I was listening to a Radiolab program on the subject of speed today. One segment of the program, called “Million Dollar Microsecond,” is on the modern-day high-speed trading that goes on in the stock exchange.
Basically, because success in the stock market greatly relates to speed (the sooner someone gets information, the faster he can buy or sell), over the years, stock trading has become fast, like, ridiculously fast, like, faster-than-any-human-being-can-process fast.
A great example of this is found with the flow of information between the Chicago commodities market and the New York equities markets. Back in the days of the telegraph, it would take about a quarter second to communicate something from Chicago to New York. Nowadays, with fiberoptic cables, that same transaction takes 15 milliseconds.
So in recent history, companies have been competing to see who could provide the shortest (and straightest!) fiber line between Chicago and New York, thereby transmitting information faster. Inventing or adopting a new, faster technology like air transmission of data through towers gives you an even bigger competitive advantage, well, at least for a period of time.
Manoj Narang, CEO of a company called Tradeworx, is part of this technology arms race in the exchange markets. He explains: “The arms race is a huge drain on resources (…) As it stands, when a new technology comes out that makes it possible to be faster, if I don’t adopt it and my competitors do, I will lose out to them. I have to do it.”
The Radiolab host interprets: “And here, Manoj told us look, even though this speed race sucks, it’s actually helping you because on a basic level, anytime you replace a human with a computer, things are gonna get faster, they’re gonna get cheaper and now that the machines are competing, getting cheaper still. In 1992, it would’ve cost you about a hundred dollars to trade a thousand shares. Now? Ten bucks.”
Again, Manoj: “So yes, humans have been completely supplanted when it comes to short term trading, and humans who complain about that are being disingenuous, ok? They have not been displaced by anything other than the fact that they can’t compete.”
Radiolab host: “You seem defensive.”
Manoj: “Well, just because I can explain the economics of the business doesn’t make me defensive.”
Radiolab host: “That also sounded defensive.”
(Awkward laughter from host.)
Radiolab host continues: “If Manoj does sound defensive, it’s only because he and Mike [Tradeworx colleague] and everyone in their industry have had to answer a lot of questions over the past few years about where all this speed is taking us…”
I’ve often wondered this myself. Where is all of this speed taking us? In the words of the Radiolab host, “Are we fast enough now? Can we stop?”
I once took a writing job for a company that does just SEO (search engine optimization). This company’s clients pay them to make web content that shows up in Google searches, drawing more people to their website and creating more business. The SEO company finds writers and editors to produce that content. What’s important is not so much the quality of the content, but the quantity, however. Why? As my editor said, “Basically, nobody’s going to read any of this stuff.” Why write it then? Because the Google bots will read it. It’s the SEO company’s job to have an assembly line of workers who, in a made-in-China factory-like process, make blogs. Those blogs go out into the internet and are picked up by the Google bots, which are tracking key words. Your job then, as a writer, is to plug key words into your pieces so that they’re recognized by the bots and appropriately attributed to the company, thus, bringing the company’s website closer to the top of a Google search and directing more people there. (This is my rough understanding of it based on VERY rudimentary knowledge of these technical processes). Increased online traffic flow translates into buzz which translates into transactions which translates into money and you get the picture.
It then occurred to me, why even have humans create this content? Why not just have robots write this stuff for other robots? Just like with the stock trade in which we know that “50-70% of all trades on Wall Street are not executed by a human being as a result of a human decision. They’re actually executed by an algorithm at a speed, rate, and scale that is beyond our comprehension,” what would happen if that same percentage of content on the web was made by machines? We could have writing machines make stuff for curating machines that feed into reading machines that then drive us as humans to make certain decisions without ever having to feel, think, or act for ourselves.
Well, one of the only reasons for not having a machine write and edit these materials is because Google, for now, is policing such a thing. “Fake,” perhaps computer-generated content is overwhelmingly dismissed. “Real” content is mostly accepted. Companies that create the former use black hat techniques, and companies that create the latter use white hat techniques. Accordingly, black hat-operating companies are punishable by law, and white hat-operating ones aren’t. Furthermore, Google shifts its algorithm around enough that companies aren’t able to pin down the magic search engine formula for very long.
But it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine technology developing to such an extent that Google or any other body of people can no longer effectively police this.
Indeed, as evidenced by the financial markets, there comes a time when machine activity is no longer understandable by human beings. Drawing on another finance example from the same Radiolab program, this happened with a sudden crash of the Dow on May 6, 2010 around 2:42 P.M. It was then that an emergency circuit breaker went out in the market causing it to completely crash. There was no activity at all for a few minutes. Now, once the computer system was restored, activity bounced right back, but the point is that to this day, nobody understands what happened at that moment. A Radiolab consultant states: “Nobody had any idea (…) The question that comes up is ‘have we passed some kind of rubicon where we’ve passed into a realm where the complexity, speed, the volume of all this stuff makes it no longer human readable?’ We just don’t know what the system is doing, and can’t, in principle, find out when things go wrong.”
Wait, seriously? We still have no idea what happened that day? Is that not insane? We’ve outsourced so much of our work to machines that we no longer actually understand what they’re doing? Call me crazy, but I find this to be slightly worrisome, you know, just to humanity as a whole.
Putting aside the concern that all content production, even of the mind, will eventually become automated, let me just focus on the speed emphasis of content production in the human realm.
As a writer, of course, it makes me sad that the pressures of the market may mean some people adopt this conveyor belt blog strategy to sustain themselves. I really don’t want to write complete bollocks or something barely passable just to be “competitive.” I also don’t want to spend my entire life creating one comprehensive treatise on the philosophy of Stephanie until I’ve gotten as close to my vision of perfection as possible, so I will, on occasion, be secreting some of my thoughts out into the world. There’s got to be a balance.
But to be perfectly honest, this means that I can’t be on the same train as most of society, well, most of business-dominated society. I know this isn’t a unique thought. There has always been an academic/artist vs. business person tension throughout history, but nowadays with everything gone digital, speed seems to be an increasingly relevant and at times, scary concern.
Put simply, the train’s moving too fast for my liking. At its current speed, which is picking up faster and faster, train parts keep flying off, and the workers who are sent to fix those parts keep falling to their deaths. The conductor doesn’t care because he’s in a race to beat the other trains, and anyway, the deceased workers are easily replaced with new workers. I’d like to switch to a slower train or force the conductor of this train to slow down. I want to breathe deeply, think clearly, express myself with a quality focus, and treat people fairly and respectfully, but I’m not sure the fast train is gonna let me do any of those things.
I know I’m not the only one. Many of us want to slow down, but prisoner’s dilemma informs us that not everyone will. Somebody’s gonna cooperate with the speed-obsessed conductor in order to get the prize first, and in all likelihood, he’ll be young and ambitious.
Yet, I have enough faith in humanity to believe that there’s hope for the slow-pokes. Though it’s started with the Slow Movement and a monetization of all that’s slow, perhaps people are starting to really comprehend that there’s a natural and healthy speed of life for us, one that allows human compassion to grow. I hope that more effort is put into understanding the spirituality and science behind this as time goes on.
Especially as artists and creators and not necessarily business and finance people, if we have any pride in our work, we remind ourselves that we’re not factory workers of the written word. Though it’s ultimately up to us as individuals to decide what’s too much and what’s too fast, I hope that we can become a society of people that is aware that this stuff matters, that we don’t pass all of our responsibilities over to machines for the purposes of speed and efficiency at any cost to human life.