The new master of the universe

Who is the master of the universe in the great crash of October 2008?

In the Bonfire of the Vanities, his satirical 1987 novel about Wall Street, the meticulously realistic Tom Wolfe created a big-time bond trader called Sherman McCoy, the so-called "master of the universe" and the epitome of Eighties greed and hubris.  Who then is the equivalent of Sherman McCoy in today's Wall Street meltdown? According to Richard Dooling, the Luddite author of Rapture of the Geeks: When AI outsmarts IQ, this month's crash was caused by intelligent machines (ie: computers) rather than human beings. As Dooley argues in today's New York Times:

As the current financial crisis spreads (like a computer virus) on the earth’s nervous system (the Internet), it’s worth asking if we have somehow managed to colossally outsmart ourselves using computers. After all, the Wall Street titans loved swaps and derivatives because they were totally unregulated by humans. That left nobody but the machines in charge.

According to Dooling, then, it's the intelligent machines rather than the Sherman McCoys who are now running Wall Street. Tom Wolfe's all-too-human master of the universe has metastasized into an artificial algorithm. In Richard Dooley's apocalyptic interpretation of the today's crash:

We are living, we have long been told, in the Information Age. Yet now we are faced with the sickening suspicion that technology has run ahead of us. Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.

Instead of a perfect financial storm, Dooling is describing a perfect nightmare -- a dystopian science fiction movie in which the Matrix is "made of credit default swaps". We've caught up to a future where technology is always a little bit ahead of us and the artificial algorithm is determining human history. Rather than Tom Wolfe, today's meticulously realistic literature is being produced by Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Sherman McCoy was the last human master of the universe; today's master is an intelligent machine.