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Technology & capitalism

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Technology & capitalism


Material Political Economies: From High-Frequency Trading to Online Advertising 

Donald MacKenzie (University of Edinburgh)





‘Material political economy’ is a perspective on finance (and similar economic activities) that takes all three of those words seriously. It probes the material foundations of economic life; examines the politics of those foundations (both in the actor-network theory sense of ‘material politics’ and in the effect on, e.g., finance’s materiality of the interaction between finance and the political system); and is attentive to mundane but deeply consequential economic processes, including rent-seeking.  

The main case that will be examined is automated, ultrafast high-frequency trading or HFT. Among the effects of HFT’s extreme speed are surprising vulnerability to everyday material phenomena (rain, even bird droppings) and an exquisite sensitivity to the precise location of equipment. In HFT, the speed of light in a vacuum is no longer simply a theoretical limit but a practical constraint, and this makes HFT's materiality above all a spatial materiality.  

Two other cases will be discussed more briefly: bitcoin, which has a structural similarity to HFT, but one whose material manifestation is quite different; and online advertising, with its intimate material political economy, in which devices that we consider personal can act in surprising ways. Your phone, for example, may itself be conducting auctions for your attention.  

Donald MacKenzie is a sociologist of science and technology at the University of Edinburgh, where his research focuses on the material foundations of economic activities such as financial trading and online advertising. His book, Trading at the Speed of Light: How Ultrafast Algorithms are Transforming Financial Markets, was published by Princeton University Press in May. His earlier books include Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (MIT Press, 1990) and An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (MIT Press, 2006).