Apple Watch / Red Sox cheating scandal points toward larger issues

The Red Sox sign-stealing scandal — powered by the Apple Watch — highlights the unanticipated consequences of wearable tech and the IoT.

Apple Watch / Red Sox cheating scandal points toward larger issues
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Newsflash: Someone just found a viable use case for the Apple Watch. Too bad it turned out to be cheating at baseball!

Wearable technology such as fitness trackers and smart watches have long been seen as aids for athletes to improve their performance and help them win. And that’s great. But now that the Boston Red Sox have been caught red handed using Apple Watches to communicate and transfer signs stolen from the Yankees, it seems there may also be an unanticipated dark side to the Internet of Things (IoT) in sports.

+ Also on Network World: Wearables in the starting lineup for NBA and MLB? and How FC Barcelona leverages technology for athletes’ performance +

You see, while it’s OK to steal signs in Major League Baseball, it’s against the rules to use electronic aids in the process — and the BoSox flat out admitted that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.

(To be fair, Red Sox General Manager Dave Dombrowski and Manager John Farrell claim they didn’t know Apple Watches were being used. Farrell told Boston Globe reporter Pete Abraham that had he known, "I would have shut that down." We’re likely to never fully know who knew what when.)

The unintended consequences of wearable tech

But this story isn’t really about stealing signs, or baseball, or even sports. Instead, it’s all about the unintended consequences of new technologies like IoT and wearable devices. And while those consequences may not always be evil or dangerous, they are by definition unpredictable and potentially transformative.

As noted above, stealing signs is a time-honored part of America’s Pastime. And it’s not against the rules. But using technology or any kind of device from binoculars to cameras to facilitate it is breaking the rules — at least until they change the rules, which Yankees Manager Joe Girardi seemed to advocate.

We already know that the wearable technology is roiling the world of professional sports, promising improved performance but raising troubling issues of data privacy and ownership. But it’s critical to note that those issues — like the Red Sox cheating scandal — are coming to the fore only now, after the technology is already in play, when it’s pretty much too late to roll back their use.

What can IoT do? What should IoT do? 

Remember, we’re still in the tumultuous early days of new technologies like IoT and wearables. We’re just beginning to figure out what they can do, much less what they should do.  And, of course, the technology keeps advancing, often faster than our understanding of it. 

So, until we coalesce around new rules that take into account the transformational power of IoT and wearable tech, we can expect to see plenty more situations where they get used in innovative new ways with surprising consequences. Some of those use cases may turn out to be awesome; others will no doubt be awful. (And many will be a lot more consequential than making it easier to hit a baseball.) 

Either way, these new applications are coming, and it’s up to IT teams and technology professionals to deal with the fallout as it occurs. Our job, it seems, is to maximize the upside while limiting the collateral damage. It should be more fun than a day at the ballpark and a juicy but ultimately silly scandal.

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