Gilian Tett: In with the ‘on’ crowd

Image of Gillian Tett

Back in early 2007, during the height of the credit bubble, one of Wall Street’s most senior bankers criticised me over some of my articles about the complex credit world. “Why do you keep writing that structured finance is murky and opaque?” he railed. “It’s not opaque – anyone can get anything they want off a Bloomberg machine!”

“But what about that 99 per cent of the population that is not on Bloomberg?” I asked, pointing out that most politicians and journalists – let alone ordinary voters – did not have access to those hallowed Bloomberg terminals, which allow financiers to access data and place trades, as well as providing news coverage. How could they get information? That question elicited a long, pregnant pause. This particular banker clearly assumed that everyone who mattered had a Bloomberg terminal. He did not know how to reply.

This little exchange has popped into my head repeatedly in recent days, as allegations have emerged that some Bloomberg journalists in recent years have been looking at details of clients’ terminals. As the revelations have tumbled out, this has infuriated some financiers. Meanwhile, Bloomberg executives have rushed to reassure their clients that they respect confidentiality – and are now tightening internal controls to separate the journalism from the commercial terminal business.

But as the row rumbles on, what the saga has also illustrated is the point that I noticed back in 2007: namely the degree to which those Bloomberg terminals have become deeply embedded in the cultural rhythms and minds of financiers today. Never mind the fact that the terminals supply an astonishing amount of data; nor that the software includes a highly popular system for messaging, which is the bedrock of many trades, particularly in bond markets.

What fascinates me – particularly from the perspective of cultural anthropology – is the degree to which Bloomberg has become an implicit source of identity and cultural attachment for financiers. Sadly, this is not something which is easy to measure with precision. And I rather doubt that those mighty Bloomberg executives would feel inclined to let sociologists or psychologists crawl over their clients now (although if they wanted to see the type of insights that anthropologists, say, shed on the grassroots of finance, look at the work of Caitlin Zaloom on the Chicago trading floor).

But even without detailed ethnographic research, the pattern is clear: for many financiers, having a Bloomberg email address – or paying $20,000 a year to log on to one of its 300,000 terminals – has become tantamount to being part of the club of the modern global financial elite. It creates identity, in a way that its rival Reuters generally does not. If you are “on” Bloomberg you can communicate with people like you, and get access to information that people not on Bloomberg cannot. This creates a shared cultural discourse, as those terminal users’ minds are shaped by the same news stories and the shared vision of history (defined by data points on those Bloomberg charts). Spending hours staring at a screen, in other words, creates a common cognitive map, or assumptions about how to classify information – and the wider world.

Such behaviour is not unusual: humans cluster together to create shared patterns of cultural discourse in every society known to anthropologists. But what makes the Bloomberg cluster so fascinating is that these social ties are not based on geographical proximity, family or education; instead, what Bloomberg essentially did when it started selling its terminals three decades ago is create one of the world’s first cyber villages, which stretches from the financial engines of Seattle and Shanghai to Sydney and Stockholm.

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And therein lies a subtle danger. The more that cyber villages such as Bloomberg enable the elite to cluster together – in their heads, if not in physical space – the greater the potential for them to become subtly aloof from their geographical societies. The internet links the world in some ways but it can also create new forms of tunnel vision. Of course Bloomberg is not alone in this. On the contrary, numerous other cyber communities have emerged in recent years, many of which are more explicitly tribal in their political or religious affiliations. Bloomberg, by contrast, aspires to be “neutral”, in the sense that it supplies a wide range of information about politics and religion, alongside that market data.

And yet every time that anyone clicks on to a Bloomberg terminal they are imbibing subtle assumptions: that money has overriding importance; that financial flows can be analysed in isolation, using maths; that globalisation should link people instantaneously; and – most importantly – that only a small cadre of highly trained people will ever understand how the terminals work. Those Bloomberg terminals thus reflect the financial caste’s worldview; and reinforce it. It is brilliant business for Bloomberg. But the social impact should not be ignored; even – or especially – if our mental maps are not something that can be neatly tracked in those clever Bloomberg charts.

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