Technology, Cheating and Loss of Trust

The Houston Astros used technology to help win the 2017 World Series. Students cheat using cell phones, wireless earbuds, spyglasses and smart watches. The speed and stealth of technology are too tempting to resist. But the desire to win at all costs has its downside, too.

The Houston Astros baseball team may have won the 2017 World Series with a little help from technology, but the sign-stealing scandal had deeper repercussions than the penalties imposed by the Commissioner’s Office.

The penalties were the harshest possible under current rules: Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch were fired, and the team fined $5 million with loss of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.

The scheme involved use of a centerfield camera fixed on the opposing team’s catcher relaying signs to the pitcher: fast ball, change up, curve, and so on. The video was relayed to a monitor in a hidden space in the dugout. Once the sign was decoded, a trash can was banged to signal what the next pitch would be.

This had to be done within a second or two, but the speed of technology allowed it.

Once discovered, the scandal cast doubt on every game the Astros won with its cheating system. That was unfortunate, too, because the team was immensely talented and probably would have won the series without cheating.

As the New York Times noted, the effort wasn’t especially needed as in “2017 Houston hit .279 at home with 115 home runs and a .472 slugging average. On the road, where elaborate sign-stealing should theoretically have been more difficult, the Astros hit .284 with 123 home runs and a .483 slugging average.”

But the real damage was to the sport and, more specifically, to the business of baseball. According to another Times report, “The business of baseball depends on the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the competition. That is the implicit deal between the league and fans, and without that trust, everything falls apart.”

That’s the ethical lesson, too. Cheating obliterates trust. Often, it isn’t needed except to insure a winning season … or semester.

Last year Forbes published an article titled “How Technology Is Being Used By Students To Cheat On Tests,” describing how students use wireless earbuds connected to smartphones in backpacks with pre-recorded content related to exams. Other tech-related cheating involved Google glasses with pre-programmed answers and even smartwatches connecting to third-party off-site accomplices transmitting answers.

Temptation is part of the human experience. However, technology has spawned new strategies that some people just cannot resist because of ambition, greed or monetary reward.

When dealing with temptation, ethical people consider consequences, which often are greater than cheaters initially anticipate. They ponder the worst-case scenario and whether they are able to pay that price.

The price usually involves something worse than loss of a job or promotion, or a failing grade on a test or course; it can result in loss of trust, triggering irreparable harm to a person’s career or future.

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine focuses on how omnipresent technology undermines personal and professional values at home, school and work.

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