Joe was standing before St. Peter at the gate. St. Peter asked him, “What have you done for the good of humankind?” “I’ve made people rich,” Joe responded, “wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. I helped them buy expensive cars, homes around the world, yachts and all the finest things in life. I helped them send their kids to the finest private schools.”
St. Peter pondered and thought…
The first computing machine was created for the Army in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania Moore school of Electrical engineering. The world’s first computing machine was called ENIAC, the electrical numerical integrator and calculator. But, as we know now, ENIAC would just be the first, the Neanderthal and the Cro-Magnon. It would have children and grand-children and great-great-great grand-children, who would make calculations like millions per second.
On Sunday, August 15,, 1971, President Nixon preempted television to announce the closing of the gold standard.
Soon after this came the initial phase in the world of computer linked financial servers and financial quants, when digital networking first greatly increased the ambition and greed that had been at the margins of the world of finance. Beginning in the early 1980’s and exploding in the 1990’s finance became networked, and for the first time market ideations, schemes, and scams were able to exceed the pre-digital limitations of human deception. There is a very real argument about whether the weakening of regulations was the cause of the debacles, or if the regulations were weakened because the temptations of overcoming them became so great due to the new technologies. Financiers now put more effort into political influence than they ever had.
This financial networking created a phenomenon where the same money might be earning interest at two different banks at opposite ends of the world at the same time. No one at any of the banks involved would have a clue. The financial severs work the same fluctuation, they hook into a feedback system with each other and inadvertently conspire to milk the rest of the world to no purpose. The algorithms learned to trip the circuit breakers at the correct millisecond to seize the profit. If the frequency of the trades is hindered, then some other parameter, like the timing of trades will be automatically manipulated and refined so as to take an advantage. This cat and mouse game can and is going on endlessly. Overthrowing the pattern of the financial servers is the only means back to a truer from of democratic capitalism.
It is our common shared illusion that we imagine the data that computers and financial servers hold as a substance, like some natural resource waiting to be mined from the ground. The information that drives our automated culture comes from you and me, we the people, in the form of massive dumps of data. It is understood as an elaborate form of string pulling, or sophisticated puppetry, creating a daunting successor reality in information. The irony is real, since mankind has become psychologically victimized by the very technological innovations that we have created. It is an ambiguous irony however, because it isn’t clear to us how much choice we truly had. Once the tracks of life are changed, we lost the ability to grasp what we may have forgotten from a previous period. We have all become lost in the process of growing up.
The very idea of artificial intelligence give humans the cover to avoid accountability by kidding ourselves that computer networks and machines can take on more and more of our own responsibility. Algorithms don’t represent emotion or meaning, but only statistics and correlations. The financial servers that drive them are narcissists; dumb to where value comes from.
It is impossible for high frequency trading to incorporate information about the real world, because there is no time for that information to get into the feedback loop. Digital information after all, is just people in disguise. In this way, digital modernity resembles a sort of soft blackmail. Once we become accustomed to having an information service, our cognitive styles and capacities become shaped by the availability of that service.
Our transition from childhood to adulthood is important to reflect upon. None of us really knows what was lost in process of growing up. Our minds can’t realize the mentality in which our childhood memories were so very meaningful. Technological change has put generations of adults through similar gaps and disruptions in our cognitions. We are all the reverse images of unimaginable epochs of cruelty and heartbreak. We can’t begin to know fully what we have lost as society becomes more technological. We are in persistent doubt of our own authenticity and essence.
The recent breakdowns in finance capital can be seen as the symptoms of a false hope that information technology can make promises on its own, without people, without judgment. Sometimes, the devil we know is probably not as scary as one we don’t. The more a culture bases itself on a perverted model of automation and efficiency, the greater the potential for sudden breakouts of evil.
In Greek mythology, Homer warned the sailors not to succumb to the call of the sirens, but he was totally complacent about Hephaestus’s golden female robots. Today however, the sirens might be even more in their organic form, for it is then that we are really most looking at ourselves in disguise. It was not the sirens that Homer warned of, who harmed the sailors, but the sailor’s inability to think rationally. So it is with us and our computational machines. Every bit in a computer is a potential wannabe demon.
Today, we have a sad culture where the biblical Cain is still killing his brother. The Book of Genesis gave us the creation of the universe, the illicit acquisition of knowledge, the expulsion from Paradise, and the slaying of Abel by Cain, a second fall from grace into jealousy, competition, alienation and violence. When God asks Cain, where his brother is, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He refuses to say what God already understands: That the spoiled blood of Abel cries out from the earth that has absorbed it. He is also raising one of the greatest perennial social questions: are we beholden to one another, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?
If John Maynard Keynes the great and prescient demand side economist had seen the emergence of such machines as ENIAC and their eventual computational power, he would have known his mission was doomed. He would have seen that judgment would become overwhelmed by efficiency. He had once said, that” judgment is to capitalism what the secret police are to a totalitarian state. Without judgment,” he stated, “you will have financial anarchy or worse.”
Keynes likened it to what happened in the 14th century, when the plague came off a boat in Venice, as a germ no bigger than a pinhead in the blood of a rat. That rat found another rat to bite, or a person. And so it went. Within ten years, a third of Europe was gone, bringing about the power of labor and the Enlightenment.
“So what else can you tell me about yourself,” St. Peter finally asks after some lengthy thought about Joe. “Not much more,” Joe says, “I led a very good life.” St. Peters continues to ponder Joe’s plight. After a few more moments Joe finally asserts. “You know my people could make your job a whole lot easier. I can easily have them create an algorithm for you, to make your job really simple,” he said with smug pride.
St. Peter looked skyward. The thunderbolt of lightning was sudden, swift and direct. Joe’s fate was finally determined.