A 2017 Dalkey Book Festival talk I attended has lingered in memory. It was ostensibly about America, Russia and the new Cold War. It awoke something else in me. I was, at that time, professionally engaged in seeking geosicence applications for algorithms and machines that could learn. What I sought was time. I saw (and see) algos and ML as labour saving devices like the clothes- and dish- washers that continue to liberate people from drudgery. Freedom from repetitive, mind numbing tasks, creates the opportunity to pursue more rewarding things. And I sought to help my colleagues find unseen correlations, derive new insights and put their time to more creative uses. There wasn’t an easy answer to be had.
Let me introduce the panel from that day in 2017. They were Alec Russell (editor of the Financial Times Weekend), Sandra Navidi (who’d recently published $uperhubs) and Jana Bakunina (the Russian analyst and journalist). It was well chaired by David McWilliams (economist, journalist and co-founder of the festival).
An expanded summary in 2020 of a couple of my brief 2017 notes could be:
― America: Bakunina made the very important point that Trump was focussed on short term policy, playing a short game and seemed to misunderstand that Putin was playing for the future. More like chess than drafts, Putin was coldly playing a very long game.
― Russia: The Financial Times was in a server war with social media trolls who themselves were paid to post contrarian views and propaganda to the FT websites. It was chilling to learn that nation states pay citizens to take jobs in subversion; there was a metricated pay scale, basically an inversion of the site advertising revenue model – one fee for a post, extra fees for each referral and bonuses for likes and links. Trolling was being weaponised and their post volumes could be mediated to crash the servers from time-to-time. That’s since become more commonplace and less newsworthy, though no less despicable. I wonder if it says ‘influencer’ on a troll’s CV?
But it was Navidi that really surprised me that afternoon. She spoke eloquently about the very few key people that make the most fundamental decisions in the control of the global financial system. She calls them and her book about them $uperhubs. ‘Executives have control over their own actions, but they have no control over the contagion effect, and there are few if any circuit breakers’. The contagion she refers to is effectively homophily. We all have a tendency seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to ourselves. Top executives think alike and act alike, that’s in part how they get to the top of their piles. Their clone-like appearance is in part due to homophily.
I think there’s a key point that gets overlooked; these few are driven by much the same information while forming ‘independent’, self-serving opinions. Virtuous or vicious, the impact of the few $uperhubs is instantly amplified by the speed of computerised trading that underpins the global economy. I’ll remind you that in 2011, it was worth spending $300 million to reduce the latency between algorithms trading in New York and London by 5 milliseconds. Trillions can be traded in milliseconds. The speed of light isn’t infinite and straightening the subsea cable reduced the distance by about 500 km. The time to ping from Manhattan to London dropped by 5 milliseconds. Now switch your focus back from the algorithms to the $uperhubs who influence the algorithms. Make no mistake, these $uperhubs are utterly unlike the self-appointed influencers in social media who pedal disposables. These few $uperhubs directly affect every pay check, every share value and every interest rate on the planet. Even Trump, who recently put his name on the welfare checks in the US, is but a temporary hub in just one nation. The $uperhubs are much more unconstrained, global influencers who endure until failure or death. Personally, I can accept the death term-limits but failure is a poor metric because in failing they take us down with them.
Navidi later quotes Einstein: ‘we don’t need to think more, but think differently.’ I’d like to remind the reader that Hans Rosling tested the knowledge of world thought leaders at the 2015 World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos. Watch the video in which he shows them that their answers were worse than random. He’s done the same test in a zoo with chimps who outperformed our leaders.
Paving with good intentions is great if you know where the path leads. Which takes me to a pet peeve. The tension created in healthcare by philanthropic wealthcare. Billionaires without public health credentials let alone qualifications get to instruct the world on what’s good for them. Lofty goals and destinations depend not just on the where the paths are laid but the how and why need to be understood. Eradication of disease or anything by something saleable is arguably an economic self-interest. That’s what the drug and seed companies do. There’s enough conflict without adding conflicts of interest. Please, be humble and anonymously put your money into infrastructure projects to deliver water, electricity, hygiene and education (without hooks of any kind). By all means, keep a billion back for your own day-to-day expenses (assuming $55,000 a day is enough to fund a 30 year retirement).
I rushed too slowly to The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey after that DBF panel discussion. Navidi’s book was suddenly sold out. So I had it delivered to my office and read it over the next few evenings. It still inhabits my nearest bookshelf and there will stay for long as there are bookshelves, if only because the title $uperhubs stands out. It reminds me that the spine of our global economy has as much osteoporosis as the guys that run it. And you know that’s a degenerative condition. Enough said.
In summary, in case I rambled too much, that’s two things that need fixing. Global healthcare and the global economy. The opportunity exists to address both today and I’m pretty sure we’ll squander it because the $uperhubs will fight to avoid what they’ll consider to be expropriation. And in consequence, global social upheavals may take the matter from our hands and we’ll ask ourselves how could we have been so blind. My hope for our grandchildren is that the coming social changes are bloodless.
And finally, though he might not appreciate the shout in the context of this soliloquy, I found my theme for today after reading the weekly opinion piece in yesterday’s Irish Times by David McWilliams. I found my head nodding as he advocated that governments should print money and credit the businesses with enough to ensure survival beyond this plague. He wrote that ‘You’d be amazed how many clever people hate easy answers … Only those who truly understand their subject have the self-confidence to opt for the easy answer.’