31 August 2011

geographies of algorithms

60 Hudson Street, a key node in the global financial market, as well as the former Western Union Headquarters. 

Kevin Slavin's July 2011 TED Talk on the role of algorithms in the financial market and the direct correlations between these financial algorithms and our everyday lives is available to watch on the TED website. At 12:00 minutes into the talk, Slavin discusses the changing architecture of lower Manhattan. The carrier hotel where the regional and global communication networks come together is at 60 Hudson Street, the former site of the Western Union Telegraph Company's headquarters. Buildings near 60 Hudson are being retrofitted to house servers and other equipment for financial firms, since proximity to the network hub means financial trades can happen microseconds faster, which can mean more profit for the firms. Real estate near 60 Hudson St is spiking in value because placing a firms servers close to the colocation point allows them to run the financial algorithms through black box trading that are apparently 70% of Wall St. trades today (these figures come from a talk Slavin did at the Lift Conference earlier this year in Geneva). Through cutting a few milliseconds off of trading times--the lag time it takes for the digital information to physically reach Wall St itself--money can be made. This is a fairly particular real estate situation -- perhaps only applicable in Manhattan, London, and Tokyo -- but interesting none the less. At 7:50 into the Lift Conference talk, Slavin states that by retrofitting office buildings to hold servers, "buildings, structures are changing for the needs of algorithms that have no agenda or correlation to anything a human would be doing in that space." In the TED talk, Slavin elaborates on this new conceptualization of the landscape, discussing a recently-built fiber optic communication line between Chicago and New York that exists only to facilitate these algorithmic trades. These trading systems that have no tangible existence outside of the computers and communication infrastructure that houses them, let alone a connection to the everyday existence of humanity, are impacting the urban and non-urban landscape significantly.

The image quality in Slavin's talk is not that high. I thought I'd put up some photos of 60 Hudson Street that I took in March 2010 in case anyone was interested to see how the building looks from the sidewalk.

60 Hudson Street's main entrance.
"Learn how to blog" workshop flyer on the sidewalk outside the facility. The polar opposites represented here are great - a photocopied, physical flyer advertizing an online class to learn how to create digital content, outside one of the most important hubs for the global Internet in North America.

The remains of two Space Invader tiles--some street art based on 8-bit video games glued to a cinder block wall across the street from 60 Hudson.

 For a bit more discussion about 60 Hudson Street in the context of tracing the route an email takes across the United States, see Andrew Blum's piece "Netscapes" in Wired Magazine from 2009.

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