Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Brevity of Modernity

14:33 Posted by The Thalesians (@thalesians) No comments

Coffee whispers to my sense of smell, whirring through my consciousness, as I sit here in an American coffee shop. Above me, sitting aloft are skyscrapers their crests emblazoned with the names of American banks, a corner of London more Empire State than Wren. My fingers tap on my keyboard has slowed, no longer are words magically appearing on the screen seeking my eyes’ attention. Whilst headphones are perched in my ears, music pulsating through them, I hear little. I ignore the continual beeping of new Twitter messages, the flickering of pop ups signalling new e-mails, the stream of customers entering the coffee shop.

I am thinking, seeking to find a path through my thoughts to a cohesive narrative to write here. The wonder of thinking is that clear separation between you and the rest of the world, a time to indulge in the unknown. Thinking occurs when you allow the stimulation of the outside to dull, for a time, to allow the wonder of ideas to develop from within you. It is what I love about reading, seemingly abstract shapes on a page, creating words to catalyse my thoughts over time, rather than the gratification of images instantly flooding into my mind, a stream so rich, it can sometimes smother my thoughts. What spurs thought is not so much a flow of information, but the time spent digesting that information flow later.

Yet, how often do we think at length today? The modern world seems to favour brevity. Information seems to grow exponentially, each year that passes in this, the Internet Age, hastening the attraction of brevity. The length of this article is governed by how much time, you, the reader will give me, the writer. Our attention span can seem little more than one hundred and forty characters at a time. The notion of spending time investigating anything at length seems to have lost out. It seems passé, a relic of days past. Books are to be absorbed upon the screens of a device which needs batteries, but only in small chunks, rather than on the wonders of paper, a medium which lasts for a lifetime.

I might seem like a Luddite, expressing these sentiments, indeed perhaps somewhat hypocritical, since new technology is something I embrace. I love using Twitter and have for nearly a decade worked in financial markets, my eyes for hours each day, continually seeking out the words emerging from my news feed and price flashing up or down, analysing this vast trove of data systematically. Decades ago, I would have been staring at a solitary ticker tape of prices, rather than multiple screens, using programming languages with exotic names like Java and Python. My point is not so much that we should abandon modern technology, which has spurred this move to brevity.

Instead, I ask why can't the one hundred and forty characters of the tweet and brevity of news wire headlines, sit alongside books: the novels of Fitzgerald and Dickens, the non-fiction of Hitchens and Taleb, in our society. We need not choose between brevity and length. From tweets, we learn from the thoughts of many people, in brief snapshots, which coalesce to provide a sample of the world at a single point in time. By contrast books give us an opportunity to delve into the thoughts of others at length. However, this opportunity is only afforded to us if we are willing to exchange our time.

The same is true of markets, the incessant media coverage of high frequency trading seems to neglect the fact that it is possible to profit from longer term trading, where we might take a significant length of time to come to a trading decision. If anything, for some investors sticking to longer term trading can be a better approach, than being sucked into intraday trading and potentially the spectre of over-trading. Often with higher frequency trading, more care needs to be taken to ensure the noise of short term price action is not confused with a signal that market dynamics are changing. It can be done, but needs focus.

It's not a question of modernity or a Luddite appetite for the past. It's simply an acknowledgement that modernity should not usurp the idea that sometimes, we simply need to spend time thinking, wondering and reading, to allow us to escape (as the photo above implores us), as well as browsing. The question is this: what will you read next, a tweet or a book or perhaps both?

My book Trading Thalesians - What the ancient world can teach us about trading today is out in late October on Palgrave Macmillan, has some colour on the topic of learning from the past (mixed in with a bit of ancient history). You can pre-order the book on Amazon.


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