Posted by: Jack | August 19, 2011

Algorithms as nature

If you’re like me (a little bit allergic to maths), the idea of watching a video about algorithms might not grab you, but this is well worth watching. It’s a great and thought provoking talk about the role that complex computer based maths has taken in shaping our society, most prominently the financial markets, but also all kinds of aspects of our lives, from the physical shape of cities to which movies get made, based on mathematical attempts to predict mass taste.

The most important part of what Kevin Slavin talks about in this video is the role of such complex algorithms in facilitating the financialisation of the economy. In a world with completely subjected to globalised capitalism, there’s very few places left to squeeze profit from, and in recent decades that has meant that the finance sector has been used to develop increasingly arcane methods of moving capital around in lieu of more productive economic activity (you know, like making stuff.) This has in part been possible because there are now these incredibly complicated pieces of machine maths to try and calculate risks precisely, allowing banks to lend to people they wouldn’t have considered a safe bet before (when humans made the decisions.) Of course they are not all-knowing full proof systems, and the consequences of this are ultimately felt in the continuing financial crisis and recession.

There’s one part of the talk where I think Slavin distills an essential truth about the anti-human nature of capitalism. He talks about how, in order for these algorithms to maximise the profits they can generate, these algorithms need to be as few micro-seconds as possible away from communication with the rest of the world via the internet. So in New York, skyscrapers that happen to be near the exchange are being hollowed out of anything needed by humans, and replaced with infrastructure for servers running financial algorithms. . .

“. . .because you, inch for inch and pound for pound and dollar for dollar, none of you could squeeze revenue out of that space like the Boston Shuffler could.”

Of course it’s tempting to see in this humanity being totally eclipsed by some kind of financial SkyNet. There are definitely real concerns to be aired about the leaving of so much decision making to machines. However, it’s important to see the big picture. These algorithms behave unpredictably, and maybe you could even say they evolve, but they are not self-aware. They are ultimately the product of design by humans, in the service of a human designed system, capitalism. The algorithms are in fact advanced forms of programming, and the author of the programme is globalised, financialised capitalism.

The problem is that capitalism is a system that doesn’t value human life, or things that you or I might find to be important priorities in life. The only things that have value in our existing system, a system that is violently collapsing in front of our eyes under the weight of its own contradictions, are those that can be expressed in terms of their exchange value. In the last days of capitalist Earth, it’s fitting to see that human beings are now transforming the face of the planet itself to better to allow non-human mathematical systems work their occult money squeezing procedures just a little bit faster, and that this has been prioritised as a human activity against the innumerable more important things we could be doing with ourselves, and with our complex machines. To do that we need to re-programme the underlying system, and re-value human beings and the world they live in.

Bonus: This is the website for Epagogix, one of the companies referred to briefly in the talk. They use algorithms to try and analyse stories, and predict which films are going to be financially successful. Platinum Blue is a company that does the same thing with music. They attempt to analyse mathematically all the elements that can be measured in a narrative or a song, and then try and reduce works of art to what will be maximally profitable. Seemingly, their systems work fairly robustly – the computers correctly predicted that Norah Jones would make hit records, and she was pushed by her corporate record company accordingly. However, does this mean that we get better works of art? Or do we get ones that are computer designed to be most profitable, rather than something that is subjecticely beautiful to human appreciation? Maybe have a look at how many even tolerable big Hollywood movies in recent years for your answer.

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