The Ultimate Brain Hack: Wall Street Meets Silicon Valley
Before computers became an irreplaceable tool in the financial industry, floor trading – as depicted in the 1957 documentary film Behind the Ticker Tape – was the standard. At that point, traders actually had a dedicated floor to trade on, unlike their professional predecessors who had made their transactions on Broad Street near Exchange Place since 1849.
Stock brokers at the American Stock Exchange (now known as the New York Stock Exchange) traded slips of paper (yeah, real paper!) representing their ownership of a number of shares. At the end of the business day, they published new stock prices to the public, who would almost never be privileged to hourly price updates.
Fast forward to 2017, a new era when most traders cannot stay away from their phones, tablets, or computers for more than a few minutes. Fancy apps pedaled by Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and other consumer banks have now brought trading to the masses. Hundreds of so-called “digital nomads,” or millennial wanderers who travel full-time fund their lives by tethering themselves to their native stock market through a strong wireless internet connection. Is this reliance on technology an addiction, or a useful tool?
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A new 60 Minutes investigation into “brain hacking” accuses Silicon Valley of being the main pusher of addictive tech products all over the world. The argument makes sense. American creativity, on top of the United States’ brand of capitalistic rigor spread through pre-established distribution channels, amplifies the Bay area’s impact on global tech culture, even when Japan, Germany, and South Korea develop similar products–and often sooner.
To create “must-have” products that consumers just can’t leave at home, software designers use psychological hacks that turn communication devices into pseudo slot machines, according to expert Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager who appeared for an interview with Anderson Cooper for the 60 Minutes show on brain hacking.
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“Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’,” he said. “This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.”
For laymen, the rewards come in the form of “likes,” “views,” or “follows” from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. The “streak” feature on Snapchat, which activates once you have sent and received at least one snap from the same person for three consecutive days, is a clear example of product design that makes sure teenagers, the app’s key consumer demographic, open and use the service every single day. Young adults have become so vigilant about preserving their streaks that they often give their passwords to several friends who can log in and snap for them during the original user’s trip abroad.
“There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral, and it’s up to us to choose how we use it,” Harris said. “This is just not true. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time because that’s how they make their money.”
Young traders who are already afflicted with a social media addiction have their entire livelihoods riding on quick communication and access to the Robinhood or TD Ameritrade apps.
Their profession of choice offers independence, but like any remote job, it creates this need to stay plugged in for the maximum number of hours in order to reap the most rewards. The most profitable trades need to occur during short windows of opportunity for real gains – or, at least, gains high enough to eventually feed, clothe and shelter the trader. Otherwise, the stock market is just a bunch of money exchanging hands at suboptimal times.
During his time at Google, Harris pointed out that the brain hacking techniques employed by the company’s most popular products “weaken our relationships to each other” and “destroy our kids’ ability to focus.”
The 144-page presentation he prepared on the issue made its rounds within Google and eventually reached founder Larry Page. Three years later, nothing changed in the corporate marketing and programming culture, leading Harris to resign and start a campaign to get the “engagement” sector of Silicon Valley to be responsible in its product development goals. Applications and devices should work to achieve the end goal of the task at hand, not catch users’ attention for the longest period of time. For the trader, the question you should be asking yourself is clear: Do you apps help you to achieve your goals, or are they dictating your every move?
Since the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, Silicon Valley has rebuilt itself financially by creating consumer products with an appealing graphics user interface to deliver advertisements, which guarantee revenues for large parent companies.
The U.S.’ sharpest engineering minds have been told to figure out how to get the most clicks on an ad banner – a task that benefits bottom lines without innovating new products.
The NYSE gets similar condemnation from leftist economists since the most successful stockbrokers tend to have one-in-a-million intellects that could arguably be of better use in other industries that promise to build the future.
In this way, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are kindred spirits.
The duo’s key functions, to trade money and attract money (via ads), respectively, do not progress or serve society in the way a doctor or pilot can. Ironically, the two are codependent. Traders can’t trade without Silicon Valley’s computers, and engineers can’t continue their work without funds procured from initial public offerings and rising stock prices.
Good thing there are some loopholes that can ensure brokers get the work-life balance they deserve. Automated trading has made it easier for traders to take a step back and trust their personal market algorithms to make the right decisions. Orders to buy and sell at pre-set prices mean brokers can define their terms in advance and let the computers handle the rest. For lay traders, new financial devices (such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs): marketable securities that track a set of assets, but trade like a stock) make it easier to diversify even the smallest investment portfolio. This way traders don’t have to sleep with one eye on an electronic ticker.
But don’t be fooled. In all likelihood, your brain has been hacked. Make sure that you’re using your technology and that your technology is not using you!
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