King of the Plumbers
Back in late 2017 I went to the financial district of New York City. I wanted to find the office building that in the Mid-Nineties housed a company called Island. Island was founded by computer programmer and free information idealist Joshua Levine, and it held offices on the 10th floor of 50 Broad St., in the financial district of Manhattan. Island housed the ultimate avant-garde of high frequency trading. Kings of the plumbers – they would call themselves – those that understood to bank on the very plumbing facilitating the transaction of a stock rather than the stock itself. And it was here, with the launch of the trading platform Island, on February 16, 1996, that high frequency trading was conceived, leaving its distinct mark on the future of economics; a new form of trading outmanoeuvring human faculty, the speed of every micro transaction weaving ever-new threads in an opaque unstable neuro-network of hyper-connected currents. Or to put it differently; where traders used to shape their practice according to the market, the traders would now shape the market themselves.

Joshua’s Vision
Joshua Levine, a sloppy-dressed normy-looking tech nerd, crew cut and holes in his jeans, was with Island the first to develop a computer system that would bypass the middlepersons of Wall Street and let buyer buy directly from seller. This was an idealistic venture, at first. In tune with a rising idealism, spun around the revolutionary and emancipating power of the building internet, Josh wanted to free information. As Scott Patterson describes in his book 'Dark Pools – The rise of A.I. trading machines and the looming threat to Wall Street' (2013), Josh wanted to make information accessible and available for the masses. He believed that monopoly had to be defeated; that the blue-chip giants had to fall. He foresaw a market in which all information streamed seamlessly through microprocessors. Computer programs would match buyers and sellers. The price of any stock easily looked up on a screen. With the push of a button. Investors would no longer get fleeced by insiders hoarding all information. From Island a completely new way of trading is conceived. Trading is taken out of the manic sign language of the brokers on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange – taken away from the elite that is always numerous steps ahead – and moved inside the data-carrying cables. And with this move the speed of the trade multiplies. A whole new way of making money becomes a reality. Pennies turn to millions as the amount of trades increases exponentially. The real money is no longer made only on the stock itself, but really on the mechanics of its countless exchanges.

We Feel that We Created a Monster
But what for Levine was a victory in the pursuit of bringing the market into the digital space and in that way open it up to the masses, would change face as the algorithms surpassed his wildest dreams and created a predatory life of their own, in the unimaginable high speed of the future electronic feed. The early systems that Levine created would be the foundation of an algorithmic war that would replace the middlepersons with something perhaps similarly undemocratic – the high-frequency traders banking on the rebates of the maker-taker model. Patterson writes: 'Trading for many firms became a race to capture the trade, to get in the front of the queue to buy and snap up the rebate, only to pivot in a fraction of a second and sell, capturing another toll. Speed was paramount, and so was high volume. The more trades, the more speed, the more rebates. Soon, nearly every other electronic pool would copy the model. […] Of course, all the takers—fund managers and regular investors—would be paying through the nose.’ (2013) Levine’s dream of lighting up, and thus putting an end to the dark pools in which profit-making by the elites takes place in obscurity, the trades hidden from the public, turned out to create a light so blindingly bright that it eventually returned the pools to their pitch black darkness. That was the irony of the maker-taker model: ‘One of the primary reasons why Levine created Island in the first place was to push out the middlemen. [But] with maker-taker, Island helped create a new class of middlemen, high-frequency traders. Levine would come to regret the maker-taker model in later years. “We feel that we created a monster,” says one of Levine’s former colleagues at Island.’ (Patterson, 2013)

Rational Justification of the Irrational
The story of Joshua Levine is also the story of deregulation and financialisation. Joshua’s classic tech-utopian peer to peer dream, is build upon an idea of rationality. If regulations are put in play by a small elite, this small elite will use these to their will. In a state of deregulation this control is supposedly given over to the masses. At the heart of this rationality is the idea that left to their deregulatory nature things will eventually fall in line. Human rational behaviour will eventually work towards the benefit of all, since this is of course to the benefit of oneself. This is the invisible hand of the neoliberal free market.

Hand of God
Adam Smith, 1776, Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX of The Wealth of Nations: ‘As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. [H]e intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this […] led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. […] By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.’ (Oslington, 2012)

That invisible hand, which will ensure that every individual venture will eventually be of benefit to the whole of society, and hence pursuing the common benefit should not be necessary or even advised, is truly a hand of God. A mystical and theological vein pumping justification through the neoliberal economy. A belief system making up for so many poor excuses. Not knowing what the actual intentions of Joshua was in advocating for these deregulations on the exchange of information and stocks, it is still clear to see that the intentions of one supposedly anti-governmental anarchist free-information idealist, can be reflected in the perhaps darker mirror image of the right wing anarchism of the libertarian. Here, deregulation is arguably not really about creating an autonomy of the people, but rather about creating a space of uncertainty and of total unknowability. If there are no regulations on the market, there is also no easy way of analysing and reacting to its movements. And a new elite is created – one that again indeed is in the know, compared to the rest of us, to which the workings of these markets are indiscernible. A new elite that may work irrationally but is justified by this idea of rationality.

Monster in the Cable
With financialisation this supposed rationalism extends out into every aspect of life. And here we come to the monster that Joshua helped create. The algorithm is employed to sustain the rationale. With its binary logic, it will, the quants say, follow its rationale and therefore cannot fail. And of course, the only thing that could really stand in the way of this foolproof rationale, this invisible hand of the market, would be the disturbance of outside regulations. Through the processes of financialisation and deregulation everything becomes a speculative commodity. The physicality or actual function of a product or investment is of less importance – its financial reality is spun around imagined prospects of said things, i.e. the selling and buying of debt and credit fabricated around the possible rise and fall of such products and investments. The movement of capital is now fluctuating in the dark – profits and losses are made inside the cable.

It’s hard not to be fascinated by the character of Joshua Levine. The fact that he never wanted to be CEO of Island, that he disappeared in history, never really credited for the monster he had created. But most fascinating of all, is the mess that built up around him in his offices, as he changed the face of the market with cold precision. The Island offices were cluttered with trash. Rotting apple cores, crumbled candy wrappers, cans and plastic bottles, styrofoam takeaway boxes, petrified pizza crusts and broken keyboards. All littered around a crazy webbing of power cords and network cables. Interconnected PC towers humming away everywhere. On several walls there were shelf after shelf of blinking Dell Towers. Card tables crowded the offices, all packed with terminals and half empty paper cups. Greenish white discs of mould covering the cold black coffee beneath. An inflated kiddie pool accommodating a group of live turtles were placed in a corner, in another a large American Iguana slumbered in a pile of discarded cables. On one desk sea monkeys swam around in a jar. At each terminal, a young trader sat glued to the screen. Young men, sometimes pulled straight out of high school, into the frantic gearing up of the dot-com frenzy. With the automation of the transactions and the math implicit herein, the trading game became much more about readiness and stamina. The young traders would not leave their seats, fingers hovering above the keys; no toilet breaks, no blinking, the trades parading by on the screen; miss a chance and a keyboard would smash into the wall; cursing and spitting, pissing in jars; chants of insider lingo spoken through the teeth, dark malevolent incantations. Patterson: ‘Tens of thousands could be lost in minutes, made back the next. No one blinked when a chalk-faced guy doubled over a garbage pail and puked violently, never leaving his seat and trading right through the puke.’ (2013)

I kept meditating on the filthy environment that constituted these office spaces, physically as well as psychologically. And on the way in which the financial market is considered norm in contemporary society, shaping this sort of absolutism from where all societal and personal imaginations ultimately must emerge. And how this norm is so deeply contrasted in this literal mess. I thought that perhaps the notion of this untidy and anarchic place of origin could enable counter-understandings (and the potential of sabotage, restructuring or hacking) of these systems that appear as solidified structures in contemporary society – dark, manipulative, avaricious structures, yet solid as ever. The Island offices presents a place somehow deeply uninhabitable, while habitants abound regardless. The market as incontestable is somehow challenged in this eerie meeting with the physical mess it sprang from. This mess was really what made me visit the office building back in 2017 and which finally led to the installation 'Cable ITCH (I don’t wanna work at Island no more)'.