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Wall Street's New Time And Its Consequences

We have been exploring the idea of culture and its "time-logic" over the last few weeks. Business, commerce and economics have always played an essential role in developing people's expectations about time. But it's important to see how new science and technology act as the agent allowing business to establish new time behaviors.

From the development of time-zones by railroads in in the 1880s to the development of radio broadcast networks in 1920s, commerce and its politics (using science) have led the way in setting new attitudes about time, for better or for worse. The process is still on-going in our own era.

Today Graham Browley in The New York Times is running a great story that focuses on one aspect of our culture's time-logic — the speed of stock trading. According to the report, regulators are playing catch-up in clamping down on the practice of micro-second, high-volume trading. Why? It's all about consequences. Thinking a microsecond is the appropriate duration for such an exchange has led to behaviors that have shaken the entire culture of commerce and the entire culture as whole. As Browley writes:

"Perhaps regulators' biggest worry is over the unknown dynamics of the computerized stock market world that the firms are part of — and the risk that at any moment it could spin out of control. Some regulators fear that the sudden market dive on May 6, 2010, when prices dropped by 700 points in minutes and recovered just as abruptly, was a warning of the potential problems to come. Just last week, the broader market fell throughout Tuesday's session before shooting up 4 percent in the last hour, raising questions on what was really behind it.

"The flash crash was a wake-up call for the market," said Andrew Haldane, executive director of the Bank of England responsible for financial stability. "There are many questions begging."

Indeed, there are many questions begging, but beneath them all is the question of time — our economic assumptions about how time can be used. From the speed of trades to the speed of resource consumption, we have developed a set of expectations about time and commerce. The consequences of those assumptions are only now becoming apparent.


You can keep up with more of what commentator Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.