Here follow a few thoughts that, in the end, link together to form a chain…
1) Last weekend I realised that I’ve played the board game Monopoly maybe 20 or 30 times in my life, yet I don’t remember anyone actually winning a game. I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “There. I have officially won and the game is now officially over.” Instead I mostly remember bored, irritated people drifting away to get a snack, answer the phone or what have you, and never returning. In the end there’s the last person at the board counting money and feeling fleetingly rich but, of course, the game is over and the money and its thrill is void.
2) A few months back, a Canadian semi-truck loaded with oil drilling equipment was driving south along Washington state’s Interstate 5, halfway between Vancouver, Canada. The over-height truck struck a critical steel span on the Skagit River Bridge in the town of Burlington, causing a section of the bridge to collapse, shutting down Interstate 5 for a month until a temporary bridge was erected. Interstate 5 is a critical trucking link between Canada and the US, and its entry point into Canada is the second-largest road freight link between the two countries. The collapse of the bridge foregrounded the often embarrassing states of much of North America’s logistical infrastructure which is, by any standards, one of the biggest elephants in the rooms of power.
3) In the world of optical fibre communications, there is a phenomenon called “latency”. Latency describes the fact that if an optical fibre goes from Chicago to New York, it probably travels not in a straight line but, rather, in a series of right angles and switchbacks and zigzags before it reaches the east coast. An optical fibre cable travelling in a nearly straight line between the two cities, however, would allow the signals it carries to arrive in New York a few millionths of a second faster than the zigzagging line. This is latency. These few millionths of a second would, in the computerised world of stock sales, give a minuscule but distinct advantage to the people with the straighter cable.
4) There has been in our culture, in the past decade in particular, a group of reasonably smart people who hired incredibly smart people – mathematicians mostly – to design algorithms that exploit time/space phenomena such as latency to vacuum insane amounts of money out of the economy, for doing absolutely nothing except exploit systemic flaws in the digitised financial world. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, simply for hiring bright grad students, hurling some cash and some lap dances at them, then hitting the return key and making a billion dollars in a wink of an eye.
5) We all remember the crash, especially when the Dow went below 7,000, when it seemed like money was going to actually stop working. By saying not working, I don’t mean simply “not going to be worth as much as it once was” – I mean that money itself would simply cease to function. It would not just be damaged but broken beyond the point of fixability. For a day or two there, more people than just me were mentally picturing libertarian fantasias of well-dressed, well-nourished adult human beings walking the world’s streets like zombies, trying to buy gasoline, groceries, sofas, plane tickets and what have you, except money no longer works. It’s over.
6) Money is more than a massively consensual IOU note. It is a piece of infrastructure and is as artificial as Interstate 5, NutraSweet or season three of Mad Men. If money is not maintained it can collapse like a bridge along Interstate 5 and fixing it, even with determined politicians, will take ages, during which time God only knows how much human damage will occur. How is money damaged? It is damaged because me having photons faster than yours by a few millionths of a second is enough to make me appallingly rich – again, for doing absolutely nothing except hacking into money itself. It’s hard to have respect for this kind of system. Often the latency issue is presented to the public as a “Wow, isn’t this cool!” moment when, in fact, it’s sickening, and is partially why the world began to feel one-percent-ish five years ago. Reasonably smart people inhabiting the Age of Latency are milking those still stuck in the pre-latent era.
7) In 2008 we came perilously close to killing money, exposing in the process how out of date money’s infrastructure has become. The very smart people who looted billions from the economy got a slap on the wrist and are doubtless, as you read these words, trawling through the graduate rosters of MIT and Caltech looking for newer, fresher latencies. And there’s possibly a parallel universe out there alongside this one, where things didn’t go quite so well in the end, where money really was broken to the point of unfixability. It’s a game where Monopoly just sort of ended one day and nobody was quite sure why.
Douglas Coupland is the author of ‘Generation X’. His latest novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by Heinemann