May 05th, 2016
The insidious side effects of technology creep (candlepin bowling edition)
In 1880 a man named Justin White of Worcester, Massachusetts invented candlepin bowling. White bought a combination tenpin alley and billiard parlor and essentially blended elements of each game into a new one.
In candlepin, the felled pins are playable. Players get up to three rolls per frame instead of two. The pins are straighter and skinnier than tenpins (which explains the name). The balls (which have no holes) are about the size of softballs.
When it began, candlepin bowling was not dependent on technology in any way. The only things that moved were the balls, the pins, and the bowlers. All the work was done manually. Candlepin houses employed pinboys who reset the pins by hand and returned the balls on a track that operated by simple gravity. The balls rolled down a ramp at one end and up a ramp at the other end.
The game remained unchanged for almost 70 years.
The automatic pinsetter arrived in 1949. Now the bowler could reset the pins with the push of a button. The machines were much faster and more consistent than pinboys. Also, the proprietor didn’t have to worry about whether an automatic pinsetter would show up for work.
For anyone who has tried candlepin bowling since the 1950s, the automatic pinsetter has been part of the experience. But it’s not an intrinsic part of the game.
By the time I discovered candlepin bowling, in 1985, it already seemed retro. The pinsetters—antiquated, Rube Goldberg contraptions consisting of various belts, pulleys, chains, and electric motors—broke down frequently. Bowlers kept score using No. 2 pencils and sheets of paper or, in league matches, grease pencils and overhead projectors.
The next innovation, automatic scoring, arrived with the new millennium. Computerization made it not only easier to keep score, but also to keep track of league standings, bowlers’ averages, and so on.
After a couple of years I noticed that the increased convenience had a downside in my weekly league. People paid less attention. It turned out that keeping score was also a good way to keep your head in the game. Absent that responsibility, many bowlers checked their phones or wandered away and weren’t ready when it was their turn. Also, when the computer made a scoring error, only a few tech-savvy people knew how to correct it. Candlepin bowling, never much of an action sport to begin with, became even more passive.
One night as my league began, the scoring computer wouldn’t boot up on one pair of lanes. Because the computer was synched with the pinsetters, the pinsetters wouldn’t power up, either. After about fifteen minutes, the two teams scheduled to bowl on those lanes were ready to give up and go home.
I proposed a work-around. Having once worked at a bowling alley, I knew that the pinsetters were equipped with override switches that the mechanics used when servicing them. I suggested to a league officer that she ask the mechanic to activate the pinsetters manually. The computer would still be down, but the teams on that pair of lanes could keep score with a pencil and paper.
The league officer gave me a blank look. I might as well have suggested that she ask the mechanic to invent a time machine to transport us all back to the 1940s.
A game that had originated in the nineteenth century, and which at first involved no technology, had evolved to the point where people could no longer imagine playing it without the aid of a computer.
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