Refinement Culture (PT 1)

Enter the System

There has been a subtle shift in the last 20 years in a some aspects of life. It has to do with refinement of things, games, products and aesthetics. It’s hard to describe exactly WHAT Refinement Culture really means. It’s easier for me to show you some of these changes you may or may not have noticed. And through the examples, a definition will be fleshed out.

Let’s start with professional sports. I think you can clearly see some of the symptoms of refinement culture there. Then we can move on to other areas.

Sports - NBA

If you look at the graphic above you will see how the game of professional basketball has changed over the last twenty years. You can probably notice it if you’ve been watching for a long time. Gone is the mid-range jumper that players like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone built their careers on. Now the game has shifted to 3-point shooters and players who drive to the basket for close shots. How did this happen? Almost every team now has an NBA analytics department in the front office. Data is collected using cameras that record every movement of both the ball and all 10 players 25 times per second. Data analytics has brought an explosion in attempts for three-point shots. In 2012, teams averaged about 18 three-point attempts per game. In 2017, that number reached 27.

Why? It’s really just common sense and math, backed up by data. Essentially, data showed that the reward of taking a three-point shot outweighed the risk. On average, teams that take more three-point shots ultimately score more points over the course of a game. The Golden State Warriors, who won a ton of championships the past few years are a perfect example of this philosophy. Other teams have followed.

Teams also crunch large data sets on defenders for other teams. They determine where they had the most and least amount of success against various offensive attacks, such as long range shots, midrange jumpers and driving the lane to the basket. Teams then take that information to isolate a player who is good in one area against a defender who isn’t. The flipside is true, as well. Teams attempt to get their defenders on a specific player, particularly in critical situations, if that defender has a statistically better chance of preventing a score. The entire game has changed over the last 20 years because of technology, data science and math.

Looking at the picture above feels like seeing a once bio-diverse land, teeming with all sorts of flora and fauna, reduced to rats and weeds.

Where do we see this with other sports?

Sports - Soccer

Total volume from outside the box continues to decline year on year in the English Premier League. From 7.2 per team per game in 08/09 to 4.7 last season. Conversion rate (goals scored) has doubled in that time.

% of all shots from inside the box continues to rise year on year. Now almost 9% higher than in 08/09. This is all due to Soccer teams using data analytics to change the way they play. The game today does not resemble the game from 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years ago. It may never go back to those times and style. This could be permanent style for the majority of teams and games over the next few decades.

You can read more on how teams like Liverpool are using analytics and how it’s changing how they play.

Sports - Baseball

Baseball was the arguably the first sport to embrace the data analytics revolution. It was called the Moneyball era of the 2000s and introduced many new stats that I didn’t know existed. There is an emphasis on walks combined with increased strikeouts due to better pitching & more willingness to play high-strikout prone batters in exchange for power/HRs. All of this is driven by data.

This year, you're waiting on average, 3 minutes and 52 seconds between balls in play, a record. If you watch a fair amount of old baseball games on YouTube you notice (eyeball test only) that the games moved along a crisp pace. It was rare that a game went +2.5 hours. Much more enjoyable to watch. Batters stepped up to the box ready to hit, and they didn't really leave the box. Pitchers got the ball back and threw. There was no walking around, no fussing on the rubber, adjusting your batting gloves. But every at-bat is more refined now. More rituals at the plate, more strategy, more stats, more everything….

Singles and steals in baseball have gone the way of mid-range jumpers in basketball, just as homers and strikeouts have increased alongside three-pointers.

Outcome maximalization across sports has created "smarter" games with less variety and more all-or-nothing play. The fixation with quantifiable success can lead to a collective flattening of the human experience. Perhaps we need to include more randomness in the game. Each home field or home court should have distinctive features, different playing surfaces, or outdoor elements. Think of how fun the wrigley field ivy is, or the boston green wall. Maybe put a dog or cat on the playing field.

Only randomness can save the sport from becoming boring. And sports after all is just another genre of entertainment.

Sports - Aesthetics

The data analytics revolution along with technology has changed sports for good. But there is another element other than style of play or strategy. There is aesthetics in sports. Let’s look at how Olympic gym routines have changed over the years:

Olympics: Greek ideal of ἀρετή, at human scale.

Circus: exploitation of deformities, unscaled

Current Olympics: exploitation of deformities!

Modernity turned Olympic athletes into Roman gladiators, captives.

The Greek ideal was to never do activities that reduce one's humanity.

Andre Agassi & his wife Stefi Graf (both famous tennis players) forbade their children from taking up tennis because he saw his career as performing like a gladiator.

In the early Olympic games, the British were shocked and appalled when they found that the Americans trained for competitions.

If you’re interested in athletics as it once was, slightly premodern, run on a clay cinder track, jumpers still doing the straddle, beautifully filmed, see The Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Based on physiques, It looks like there’s not too much steroid (another aspect of refinement culture) taking yet.

Brand Logos

Let’s shift away from sports and on to another topic of refinement culture. Let’s discuss contemporary logos. The current aesthetic is supposed to be “clean” and frictionless. They are de-aging skin, smoothing hair, and brightening his eyes. They could be trying to make him look “healthy”.

For some reason they made the Quaker Oats man younger, slimmer and virile. Why? I have no clue. What does this have to do with Oats? I have no idea.

They did it to Captain Highliner too. Now he’s Silver Fox captain.

They shaved Little Caesar’s chest.

Chuck E Cheese with one of the biggest downgrades. He’s thinner, wearing tight pants, looks “healthier” and more “realistic”. But it all ends up somehow just weird and disorientating. CGI is a step back. It looks more “refined”, but it also ends up looking bad, ugly and it doesn’t mean much.

Automobiles

I remember growing up and driving and being in the passenger seat of cars. Every car would be a different world. It’d be a totally different experience, both riding in it, driving it, the aesthetics, the interior and if it would even last. They were distinct! I now get into an uber (I don’t drive much anymore) and it’s all the same thing. If it’s a newish car made in the past 5-10 years, it’s all the same. What make? What model? It doesn’t matter. It’s all pretty good. They all run smooth. They all have electronics on the dashboard.

Let’s take a look at some of the cars I’ve driven in my life:

Driving the Saab really made me feel like a character from a Godard film from the 60s.

….End of Part 1………….