[-empyre-] Critical considerations linger.

Curry, Derek d.curry at northeastern.edu
Mon Feb 15 07:09:37 AEDT 2021

I’ve really been enjoying the conversations this month. In thinking about Ben’s use of obfuscation, Leo’s URME, as well as older tactics (Jon McKenzie mentioned our friends CAE), I also try to imagine how tactics could be repurposed or ultimately serve to strengthen power structures. Admittedly, this question is always in the back of my mind (when it is not front and center). But, to what extent has tactical media served as a form of penetration testing for the ruling elite? For example, is it ever irresponsible for an artwork reveal an exploit or effective tactic when it means that exploit will be patched, or tactic will be guarded against in the future? And while I completely agree with Geert’s proposal that there should be a culture of refusal and a collective exodus from the dominant social media platforms. But my fear is that this won’t necessarily lead to a better situation given that there was a mass collective exodus from major social media platforms and a migration to smaller alternatives in the wake of the January 6th insurrection—only the discontent with the platforms was due to censorship of right-wing claims of election fraud, and the migration was to platforms that cater to right-wing ideologies. AWS suspension of the right wing Parler microblog from using its services has bolstered calls from some conservatives to break up the big tech monopolies, and may result in a viable alternative—at least for right-wing social media outlets. Interestingly, what is being enacted by discontented cultural warriors on the right is very similar to what I have heard liberal friends of mine propose be enacted for years—and for much the same reasons, they don’t want a major corporation to control their speech or what content they are able to see.

At the individual level, there are tactics and choices for how to engage with social media, at least for the near future. But increasingly the danger is not only the effects it may have on an individual, but what it can trigger others to do. Web 2.0 has resulted in a new type of control that operates via the ability to transform vast quantities of aggregated data into predictions and actions. Zuboff has recently described the process as data exhaust being rendered as behavior, but it is also similar to what Deleuze called “ultra-rapid forms of free floating control” (Postscript on the Societies of Control). Like nuclear technology, this power structure can’t simply be dismantled now that it exists, and it has been demonstrated that it can be weaponized by technocrats with an understanding of analytic mass psychology and access to large datasets. Deleuze says that there is no need to hope or fear, only to look for new weapons. I tend to think that this is the future of social media—but this could just be me projecting what happened with networked stock trading onto social media.

In the transition to networked stock trading, there was a moment when technology emerged as a liberating force that helped to counter the power imbalance between retail investors and established market makers. A community of day traders emerged who leveraged new technology to trade effectively against large investment banks. They were dubbed “SOES Bandits” by the market makers because they primarily used NASDAQ’s SOES trading platform at first. The tactics used by the SOES Bandits were similar to tactics used by hacktivists and sometimes tactical media practitioners at the time. For example, the sign for one of the largest trading platforms for SOES Bandits, known as Island, was actually carved foam that was spray painted and glued onto the building to make it look like it was an old company (link to image posted below). Recognizing that networked technology was creating opportunities for more people to participate in the markets in ways that were more fair, courts in the US largely sided with the SOES Bandits in litigation over how networked stock trading should function, and regulators in the US passed rules that favored networked stock trading. Among other things, these rules required that all prices be made publicly available and that if a trader placed an order for a stock at one exchange, and that stock was available for a better price at another, the order must be either filled for the better price, or routed to the exchange with the best price. These rules, combined with new network technology (like microwave and laser data transmissions) and high-powered GPUs are what resulted in trading practices known as high-frequency trading. High-frequency traders (HFTs) are able to exploit network latency to detect big moves in the market and buy large quantities of a stock and sell them microseconds later. So when an institutional trader you’re your pension funds or a university endowment attempts to buy or sell a block of stock, the HFT can buy that stock first at a different exchange (or all of the exchanges) and then instantly sell it to your pension fund for slightly more. Donald MacKenize describes this process in more detail in the link below. 

The point to this story is that technology disrupted an established power structure and opened up spaces for tactical interventions for a short period of time. Those tactics coalesced into high-frequency trading strategies and a new power structure and new technocratic elite. The old establishment didn’t disappear entirely, but it is now competing with the new group that operates under different rules (exploiting electronic networks opposed to social networks), but both groups pose a danger to retail and institutional investors. Pension funds must now choose between paying slightly more for their transactions or investing in expensive technology to help them evade high-frequency traders. Technology that was once used to level the playing field for a group of day traders is now costing the average retail investor money, not to mention inhibiting the growth of pension funds, university endowments, etc. I wonder if looking back a decade from now, we will have a similar story about social media.



On 2/14/21, 10:33 AM, "empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Amanda McDonald Crowley" <empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of amandamcdc at gmail.com> wrote:

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