professional sports.

There is also a secondary arms race between drugs and drug testing. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t suspended because he failed a drug test; the drugs he took never showed up on tests that were administered. Drugs are developed and introduced with the intention that they will not show up on particular tests; tests are then developed to catch up to the drugs being used. The effect is that new drugs are regularly introduced and with each one a new set of risks is introduced.

Personal Electonic Devices (PEDs)

There is a parallel between the logic of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball and the way new personal electronic devices (PEDs) are introduced and adopted.

The newest phone, watch, tablet, or whatever it may be, promises a competitive edge to the user. But the promises often hinge on your having the device before it becomes completely ubiquitous. Once others catch up, there is no competitive advantage and yet there is no clear way of going back to life without the device. No one is better off and everyone is locked into a new state of affairs; a new state of affairs which will often represent a net loss in terms of health and happiness. It is yet another vicious arms race.

New devices are originally presented as voluntary—so as to silence critics—but quickly become almost obligatory. Performance enhancing drugs are voluntary but quickly become obligatory if one hopes to remain competitive or make it in the big leagues.

Not writing about steroids, Ted Kaczynski explains the general phenomenon:

When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.” (“Industrial Society and its Future” published in Technological Slavery, p. 76)

Predating Kaczynski by approximately thirty years, Jacques Ellul writes:

“once an advanced technical product is created, the important thing is to force consumers to use it even though they have no interest in it.” (Ellul, Technological Society, p. 205)

As evidence for the point made by Kaczynski and Ellul, consider a recent New York Times headline (from February 2015): 

Apple’s New Job: Selling a Smartwatch to an Uninterested Publicsmartwatch

Steroids changed baseball in such a way so thateven those who might be disinclined to use them likely felt compelled. Personal electronic devices (PEDs) have changed society to such an extent that opting out is no longer a viable option for most people.

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Google’s Eric Schmidt speak of getting everyone online they are the equivalent of dealers setting up everyone’s injections; they have an interest in getting everyone hooked. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg explains that “Connecting everyone is one of the fundamental challenges of our generation.” In 2013, Eric Schmidt predicted that “everyone on Earth will be connected” by the end of the decade. Last January, Schmidt said that soon “the internet will disappear” explaining further that “there will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you areinteracting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.”

You won’t even sense it.

Postscript: Steroids, Technology, and Transhumanism

Finally, there is another argument in favor of allowing performance enhancing drugs into professional sports: the games would supposedly be more enjoyable for spectators. Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan looks forward to a time when “humans will sprint faster than horses” and “athletes will swim entire races without taking a breath”; as evidence that we are on such a trajectory Istvan explains that “already, untainted urine samples have become as essential to top runners as their shoes”.

Istvan has gone as far as to call for a Transhumanist Olympics which he explains as:

“a place for athletes in the 21st Century who have modified themselves with drugs, technologies, and bionic enhancements. A place where the best human potential combines with the most advanced science to create the coolest competitions possible.”

Set alongside the transhumanist visions of Zoltan Istvan, Rodriguez’s steroids may appear as banal as Flintstone vitamins. But the transhumanist vision is the logical extension of the ongoing arms race.