Friday, April 11, 2014

The image of mastery and omniscience

David Brooks writes:
Most of us have been seized at one time or another by what I call the explanatory drive, by which I mean a biological urge to explain things at some length, if not to others then at least to oneself; when you are confronted by a puzzle, riddle, or enigma and cannot rest through your long, haunted nights until you have wrestled that sucker to the ground, figured it out, and shouted, "Eureka!" or words to that effect.
We're all familiar with the explanatory drive, but I never realized I could incorporate it into my narrative of how traditional Tory morality makes the world go round until recently, when I was reading Michael Lewis's new book Flash Boys, or at any rate reading the excerpt they ran in the Times Magazine, or at any rate watching one of the book-tour television interviews. As I struggled to understand what a "high-frequency trader" does—is it like nobody knows what you're up to because only dogs can hear it?—I had one of those sudden flashes of insight, understanding that it doesn't really matter, because this story is not about all that technological stuff but rather about good and evil. So I could skip the complicated parts.
Boiled down to its essence, the story Lewis tells is one of how a small number of people came to realize that the stock market was being rigged by traders using these complex computer techniques to get a leg up on everybody else. The question is, why did the heroes act when most traders did nothing? And the answer is, surprisingly enough, they were kind of like me, insatiably curious puzzle solvers.
Because, really, there are two kinds of people (I know I've said that before, but trust me): those who are motivated primarily by a desire to make money, and those with an intense desire to figure things out.
If you are primarily motivated to make money, you just need to get as much information as you need to do your job. You don’t have time for deep dives into abstract matters. You certainly don’t want to let people know how confused you are by something, or how shallow your knowledge is in certain areas. You want to project an image of mastery and omniscience. Are you following me there?
So you end up with a culture of knowingness, of people simply bluffing their way through without truly knowing what they're talking about. And not merely on Wall Street, but throughout society; even at highly respected newspapers and on network television! Whereas Lewis's heroes, driven by intellectual curiosity, dived ever deeper in their quest for pure, unprofitable knowledge. And they ended up not only understanding in detail what was wrong but working out a way to build a market that couldn't be rigged in this way. They were good, curious persons rather than shallow bluffers.*
Some might argue from this fascinating story that markets need to be watched by people not animated by the profit motive—by government regulators, in fact. But that's totally wrong. If the rigging of the markets is to be defeated it will have to be by traders working in private firms who aren't animated by the profit motive but for some reason don't get fired. I don't have time to explain why right now, but you know my reputation for mastery and omniscience.
*I don't like to interfere with the rhapsody when Brooks allows himself to be channeled, but somebody needs to note that the guys who rigged the system probably had some intellectual curiosity too. The bolded passage is a direct quotation; I couldn't find a way of parodying it that would not make it less funny than it already was. Incidentally, see the indispensable Driftglass for an interpretation of today's column as a communication from an increasingly dissociated robot adrift in interplanetary space.

[Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names]


Carol Ann said...

David Brooks is insatiably curious? His hallmark is a lack of intellectual curiosity and coming up with lame repetition of non-facts.

Somehow his idea is sort of wrong, like saying hackers are merely insatiably curious and their theft is merely the result of active systemic testing.

Victor said...

Is there a more clueless, un-self-aware douche-canoe out there?

Never mind.
Don't answer that!

Danp said...

It's a mistake to think that Brooks is naive or clueless. It's even worse to think of him as moderate or intellectual. What he is, is a very clever snake oil salesman. In this case he suggests that inside trading is not a matter of legality or morality, but rather ignorance. He doesn't argue in favor of smarter regulators or greater whistleblower protections. Rather he suggests that if people only understood what they were doing, they would stop doing it.

The fact that his arguments are frequently illogical is of little consequence. They work because they appeal to the goodness of mankind.

Yastreblyansky said...

Thanks, Victor. What I love about Brooksology is that total lack of self-awareness so that he keeps unconsciously condemning himself (though he has stopped telling everybody they have to be married since the divorce).

Danp, Brooks is not naive or clueless (except on that self-awareness front), but he is terminally careless and generally on the verge of fraud, and that's material for mockery. This fact-free column wasn't such a great example since the illogic was the only thing going for it--no outright falsehoods or pseudo-plagiarism--but he's my White Whale and I have to go on plugging regardless.