In August 2010, Edinburgh Sociologist Donald MacKenzie (whose book An Engine, not a Camera is an outstanding piece of scholarship) wrote an article in the Financial Times titled Unlocking the Language of Structured Securities where he discusses a software suite for financial analysis called Intex and compares it to a language that allows to see and interact with the world in certain ways rather than others. MacKenzie describes his first encounter with Intex as a moment of revelation that quickly turned into doubt:

The psychological effect was striking: for the first time, I felt I could understand mortgage-backed securities. Of course, my new-found confidence was spurious. The reliability of Intex’s output depends entirely on the validity of the user’s assumptions about prepayment, default and severity. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate whether some of the pre-crisis vogue for mortgage-backed securities resulted from having a system that enabled neophytes such as myself to feel they understood them.

While MacKenzie does not go as far as imputing the recent financial crisis to a piece of software, he points out that Intex is not recursive in its mode of analysis: when evaluating a complex financial asset, for example one of the now (in)famous CDOs that are made up of other assets, themselves combining further values, and so on, Intex does not follow the trail down to the basic entities (the individual mortgage) but calculates risk only from the rating of the asset in question. MacKenzie argues that Goldman-Sachs’ 2006 decision to basically get out of mortgage-based securities may well be a result of their commitment to go beyond available tools by implementing a (very costly) “bottom-up” approach that builds its evaluation of an asset by calculating up from the basic units of value. The card-house character of these financial instruments could become visible by changing tools and thereby changing perspective or language. Software makes it possible to implement very different practices or languages and to make them pervasive; but how does a company chose one strategy over another? What are the organizational and “cultural” factors that lead Goldman-Sachs to change its approach? These may be the truly challenging questions here, although they may never get answered. But they lead to a methodological lesson.

The particular strength of systems like Intex lies in their capacity to black-box evaluation strategies behind a neat interface that allows users to immediately operate on the underlying models, weaving these models into their decisions and practices. Conceptually, we understand the ways in which software shapes action better and better but the empirical complexity of concrete settings is positively daunting even outside of the realm of financial markets. What I take from MacKenzie’s work is that in order to understand the role of software, we have to be very familiar with the specific terrain a system is embedded in, instead of bringing overarching assumptions to the table. Software is a means for building structure and this building is always happening in particular organizational settings that are certainly caught up in larger trends but also full of local challenges, politics, and knowledge. Programs are at the same time structuring backdrop practice and part of a strategic repertoire that actors dispose of.

The case of financial software indicates that market behavior standardizes around available tools which leads to the systemic delegation of certain decision processes to software makers. This may result in a particular type of herd behavior and potentially in imbalance and crisis. Somewhat ironically, it is Goldman-Sachs that showed the potential of going against the grain by questioning programmed wisdom. That the company recently paid $550M in fines for abusing their analytical advantage by betting against a CDO they were selling to customers as an investment indicates that ethics and cunning are unfortunately two pair of shoes…

Post filed under algorithms, economy, epistemolgy, mathematics, technological determinism.


  1. There’s a very interesting book called The Blank Swan on financial software that describes trading as writing. By the way the guy who wrote it runs a company in France, which offers the software that can predict the behavior of other software products used in the markets – somewhat meta-take on trading.

    Your point makes me think though that it’s important to know what context the software was actually created in. Because the embedded rules and algorithms may be related to a specific agenda, which is simply outdated or does not have anything to do with the current developments. If trading is writing then I want to use the language with an adequate vocabulary.

    • Good point!

      Another problem is that the these internals play out differently according to the number of investors that actually use them. A bit like in the case of LTCM in the late nineties: with many other funds duplicating their investment strategies, their intellectual success (in the sense that many people thought that with so many big brains you can’t go wrong) may have produced the conditions for their downfall…

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