Flashboys, Michael Lewis’ 2014 account of the baffling and highly secretive world of high-frequency financial trading, begins with a typically mysterious story. A company called Spread Networks embarks on a mission to run a cable the 827 miles from Chicago to New York. Confidentiality is paramount, construction is on a need-to-know basis, and any passersby who enquire about the building work are fobbed off with vague explanations.
And the truly bizarre thing about it?
It has to be in a completely straight line.
As everyone knows, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And as Lewis goes on to explain, the dead-straight cable, which connected two financial centres, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Nasdaq data centre (technically in New Jersey), was all in the interests of speed. Spread Networks’ $300 million straight-line cable was able to transfer data between the two centres in 13.1 milliseconds. Its closest rival, around 200 miles longer and following a more circuitous route, clocked in at a pedestrian 14.5 milliseconds.
So begins Lewis’ journey into a world where a 1.4-millisecond gap in the fibre-optic transfer of information determines whether millions are won or lost on the world’s financial markets, where being quicker, even by an incomprehensible margin, is the most prized asset in the financial economy, and where those who have the advantage are desperate to avoid being overtaken.
Flashboys is a parable of speed taken to extremes. Where a relentless pursuit to be quicker ultimately leads to corruption, exploitation, abnegation of responsibility, and ultimately, crash.
However, the cult of quickness is by no means limited to the financial world. Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, in their book How Google Works, proclaim that, “Today we all live and work in a new era, the Internet Century, where technology is roiling the business landscape and the pace of change is accelerating”, and this acceleration of acceleration—to which Google itself has had no small contribution—seems to be one of the defining features of our age, a relentless pursuit of quicker, faster, now.
In some respects, the world is certainly getting faster. Processing power, connectivity, delivery times and even speed of movement have all accelerated in recent years, and particularly in the developing world. A study from the early 1990s measured walking speeds in 31 cities around the world, and concluded that Guangzhou, China, was the 25th slowest on the list (and a full three seconds slower than the leader, Dublin).
When the experiment was repeated, in 2006, it was found that the average pedestrian over a 60-foot stretch of pavement had sped up by over a second, while Chinese walkers had picked up the pace by a full 3.3 seconds—catapulting them into fourth place on the list, one place above the Dubliners. In an age where we are increasingly urbanised, always contactable, have immediate access to more information than we can possibly comprehend, and are seemingly at the mercy of new economic superpowers, the acceleration of the pace of change feels truly out of our control. Are we, like the traders in Flashboys, heading for our very own cultural “flash crash?”
The narrative of the runaway train is seductive. Put down to greed, grasping and a lack of care for consequences, it offers an ultimate solution to a world we don’t fully understand. Things have got too fast, and we all need to slow down, take a breath, head on a meditation retreat and listen to a vinyl record, before it’s all too late and we finally get our comeuppance.
However, even if the world is speeding up—or at least feels that way—it is not necessarily doomed to go off the rails. Firstly, fear of speed is nothing new: Technological advances invariably come with a pessimistic lag-period, as skeptics rail against the latest upgrades and worry about things they do not yet understand. And secondly, there is evidence that, in some aspects of business at least, things are actually slowing down.
In fact, as Robert Colville has argued in his recent book, The Great Acceleration, speeding up is—for the most part, and with a few notes of caution—a good thing, and it is unavoidable. It creates new opportunities, builds new networks, opens new frontiers and broadens horizons. Speed leads to productivity, which in turn promotes growth and prosperity. In 1976, the average annual income of a Chinese person was US$200. Today it is over $6,000. The logic of development means that we are all striving to be faster, even if we are not always conscious of it.
So what of Flashboys—the grasping, morally suspect Wall Street traders who would pay millions for an extra millisecond? It seems to me that the issue here is not speed itself, but access to it. Paying to be quicker than others in order to gain powerful information a fraction of a moment before they do—and using it to your advantage and their detriment. Perhaps this is where our current awareness of the ‘great acceleration’ comes from—not a sense that we are moving too fast, but that others are moving quicker than us, and we feel vulnerable.
In the years following Guangzhou’s rise towards the summit of the World’s Fastest Pedestrian league table, China overtook the Japanese economy (2011) and then the American economy (2014) to become the world’s largest. We don’t fear speed until we realise that we might actually not be going very fast relative to someone else. Like train passengers experiencing the eerie sensation of moving backwards as a neighbouring train departs, we suddenly become aware of ourselves slowing down, and we don’t like it.
Josh Dickins is senior research executive, cultural intelligence, Flamingo London