evil_technologyThis column started out being titled “Is Goldman Sachs Evil?” until I realized the issue is far more broad.  It began with a blog post by my old boss Jim Casella, who now runs Asset International, a financial publisher.  Jim concludes after a review of some recent and very negative press that Goldman isn’t evil, per se, just cocky.  But by comparing the investment bank to sports teams and players I think Jim makes a grave error.  Goldman Sachs isn’t evil, just stupid.  And that stupidity comes in the form of their witless abuse of technology.

Jim’s sports analogies are misplaced because while sporting events must inevitably have winners and losers economies don’t. TRADING has winners and losers but Goldman is an INVESTMENT bank (worse still, they are now a bank holding company) pretending to be on the side of economic growth.  Trading relies on finding and exploiting inefficiencies in the system while investing grows the economy.  Trading is a parasite on investing.  I’m not saying to ban it, I AM saying that technology has enabled outfits like Goldman to be such efficient parasites that they threaten the survival of their hosts.

This is fine if we look at it as a process of evolution.  Maybe what we are going through lately is natural selection that will over time improve our culture and society.  But that’s not the way it is being pursued by Goldman and others: they aren’t envisioning some future after they’ve killed their host, nor do their techniques allow the host to recover before being bitten again.  I’ve talked with these guys and they are clueless about the implications of their work. The deepest they’ll go is to allow that China will likely be the next economic superpower so they’ll just move their operations to Beijing or Shanghai.

That doesn’t do much for Ma and Pa back on the farm.

Economies need a little slack to function smoothly but these companies are removing all of it. All they need to be is a little less greedy, but their greed apparently knows no bounds.

Their techniques usually come down to the application of technology.  Faster computers and bigger pipes allow the relentless application of small advantages that eventually suck profit out of the market.  The answer is bigger and bigger guns wielded by bigger and bigger players, which is fine unless you aren’t a big player, which pretty much describes the rest of us.

This process builds financial bubbles until they pop then it is left to the despised government to fix things.  But what if government runs out of options?  Then there is economic revolution.  That’s what happened in the former Soviet Union in 1989 — a process we in the west cheered at the time.

But what if it happened to us?

We can’t imagine that.  Our economic policy doesn’t imagine it, nor does our foreign policy, because superpowers don’t acknowledge weakness.

But we ARE weak.

It all comes back to technology.  Remember the work of Black and Scholes that underlay the staggering growth of derivative securities was based on thermodynamics. We use principles from one area in another to good effect, but what makes an efficient heat exchanger can make a deadly security.

There’s a sore failing here, I believe, in the application of ethics to technology.

Ethics?  What does ethics have to do with Boyle’s Law?

Maybe nothing, maybe plenty, but the overall problem is that those who claim to understand ethics aren’t so good at the technology parts, and vice versa.  We saw that with Enron, which was technology gaming the market, and we evidently haven’t learned much since.

Google’s corporate motto is “Don’t be Evil.” I thought that was silly when I heard it first.  But now I think it is the height of wisdom.  Because the techiest of techie companies probably knows better than most the power of tweaking systems to death.

It’s possible.  We CAN kill our own culture trying to preserve or defend it.  Understanding that and helping to make change as painless as possible comes down to the best efforts of those few people who really understand the complexity of our society — many of whom are readers of this column.

Everything is interconnected in this era where technology drives society yet few really understand technology.  If someone can take down Twitter because of a petty grudge then ANY information system is vulnerable.  Sometime neglect is all it takes.

And neglect is all around us.