In the Terminator movies, a massive computer network created by the U.S. military known as Skynet suddenly becomes sentient and launches a catastrophic attack on humankind that reduces the planet to rubble. Most of the action in the films takes place before that holocaust, as desperate humans travel back in time hoping to prevent Skynet from being invented in the first place. Technology in that bleak future was no gleaming iPad. It was a mortal enemy.
Unfortunately, there’s no unwinding the myriad events of the 1980s and 90s that led to the Wall Street financial implosion in 2008. What’s left now is the economic rubble left by the collapse of a massive speculation machine built by Wall Street firms with the connivance of elected officials and regulators.
The high priests and priestesses of the Money Industry were those who could program the computers to predict the market and trade at light speed. Algorithms were the bible code of Wall Street. Billions were made by these middlemen as finance went viral, growing to a third of the U.S. economy, drawing the best and the brightest into the processing of paper and the manipulation of stocks, commodities, insurance contracts, and later packages of bundles of financial assets including mortgages, and then insurance contracts on those derivatives, as they are known.
Finally even the high priests and priestesses – never mind the regulators – no longer understood that the machinery was not doing, nor what any of the newly invented virtual assets were worth. Trading moved from the noisy floors of exchanges where traders frenetically bought and sold to super-fast processors operating silently on proprietary networks.
In retrospect, May 10, 2010 may come to be remembered as the day we had inkling that the machines were taking over. Suddenly stocks started falling in value and no one could figure out why. Within a matter of minutes on that afternoon, the Dow dropped 700 points. Then it miraculously recovered. No one really knows for sure, but most observers suspect that the so called “flash crash” was the result of high speed computers programmed to automatically react to unspecified market indicators. Today’s New York Times reports that the regulators are fearful of more computer-driven crashes – and so are investors.
Another date to remember is June 1, 2009. That day, Air France flight 447, a highly computerized fly by wire Airbus A330 airplane, fell 35,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean off South America. All 228 on board died.
The cause remained a mystery until the black box flight recorder was recovered from the deeps earlier this year. Investigators determined that the pilots did exactly the opposite of what they were trained to do, and based on faulty information from the airplane’s computer system literally flew the plane into the water.
Science fiction has become fact: we are gradually, almost invisibly, forfeiting our judgment and our human attributes to technologies we do not fully understand and as yet do not fully control. This surrender pervades the culture: Corporations are persons for purposes of permitting them to exercise and ultimately swamp our First Amendment rights, the US Supreme Court has decreed. Restoring the primacy of human beings in the political process is imperative.
Like the Constitution, technology should serve us, not the other way around. An astounding outpouring of grief and affection for Steve Jobs this week has been followed by well-deserved odes to his creativity and acumen. Jobs democratized computers, putting them in the hands of the masses. The operative distinction is that apple products gave consumers more control over their assets – music, video, photos. Every one of Jobs’ creations came with an on-off switch. One wonders what the man had to say about technology run amok, used to gild the lives of a few at the expense of many more.