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Fear Index

2012 March 25
by Shared by Steve Rust

John’s recent post on the collection Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media and he and Andy Hageman‘s previous posts on new media technologies have had me keeping my eyes open for the discursive and ideological relationship between media ecology and ecocriticism.

On of the places I have seen this connection playing out textually is in Robert Harris’s new fictional thriller novel The Fear Index.  As he explains in the interview with PBS Newshour embedded below, Harris has once again discovered that something he thought fictional was in fact already happening.  In the novel, a group of hedge fund managers create an algorithm that searches the web for fear-based words in order to generate successful hedges. The algorithm becomes unstable by assuming higher levels of risk with each hedge until it collapses the market.  In real life, Harris discovered that a similar approach is already in play at a number of trading agencies.  Using algorithms (if a then b or c, if b then d, if c then e, etc), a small group of agencies are conducing trades at rates so fast they are timed in microseconds.  According to reporter Paul Solman, “The algorithms are actually the brainchildren of top-flight physicists, forced to migrate to Wall Street in the early ’90s, when Congress killed the 54-mile-in-circumference supercollider, for which land outside Dallas was already excavated.”  According to Harris, who believed he had made this kind of trading up until watching the DOW suddenly drop 300 points while watching business coverage of the Greek debt crisis, his novel explores the idea that “we are the victims of some sort of gigantic H.G. Wells-like science fiction creation, which is the markets, so huge in the — in the numbers of shares and the vast values of transactions every day, so fast with the speed, that it has somehow slipped the control of human beings, and almost is itself a kind of Frankenstein’s monster run amok in the world.”

Market as monster, algorithm as economics; when one considers the ecological relationship between the markets and the “natural resources” used to create the commodity flow necessary to “grow” the economy, one of the central nodes at which ecocriticism and media ecology seems to converge in the space of the new media technologies necessary for algorithmic trading, in the televisual flow that offers 24 coverage of the markets, and in the broader anthropocentric cultural/political logic which allows the markets to exist as they do.

Watch Fictional Thriller Tackles Dangers of High-Frequency Trading on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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