On a fateful night in May, the Philadelphia 76ers were awarded the number one pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. They certainly deserved it. The Sixers, after all, were the season’s worst team by far and have been intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible since 2013. And while the ping pong balls had not favored the Sixers in the past two years, this time their ineptitude earned them the right to a superstar.
Yet I was dismayed to see them achieve this goal only after Sam Hinkie, the brains behind their failure, had left his position as General Manager. Many complained that Hinkie’s strategy of intentional losing had made a mockery of the game. But I admired him for precisely that reason. The story of the 76ers was compelling because it broke the unwritten code that NBA teams should at least pretend to try to win. Hinkie exploited one of the league’s open secrets. In order to compete for a championship, a team needs at least one superlative player. By far the most reliable way of getting a superlative player is through a top-three selection in the draft. Because the NBA Draft Lottery system grants only very bad teams the likelihood of getting a top-three selection, the optimal long-term strategy for a mediocre team (such as the one Hinkie inherited) is to be very bad.
Hinkie stepped down in April after League higher-ups became embarrassed by his strategy and strong-armed him out, just as the team was poised to to benefit from his many counterintuitive decisions. The story of the 76ers will now be the story of redemption. But Hinkie’s tragedy is the tragedy of the technocrat.
In his garrulous, almost Kinbote-like letter of resignation, Hinkie strikes a tone of defiance, quoting, among many other luminaries, the quantum physicist Max Planck (pp. 6): “‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.'” Or, in Hinkie’s own words (pp. 3): “Investing in disruptive innovation doesn’t ferment misunderstanding, it necessitates it.”
Yet Hinkie’s strategy wasn’t so much misunderstood as it was abhorred. Everyone knew what he is was doing, and many even agreed that it was sensible. The problem was that it made the whole system look bad.
In a 1950 letter to Leo Strauss, Alexander Kojéve writes of our inevitable technocratic future that “[t]here can be no more human beings in our sense of an historical human being. The healthy automata are satisfied (sports, art, eroticism, etc.) and the sick ones get locked up. The tyrant becomes an administrator, a cog in the machine fashioned by automata for automata.”
What Kojéve fails to mention is that the administrator-cog must not appear to fit to so smoothly within the gears of the machine; it is better if he appears to be a wrench in it. The 30 teams in the NBA all have a common goal: to make as much money as possible. It is not a zero-sum game. The more popular the league is, the more revenue each team generates, and vice versa. But as with modern-day political parties, each much appear to be in competition with each, although they all share a common interest. So long as this happens, it doesn’t much matter how many games a given team wins. Hinkie rightly gambled that Sixers fans would happily exchange five or so years of failure for the promise of hope. In a sense, he took his role as General Manager too literally. He knew, perhaps unconsciously, that the true aim of a basketball team is not victory but the production of successful theater. No one was really hurt by the team’s disastrous past few seasons, and it made a great story.
One difference between basketball and politics is that in basketball, wins and losses are artificial. Sure, a given fanbase may be sad to see its team lose over and over again, but in such a case successful theater has still been produced.
Increasingly, however, questions of politics are also seen as artificial, i.e. life and death are understood as no more than technical problems to be sorted out by dispassionate experts. Robert Moses may have been ahead of his time when he said, in 1974, “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.” As Jane Jacobs points out, the metaphor is not a good one: The broken eggs in this case are not raw material but people. Euphemism is technocracy’s most beloved literary device, and the euphemisms are always evolving. “Enemies” and “casualties” may have already gone the way of the powder room and water closet: For the technocrats who orchestrate murder by flying robot, the dead or soon-to-be-dead are only so many “objectives.”
In all fairness to the technocrats, it has become difficult for all of us to draw distinctions between simulations of reality — such as sports and entertainment and the stock market — and reality itself. Real economies are powered by labor performed in fictional worlds. And who can forget the case of Andrés Escobar, murdered for scoring an own-goal in a soccer match?
The fact is that Hinkie was such a great GM because technocracy, for all its faults, is the perfect form of governance by which to produce entertainment. If what is being sought after is the continual captivation of as large an audience as possible — as in the case of Netflix algorithms or the collation of Facebook “Now Trending” pieces — then a team of experts in concert with number-crunching computers is evidently sufficient. The system only breaks down when we wonder about its purpose. What, exactly, is the point of being entertained? A fitbit can regulate our health and safe sex practices can regulate our reproduction; but neither the technologies around our wrists nor those around our genitals can tell us what to be healthy or (un)reproductive for. The more interested we become in the regulation of our own desires, the more easily our desires themselves are manipulated.
Chesterton once said: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason; he is somebody who has lost everything but his reason.” This seems to me an apt way to describe the good-natured madmen and madwomen who govern the world. As we obsess more and more over how to regulate economies, health, population, etc.—i.e. as we ask more and more obsessively “How should we live?”—it appears increasingly difficult to answer the question “Why do we live?”
One option is to leave the question up to those people of the future for whom the life itself will be precarious: There is no technocratic solution to the apocalypse.
We may have to wait, with Max Planck and Sam Hinkie, till our opponents eventually die.