I went down to the demonstration today, to get my fair share of bemusement. Occupy Wall Street seemed drizzly, dejected, and oddly disconnected from the world around it. I approve of their goals, and I think their message is very clear indeed, but I’m not so sure their methods are effective. We’ll see. But they did spur me to go back and reread, of all things, some Mark Cuban.
I don’t usually have much time for Cuban, but in a post last year he made a really interesting point: “Wall Street is a platform. It’s a platform to be exploited by every technological and intellectual means possible. The best analogy for traders? They are hackers. Just as hackers search for and exploit operating system and application shortcomings, traders do the same thing.” Matt Taibbi, in a recent Rolling Stone piece, is far more adversarial — “Wall Street Isn’t Really Winning, It’s Cheating” — but he makes essentially the same point. Most of the “cheats” he cites are examples of hacking the system, rather than breaking the law. (The big exception being the now-infamous Abacus case, but intelligent people have argued otherwise.)
It’s worth noting that the tech world’s attitude towards hacking the system, any system, generally ranges from “grudging respect” to “outright approval.” Steve Jobs was a phone phreak. MIT memorializes its finest hacks. Mark Zuckerberg’s famous FaceMash hack was the precursor to Facebook.
I suspect a similar sensibility is behind the anti-Occupy “We Are The 53%” movement; we played the cards we could scrounge up the best we can, within the system, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Why can’t you? But what Occupy is actually saying is that the system itself has been corrupted to benefit the hackers, in such a way that there is no longer any way for the non-hackers to effect meaningful change. That’s why they’re camping in the rain in Zuccotti Park rather than writing letters to Congress and getting out the vote for the candidate of their choice.
Steve Jobs, phone phreak — that’s pretty cool. High-frequency trading; also kinda cool, despite its dubious benefits. Steve Jobs corrupting Ma Bell’s management so that he and his cronies keep siphoning a percentage of everyone else’s skyrocketing bills, with no oversight or recourse: that, I think you will agree, would decidedly not have been cool. It’s that kind of perceived corruption that Occupy is protesting. Extending the hacker analogy, the problem they see is worse than black-hats taking over Amazon, Google, and Microsoft’s server farms; it’s more like black-hats taking over Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, full stop. Will Occupy really make a difference? Do Wall Street’s system-hackers care about shame or public outcry? I have my doubts. But I do believe the damp campers in Zuccotti Park have good reason to be angry.
Image: “Eye and nose of the Wall Street Bull”, by Alex E. Proimos, Flickr.