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I don’t buy this vision of financial doom

PUBLISHED: 17:36 14 October 2011

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

PICTURE a trading floor at a major financial centre – the City of London, say, or New York’s Wall Street.

Chances are your mental image will be filled with testosterone-charged men in striped shirts and braces all talking fast and loudly into several phones at once. Somewhere there will be a giant screen with revolving numbers, on which all gazes are more-or-less fixed most of the time.

It’s an image derived mostly from the movies, and is as 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Today’s reality – or so I’m led to believe – is just as male-dominated, but a great deal quieter. Phones hardly figure and though screens do, they’re all individual monitors like the PC I’m writing this on, not one big departures board.

The new calm in the financial office is only outward, however. It’s no sign of greater maturity or stability.

The real activity is not merely as frantic as it was before – it’s more, a great deal more, frenetic.

But it’s all going on electronically, computers talking to computers, with humans merely there to supervise and very occasionally intervene.

Though how one supervises, or intervenes effectively, in deals that take place in fractions of seconds and over global distances, I’m really not sure.

Of course human brains devised the computers and the programs that run on them. But most of the activity is out of human hands now.

In the words of Robert Harris: “The digitised financial machine doesn’t work for us: we work for the machine.”

It sounds like a science-fiction dystopia, and in a way it is. Except that it’s the real world we live in now.

A world which politicians can only pretend to have any control over.

Which might in itself be no bad thing if the machine was programmed with morals. With a social and environmental conscience. But of course it isn’t.

Robert Harris has an arresting metaphor for all this.

He describes the global debts the financial markets have created as a suicide bomber’s vest strapped to the Western economies.

But then Harris, a bestselling writer of highly polished thrillers, is naturally good at arresting metaphors.

I enjoyed one or two of his early novels. And his closeness to New Labour, followed by his falling-out with most of its central characters, makes his political commentary occasionally interesting.

So I was interested to read his analysis of the financial world, its changes and dangers.

His article in The Daily Mail was essentially publicity for his new novel, The Fear Index. But he’d done the research for the book, so should presumably know what he’s talking about.

Well, up to a point.

Specifically, it was at the point where he mentioned “algorithms” that I started having doubts.

“Algorithms,” he explains, “are sophisticated programmes designed to predict the behaviour of the markets.”

You what?

In my dictionary, an algorithm is “a rule for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps”. Or, in its specifically computer-related sense, “a set of instructions designed to provide a method of solving a problem or achieving a result”.

Plenty of algorithms involved in the writing of those sophisticated programs he talks about.

But I wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t know the difference between a sparkplug and an engine to fix my car. Or to tell me how it worked.

It’s a pity really. Because in many ways I find Harris’s vision of a world tipped towards approaching calamity by “a collision of brilliant but unworldly scientists and aggressive financial traders” quite persuasive.

But then he does want us to buy his book along with his theory.

And the irony is that those aggressive traders want us to buy into the Fear Index too.

Because if Harris is right – and in this I’m sure he is – they make their biggest fortunes by predicting accurately what people do when they panic.

****

IT’S been a poor day for spam so far. Only one bad speller has asked me to correct (i.e. give away) my bank details.

Not much else but an offer of a “diploma” from an un-named American university.

Nobody has asked for my help in freeing their family fortune from red tape in West Africa. There hasn’t even been a Russian bride on offer.

Maybe my spam filter is getting more efficient. Or maybe the purveyors of soft drugs, hard porn, willy extensions and boob enlargements have finally given up on me. Which would be a relief.

Bit ironic, though, just as I was toying with the idea of making Spamwatch a regular feature of this column.

And here’s a question.

My internet provider’s filter isn’t great at keeping filth out of my in-tray, so why should I trust its offer to make my browser safe for kids?

What’s more, it dumps so many genuine messages in the spam folder that I always have to check it before I delete. So who’s to say what good stuff might be censored?


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