Friday, February 25, 2011

Is the Future of Finance "Post-Human"?

Thursday, February 17, I put up a post titled “The Future of Finance is Getting Closer” ( In this post I discussed the changing world of finance and how it is being impacted by changes in information processing and the spread of information. I write on this subject fairly frequently because I believe that the continued improvement in information processing and the continued spread of information are going to dominate the future of finance…and everything else.

A reader of this post expressed concern over this assessment: derryl, stated that “John seems to be describing, not a post-industrial world, but a post-human world. Disembodied minds trading in information.”

I don’t believe that I am describing a “post-human world.” Information processing and the spread of information has been going on for a long, long time. Let me put this in context. Freeman Dyson, Physics Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton wrote in review (New York Review of Books, March 10. 2011) of the new book by James Gleick, “The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” that “Everywhere around us, wherever we look, we see increasing order and increasing information.” This is true both in the living world as well as the non-living world.

Dyson goes on to qualify this statement. This “unending supply of information is a glorious vision for scientists. Scientists find the vision attractive, since it gives them a purpose for their existence and an unending supply of jobs.” Scientists work with the increasing amount of information to identify and work with the increasing amount of order.

The concern by derryl only becomes real if the amount of information that exists is finite. Then the advancements of information technology can conceivably capture and model all that is and we evolve into “post-human world”.

The world being described by Dyson is a world in which the questions never end because the amount of information in this world is growing and will continue to grow. Thus, there will always need to be humans because there will always be questions to ask and inferences to be made.
This world Dyson sees is continually requires humans to be around to gather the new information being produced and incorporate into new concepts and models.

This is even more true of “human” activities like finance and investing. All the studies of complexity theory argue that the behavior of humans is much more “complex” than the behavior of non-living things. The reason for this is that modeling humans requires more information and more sophisticated models than is required to model non-living things. Thus, building models relating to investment behavior in a world where the total amount of information is increasing is something that cannot become “post-human.”

Dyson captures this reality by writing that “The vision is less attractive to artists and writers and ordinary people…Ordinary people may not welcome a future spent swimming in an unending flood of information.”

We see the problems in modeling human behavior in the book “The Quants” (See review: In this book, the author describes what has been called a quant-led collapse: specifically the August 2007 market meltdown. “This meltdown came in what is known as the “shadow banking system” and not the true banking system (for) the Federal Reserve really didn’t seem to know what was going on. The first catastrophe came when the Bear Stearns hedge funds were instructed to file for bankruptcy on July 30, 2007. The melt-down started in earnest on Monday August 6.” Quant firms suffered large losses on “toxic” assets.

But, the “Quants” are still in business. And, the “Quants” are still using sophisticated mathematical models to invest. As with all human problem solving activity, the humans have learned from the 2007 experience. They have modified or re-built their models to take into account the new information that has been gathered and processed. And, they now have more robust models than they did before the financial collapse.

This is a highly quantitative world, yet it is not post-human and in my view will never be post-human. Humans are problem solvers and in playing this role they must build models, test models, modify models and use models to make decisions or explain things. Humans are information users. And, in the world we are moving into will be even more information and information processing driven. It will be “smaller and faster.” (See

This world, however, is going to be a more volatile world, it is going to be a world that changes faster, and it is going to be a world that requires people to adapt to the changes that they see going on around them. One cannot “lock” themselves into the world of the past.

History has shown that the spread of information and information technology cannot be stopped. It’s spread may be postponed for a while, but it eventually will succeed in spreading.
Laws and regulations must take account of this. Congresses and regulators must take account of this. Dictators and autocrats must take account of this. Presidents and Prime Ministers must take account of this.

A danger is that this world bifurcates…divides into two…those that can work within the new paradigm and those that adjust, for whatever reason, to the new paradigm. We are seeing some of the consequences of such division. The income distribution is being determined more and more by the amount of education a person has. Jobs are splitting more and more between service jobs and manufacturing jobs. But, even this is not all. Even clerk-like service jobs are being replaced by new technology. Jobs are more plentiful in information technology and finance than in jobs connected with “making things.” Health care is going to be an employment magnet but even there the clerk-like jobs are going to be replaced by new technology.

As a consequence of these developments, under-employment has grown substantially and will not decline much in upcoming years. Capacity utilization in the manufacturing industries will remain at historical lows. A substantial re-structuring is going to have to occur in the economies of the developed nations.

The point I am trying to make is that the world is going through a period of major transitions…economically, politically, and culturally. This is a once-in-a-century thing. As with major transitions in the past, the human element has not been eliminated, but the structure of human involvement in the world has changed dramatically.

Such change can be disturbing. I know that I am feeling the effects of this change in my life…and it is not just because I am getting older!

No comments: