Biz Tech Magazine's Ricky Ribeiro has one of those tech piece about technology driving our love of speed that sounds kind of upbeat, but actually is really depressing once you think about it. (Kind of like most Maroon 5 songs.) Speed, he argues, is
what users expect of technology. Fast is never fast enough…. What’s a few seconds, you say? It can mean everything when it comes to workplace productivity and businesses capturing customers and revenue….
A recent article in The New York Times reported on Google’s search engine optimization found that users who are forced to wait 400 milliseconds will abandon ship. “Subconsciously, you don’t like to wait. Every millisecond matters,” said Google engineer Arvind Jain.
In the financial services industry, time is even more of the essence as latency or downtime can cost firms and traders real dollars and cents.
“We deal in micros and nanos, millionths and billionths of a second,” said Sonny Baillargeon, chief technology officer for Pico Quantitative Trading.
Well, yes. If you're Google or a high-frequency trader, every millisecond counts. There might even be one or two more examples where parsing time and reacting at the level of milliseconds is actually important: experimental physics, perhaps, or nuclear weapons management.
The problem with this article is that unless you work in HFT or search, that kind of speed never matters. You never, ever have to make a decision that quickly. And when you try to structure your attention and time to squeeze two lives into the space of one, things eventually go bad.
The depressing thing is that all too often we assume that speed is always good, and that we should work as fast as our devices.
Not only is this problematic and unnecessary in normal life, the pursuit of speed can also lead to big problems in industries that value speed. Last month, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Associated Press' Twitter feed, and posted two messages saying that there had been explosions at the White House, injuring President Obama. What happened in the fast-paced financial services industry, the land of nanos and picos?
The 143-point fall in the Dow Jones industrial average came after hackers sent a message from the Twitter feed of the Associated Press, saying the White House had been hit by two explosions and that Barack Obama was injured.
For those who prefer their scary news in graphic form, here's what that looked like [via]:
Here's what happened, according to security expert Mikko Hypponen:
High-frequency trading bots are monitoring real-time news sources like press feeds and stock-exchange notices…. They try to analyze whether the news is positive or negative. Then they will automatically buy and sell stock accordingly. While this is awfully unscientific, on average they make more profits than losses.
When SEA hacked AP and posted the single fake tweet, trading bots saw crucial keywords from a highly authoritative source: 'Explosion', 'White House', 'Obama' and 'Injured', which was a strong sell. It took some minutes until human operators interceded and stopped the madness.
It recovered quickly-- the hoax was revealed within minutes-- but that was long enough to erase about $136 billion from the market.
This nicely illustrates the problem with the pursuit of speed. Financial services firms may have started out creating systems that could execute a little faster than the other guy-- systems that would give their traders that tiny advantage in execution-- but the pursuit of speed above everything else has yielded, as Michael Castelluccio argues,
a system geared up to trade at speeds beyond the control of the traders. High-speed computer trading uses algorithm-fueled bot-geared machines that whizz into and out of gear at speeds you don't want to get your hands anywhere near. And about 50% of all trading still uses these high-speed trading accounts.
In a smaller scale, something similar happens when we try to ratchet up our own lives to match the potential pace of new technologies, and we assume that doing something faster automatically means doing it better.
Sometimes being able to do something a little faster is good; but speed always has direct and indirect costs-- whether it's learning a new piece of software, paying for a new gadget, or creating an expectation with our employers that we're now accessible 24/7-- that we also need to learn to be more aware of.
This is not to say that faster things are inherently bad. Speed can be a virtue. But it should be a choice.