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Culture of Algorithms: The Example of Media Technologies at Work in Financial Markets

Sun, August 12, 2:30 to 4:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Floor: Level 100, 105AB


What is more evident than the boundaries of the social world? We simply take it for granted that social reality is the world of human affairs, exclusively, Luckmann noted in an article in 1970. Some areas of practice today, e.g. financial markets, have moved beyond such boundaries. They are no longer simply the affairs of humans present in markets, but also of algorithms that trade—algorithms imitate and surpass human beings with specialized capacities and challenge and confront human traders. Financial markets have been disrupted and reconfigured by major information-technological advances 3 times in the last 150 years. First by the stock ticker, then a hundred years later, by the computer, with screens replacing ticker tape and enabling electronic trading, and finally by the move to trading by algorithms. It has been in full force only since about 2005, and yet created plenty of upheaval in trading professions and regulatory agencies. What is an algorithm that trades? How did we get there—what genealogy of processes lead to algorithms coming to be what they are now, substitutes for human traders? What happens to the interaction-level market when algorithms are the counterparties in trades? And, to return to Luckmann’s question, are algorithms at the point of being included into the social world? Or are they simply intelligent machines, like self-driving cars, which we don’t generally see as humanoid actors? The paper addresses these questions and points to a major shift in power in financial markets from one profession to another. It will also point to the challenges media such as algorithms pose when we attempt to integrate them with core concepts of sociology, e.g. that of culture and interaction. Finally, the paper points to the role of emotions, or what “feeling data” may look like in the example of flash crashes.