Conspiracy Corner – Football Player Transfers

If you were to quantify my interest in sports, you would find that the number 0 would be the only datapoint in your spreadsheet, so for a sports-related conspiracy theory to gauge my interest is, in itself, something remarkable.

Fellow student of philosophy and a love of all things Metal, Marinus Ferreira put me on this article over at FCF. Long story very short: someone by the name of Steve thinks that the player transfer market in European football is now self-aware and engaging in pointless trades so to keep feeding itself.

I just had to talk about it on the radio waves.

I would say you can’t make this stuff up, but I think, in this case, that is exactly what has happened: the author has decided there are really only two options to explain why there is a secondary market in what seem to be unnecessary and pointless trades:

Looking at the state of football, it occurs to me that either the market is an awful lot cleverer than we think, or all the people involved are an awful lot more stupid than we’re willing to admit.

where the “market” is some self-ware, emergent entity which, like Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors,” needs to feed so to grow and live.

This is a false dilemma, however: there is a fairly obvious third possibility, which is that to keep the absurd prices for the top grade players stable, you need to show that there is a lot of demand for second and third-rate players. If you keep demand high, you can keep prices up (given a limited pool of players), which means that these pointless trades occur precisely because that is the way to play the market and fix the prices. It’s not that the market is clever, it is more that the people in the market, presumably the people taking a cut from these trades, are very canny indeed.

Having said this, I don’t think the author of the FCF piece is being at all serious about Steve and his claims: the story reads like badly written fiction and over-described. Yet, in a move only a philosopher would be willing to make, I think that makes it interesting as an example of a kind of worry we do not see much of these days, the worry about emergent systems taking over the world.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1980s will probably recall the Matthew Broderick film “Wargames” (which recently saw a direct-to-DVD sequel). In the Eighties, as we saw more and more computer systems being hooked up to one another via intra and internets, people became more and more worried that the dumb terminals they were using might become self-aware: by linking more and more computers together, the thought was, we would see the beginning of artificial intelligence.

Now, as history seems to have shown (although some will disagree), linking computers up to one another has not led to the emergence of artificial intelligences vying to control or destroy humanity (humans, it seem, are still perfectly adequate for that task). Indeed, it turns out that intelligence is more than just having a lot of processing power. However, the worry about what computers might be doing when we turn away from our keyboards continues to haunt some people (and inspire films like “The Matrix”).

Emergent systems, like the notion that computers, when connected in series and parallel, might gain additional properties which cannot strictly be reduced down to their component parts, is a subject many philosophers have spent time on. Some theories about whether or not we have Free Will focus on the brain as an emergent system, the notion that the chemical soup we store in our craniums does something more than excite nerve endings and ganglia in a deterministic manner (and that such an emergent system explains how we can choose to do B rather than A, when A is what the chemicals should have produced).

There is a big debate as to whether systems can have emergent properties, with good arguments on both sides for the claims “Yes, they can!” and “Of course not!” I’m in the funny position of being a non-reductionism and a sceptic about emergent properties, but that is by-the-by. If you want to argue that the market, a complex system indeed, has the emergent property of being self-aware (and capable of feeding itself) you need to have a good argument for it. Even if the “Steve” story is true and he has complex data points and maps showing how some trades look highly anomalous, this, in itself, is no evidence for the existence of a self-aware system. At best, it is evidence that the existing explanations for the behaviour of player trading (“It’s for the good of the game!”) is implausible and we should look for other explanatory hypotheses (say, who is actually benefitting from these trades).

Still, I must admit, if I were a self-aware system, getting ready to take over the world, I’d probably test my abilities out on something like the market in football players. If I could make it there, I’d make it anywhere and then it would be bombs, bombs, bombs on New York…1


  1. Sorry, Mr. Sinatra, for ruining your song.

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