Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Information as beauty: The art of the financial sector

Analysis of financial systems is still dominated by talking-heads and written punditry. The traditional financial website is all tables and graphs with numbers, cliched phrases and received wisdom, normally more confusing than enlightening. These approaches don’t come remotely close to conveying the emotional currents of the financial sector, the historical richness, the sociological complexity and the sheer chaotic surrealism. Art is frequently viewed as a financial asset, so why not treat finance as art? That’s what my new 'Financial Expressions' series will be about. It is aimed at exploring creative alternative ways of expressing financial information and ideas about the financial sector.

Raw Material: Back to basics with pure information
David McCandless was right to point out that information is beautiful. He's made a career out of finding pretty ways to present it, but sometimes even the most raw forms of information can have a gorgeous artistry. The beauty of raw financial information was first made apparent to me when I was introduced to the Bloomberg financial data terminal.

It looks like 1970s pop art, with an armour-plated keyboard, colour-coded keys and retro text set against a black backdrop like the old DOS systems. Its design seems to be inspired by old films of communist Russia, but for all its low-fi chic, the Bloomberg Terminal is one of the single most important items in the functioning of a capitalist financial system. The reason for this is that it provides raw information, live streaming prices of financial instruments and commodities, databases of company information, complex calculators to work out values and crunch statistics, profiles of individuals, and a lot of other stuff. It functions in a manner which serves to remind you that finance is an ancient art: It does not allow you to easily use a mouse to point and click on different options - you actually have to type in codes and hit ‘enter’. WEI gives you world equity indices, BTMM gives global bond markets. GRAB allows you to take a screenshot and email yourself a snapshot from a window into the world.

To me, the unique beauty of Bloomberg screenshots comes from the fact that they do not attempt to weave a coherent narrative around the information they present. If it's confusing watching the numbers jump around, it’s because confusion is the reality, and understanding is the abnormality.

Attempts to contain the chaotic nature of financial reality with clear stories must necessarily be shallow, but sometimes we need simplified realities. The following seven areas might be fruitful channels for those looking for creative routes to exploring financial complexities.

1) Sketching the system: Financial schematics
Thanks Brook
Schematics are a great way to simplify complex systems. Take the Shadow-Banking system for example. That's the vast labyrinth of securitised madness set on the wild shores of tax havens and the grimy jungles of London and New York. Need a map to navigate it? You sure do, lest you get eaten by an algorithm. Fortunately, the New York Fed was kind enough last year to develop a massive schematic to map it (see pg. 3). The map is so huge that to read the writing, one has to zoom the PDF to 300%. Alternatively, you can be like Brook Masters of the FT and print it out on a 3ft by 4ft sheet of paper. Take a look at it. Feel more enlightened?

Zerohedge did some great remixes of the map. The first is a circuit-board complete with a 'bailout chip' - try run this baby on your computer and watch the CPU explode and screen catch fire. The second is a Buddist Mandala - that's the Fed chanting soothing monetary aums.

Much work needs to be done in mapping financial systems with schematics. Mazes that people might want to take on include:
  • Multinational company ownership structures
  • Financial instruments (for example, structured products)
  • Alternative money transfer systems, like Hawala
  • Internal structures and dynamics of a large bank (good luck)

2) Financial visualisations & infographics
Visualising information and packaging it with slick graphics is increasingly popular as a means to convey the basic essence of certain financial and economic issues. Infographics are especially useful for presenting statistics, which frequently mean nothing when served up blandly in tables. In a world exploding with stats, the infographics industry can only get bigger. Listed below are a few samples from some great sites.

VisualComplexity: US Trade Deficits and Surplus
Wallstats: Death and Taxes
Chart Porn: US Energy Production
Flowing Data: 27 visualisations to understand the financial crisis
US Debt Visualised in 100 dollar bills

Other sites worth checking out include Many Eyes, Visualising Data, Information Aesthetics, and Cool Infographics. I've been using Newsmap as a useful way to get a  quick sense of the top trending news stories across countries and topics. Finviz heatmaps are a great way to visualise the size of stockmarkets and companies. I haven't yet had a chance to explore it, but GlobalSpirometry looks incredible.

    3) Moving pictures
    There's also a whole world of infographic visualisation videos out there now. It's a fantastic medium, but I can't help but notice that a lot of these videos have become slightly formulaic variations on each other, sometimes a bit too slick, with flickering advert-like graphics and soundbites drawing seemingly clear messages from complex information. The financial ones have a tendency to depict bankers as fat men with top hats, which is slightly archaic, and suggestive of the fact that the people that make these videos probably don't hang out with bankers. That's especially clear when the technical mistakes slip in. Take this video about Glencore, the global physical commodity trader. It's visually stunning, but come on guys, Glencore isn't an 'institutional investor', as is claimed. I wish they'd get somebody to fact-check it if they’re going to go to all that work to create it in the first place.

    Going forward, I think it would be great to expand collaboration between financial professionals and visual artists. An awesome example of fruitful professional collaboration on the economics front are the Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos, created by filmaker John Papola and economist Russ Roberts of George Mason University (and host of the great podcast, EconTalk).

    4) Financial Haikus
    Less is frequently more, so I've been trying to start a Twitter trend called #MarketHaiku. I'd like people to attempt to sum up the madness of daily markets in three lines with 17 syllables. Here are some examples (Ok, so these need some work still, but man is it fun):

    • #MarketHaiku 1: Volatility, is a five syllable word, bringing destruction
    • #PretentiousMarketHaiku 1: Wisened sage once said, To fear both the bull and bear, Is to fear nothing
    • #CommodityHaiku 1: Avocado, how tasty you are to me, all green and mushy
    • #PretentiousCommodityHaiku 1: I trade oil futures, and thereby make the present, the far distant past

    5) Financial Landscape Art & Guerilla Semiotics
    Andy Goldsworthy makes beautiful landscape art in the countryside, but I think we could do it within London itself, in financial zones such as The City, Mayfair and Canary Wharf. Banksy has long shown us that workscapes are pristine environments waiting to be subverted, but financial workscapes remain underrepresented in the urban subversion scene. There's a whole world of culture-jamming waiting to be unlocked, epic fireworks shows and small disruptions on the back of toilet doors. Who's up for stensilling the Wall Street Crash on the windows of Barclays Capital?


    6) Financial Performance art
    Back in 2009 I had the rare opportunity to participate in an intriguing piece of financial performance art, run by well-known avant-gardista Haley Newman. A group of us stood outside the Bank of England and recited a mantra about consumerism. She called it Capitalists Anonymous. It was fun, albeit pretty bizarre. Let's design some more of these performances, because in a world characterised by absurdity disguised as normality, what do we have to lose, except dignity, and what's that worth anyway... (yo, get me the market price of dignity)

    7) Markets and Music
    Perhaps the most exciting idea for me personally, is putting music to financial markets. A while back, the FT commissioned composer Julian Anderson to create a musical piece interpreting the financial crisis. The result, to my ears, was underwhelming (listen to some snippets here). It's not just about notes and melodies, it's about texture of sound. A piano is not the right instrument for the financial crisis. You need electric guitars with fuzz pedals, amplifiers with built-in reverb and a moog synthesiser. A volatile market might be a Jimi Hendrix solo, set against a Les Claypool bassline of long term fundamentals. That's a future project waiting to happen. Anyone want to collaborate?

    In the mean time, I thought I’d experiment with financial DJ decks and mash some Youtube videos together. I've found a radical combination: What do you get when mix an audio recording of a crazed S&P 500 futures commentator during last year's flash crash with a laid back bassline of 10ft Ganja Plant? You get Blood Money. It's not perfect yet by any means (and Youtube Doubler is pretty crap at synching - make sure both videos have a chance to load before watching), but I'm going to invest in some proper video editing technology so I can do this properly. Watch this space for my upcoming Youtube channel.

    All these mediums offer potential channels for great creative madness, and maybe, just maybe, unorthodox routes to deepening our understanding of finance. If anybody has any other ideas, feel free to contact me. I'm always up for collaborating if you buy the whiskey.

    Over and out.