With the recent merger announcement of the New York Stock Exchange with Archipelago Exchange, pundits seem to agree that this merger signals the beginning of the end of the last human-mediated trading floor amongst large international exchanges. Predictions are that the NYSE will become fully automated and computerized, ending the famous trading floor scene of frantic brokers trading shares and deals with one another face-to-face. In its place, computers will take the stage, becoming the new electronic middleman between those who have shares to sell and those who want to buy.
What does any of this have to do with psychology and technology?
Because we, as a society, are embracing technology without fully understanding the long-term ramifications of this decision. We’re constantly seeking out short-term gains and improvements without really taking into consideration the whole picture for future generations.
Computers are great, don’t get me wrong. They are wonderful tools that help many simplify their life, get more information, and in the end, hopefully make better, more informed decisions. These better informed decisions hopefully lead to better lives (for people) or better revenues and increased profits (for companies). But computers are not always the right choice, even when they appear to provide a solution to an existing problem.
As a tool, a computer is a useful aid. It has helped architects and engineers design and provide more reliable, interesting structures and buildings. It allows us to split atoms, and categorize human genomes. It can take guesswork out of business intelligence and product demand curves. It even allows us to exchange money in the form of bits and bytes instead of actual paper money changing hands.
But as a foundation for an important enconomic pillar in our country, I suspect we’re pushing the envelope of sane thinking. There is no such thing as an unhackable computer system. There is no such thing as a 24/7/365 computer system (despite what some companies claim). And until there is, putting all of your eggs into a computerized future seems a bit short-sighted to me.
Imagine a power outage. You know, the kind we had just a few years ago on our supposedly modern power grid. The kind that isn’t supposed to happen. The kind that brought an entire coast of our country grinding to a halt. That’s fine, you say, those things are freak occurrences, and happen once in awhile. Like the California blackouts of a few years ago.
But as our thirst for power increases, and our infrastructure fails to keep pace with it (and it really is nowhere near to keeping pace with it — it is doubtful the U.S. has enough reserve electricity supplies without tapping into our neighbors from the north during peak usage periods). Now, instead of just going a few days without power, imagine an entire society devoid of electricity. Could it happen? For a few days, sure. But for a few weeks or even longer?? Who knows? The question in my mind isn’t if such a thing is possible, but simply when.
Now, fifty years ago, architects and engineers could keep on working, since they used their drafting boards and graph paper to create the structures that hold us up. The NYSE could go on running using good old-fashioned paper and pencil, just like they did then. Citizens could use cash instead of charge or debit cards to pay for goods and services. The point is, fifty years ago, I think society could easily survive and overcome a lapse in electricity even for a long period of time. It was inconvenient, but the basics of daily life (and the basics of our economy!) didn’t depend on electricity being reliable and abundant.
All of that has changed. I suspect some new architects wouldn’t know how to design a 50-story building on paper (without aid of a CAD program), or a doctor who had to diagnose a patient without the reliance on ordering 10 or 15 lab tests. Or a politician who couldn’t rely on instant polling techniques. Or citizens who had to resort to reading their news, instead of watching in on TV. Or an important stock exchange not being able to function because generators were never meant to be used full-time, indefinitely.
As a tool, I think computers are the cat’s meow. But as this something more they’ve become, this integrated component that so many people have become dependent upon, I am sometimes a little worried or concerned. We believe we live in a largely stable world, with virtually endless supplies of natural resources. And yet that belief isn’t grounded in reality — we live in a limited-resource world where, one day (perhaps in some of our’s future), some of those resources may very well run out or dwindle significantly. So it’s a simple equation: limited future natural resources means limited supplies of electricity, the stuff that powers our modern world.
PS – Yes, I know, I know, let’s pin our hopes on solar or nuclear, because they’ve shown so much promise to date! Naturally, a lot can change during my lifetime, but we’ve all been waiting for a breakthrough in energy production for decades and none has come. Nuclear was the last big one with commercial realization, and that was developed more than 50 years ago!