For an Anthropology of Atmospheric Markets: The Exemplary Case of Financial Markets

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

In a recent article on high frequency trading, MacKenzie et al. noted with humour that "the recent UK Government Office for Science Foresight Investigation of Computer Trading felt forced to commission a review (Angel 2011) of “The impact of special relativity on security regulation'" (MacKenzie et al. 2012). The surprising thing about this investigation, commissioned by an esteemed British public agency, is not the link – admittedly, somewhat ludicrous at first glance – that it suggests between the financial crisis and the speed of light. For all those who, like researchers in STS, are attentive to materialities and to their place in the organization of social life, this type of relationship is self-evident. What may however appear more startling and more interesting, is the connection it explicitly makes between a phenomenon that could briefly be qualified as meteorological (light) and the social behaviours that this phenomenon is supposed to influence. Yet the association is by no means new. Max Weber, proposing that only activities oriented in relation to others' behaviours be considered as social, offered a counter-example to illustrate his argument: people walking in the street who all open their umbrellas simultaneously when it starts to rain. "If at the beginning of a shower a number of people on the street put up their umbrellas at the same time, this would not ordinarily be a case of action mutually oriented to that of each other, but rather of all reacting in the same way to the like need of protection from the rain" (Weber 1978 p.23). There is nothing social about opening one's umbrella when it rains, says Weber, unless we do so to imitate others! A number of other founding fathers have argued in a similar vein: Durkheim, by showing that heat and light could not explain variations in suicide rates; Montesquieu, by brilliantly developing his theory of climates; and, closer to us and to the subject of interest to us here, French economist and professor at the Collège de France, Roger Guesnerie, by showing the perfectly conceivable influence of solar spots on economic coordination. Meteorology runs through the history of sociology and more generally of social science, because it constitutes a good starting point to highlight what both separates and connects natural order and social order: the world of intangible laws and that of changing conventions. By evoking meteorological phenomena here, I am also referring to notions such as climate, atmosphere and, in short, everything that envelopes and nurtures human activities, making them viable.

Since its establishment as a discipline, sociology has constantly reverted to this subject, striving to establish an impervious border that would lastingly protect the social from meteorological mishaps. But its efforts, as talented as they may have been, have enjoyed only partial success. Chase the weather out the door and it immediately flies back in through the window! The text of Mackenzie et al., from which the above excerpt is drawn, shows that we cannot get rid of the climate and atmosphere so easily. As these authors emphasize, the financial market "with its drily, computer-filled warehouses linked by fibre-optic cables carrying millions of messages a second as close as possible to the speed of light" and "with its small number of staff, who can spend most of their time in heated offices" where High Frequency Trading reigns, needs a particular climate, without which it would be doomed.

The above observations show the importance of atmospheric conditions for highly computerized financial markets. If the temperature is poorly regulated and light cannot travel freely, the liquidity of markets is impeded like the oceans that freeze in a single block, we are told, when the temperature drops below a certain threshold. It would be easy to add to the list of these conditions. Are we not talking, especially in the case of financial markets, of a climate of confidence? Is the notion of a bubble not particularly well-suited to describing these (relatively) closed worlds where passions are heated? I think that we cannot limit ourselves to considering all these terms simply as metaphors.

I would like to suggest that financial markets constitute a modality of market organization whose history – which is now gaining visibility and may become pre-eminent – could be written: a form of market organization that I call atmospheric and that echoes what Sloterdijk calls spheres, bubbles, and froth. These socio-technical agencements can function, be maintained and prosper only if the environment is favourable – an environment that can best be qualified as atmospheric.

I have to admit that this term atmospheric markets is not my own; it was coined by the actors themselves! Atmospheric marketing results from a simple observation, neatly described by Leong and Weiss: "Shopping has historically preferred to do away with the outside, seeing nature as an unpredictable interference with the unfolding of commerce. Instead, it has created its own interior realms – the bazaar, the arcade, and the shopping mall all exist in a lineage of greater control and greater autonomy from exterior conditions. With the invention of air conditioning, natural light and air could finally be superseded and rendered obsolete, as “ideal” and completely artificial shopping conditions were enthusiastically adopted by the public."[1] The idea of atmospheric marketing is to create an atmosphere, to manufacture a nurturing sphere, a bubble, a confined climate within which markets and customers can allow themselves to be warmed up by the market passion and give themselves up to it. Both the object and the subject of this warming up, without which no transaction is possible, are the goods proposed and their value. Or rather, since their value is not given in advance, their valuation. Valuation takes place in a confined and carefully controlled, conditioned atmosphere. Between the mall and the mart on the one hand and financial bubbles on the other, we see the same influence of atmospheric chambers. The variables may change, depending on the market bubble. Catherine Grandclément cites the case of a study that shows 47 atmospheric parameters which have to be controlled to enable the consumer and the seller to warm up. The fact of allowing for the coexistence, as in modern financial markets, of computers and the humans who are animated by the setting of prices that circulate, in the form and with the speed of light rays, does not have the same requirements as the assemblage of shopping carts, glittering shop windows, cold rooms, or stalls humidified by mist sprays in front of which heavily laden buyers pass by.

Each market has its micro-climate, but what counts here is that at the two extremes, in Main Street as in Wall Street, everything is a matter of atmospheres and therefore of spheres carefully designed so that one can breathe comfortably, closed in on themselves to shield the valuation work from disturbances, yet in constant invisible communication with one another.

If we decided to exhibit the different types of market devised throughout history in a gallery, as we do for living beings in natural history museums, I believe atmospheric markets would be one of the most recent, probably destined to a bright future. They would precede the Austrian markets of the "von Mises" or "Hayek" type, inhabited by isolated self-sufficient agents capable of knowing what they want and of calculating, but incapable of containing externalities and of ensuring the provision of public goods, yet nevertheless wary of the state and its intervention. They would be placed in front of the Schumpeterian evolutionary markets, producers of innovation and creative destruction, which are incapable of providing calm transitions or of arranging lasting coexistence without the attentive assistance of civilizing states. Thus, at the head of the procession we would find atmospheric markets with their bubbles. The local warming up attending the valuation of goods is contagious; it spreads and intensifies. Atmospheric markets are favourable to imitation and consequently to the generation of profits; Weber sensed this, with his story of rain and umbrellas. But atmospheric markets have their own particular type of failure. Their weakness is the fact that there is no one to regulate the thermostats, and that very quickly market fever can have devastating effects.

Atmospheric markets are at the mercy of any panic that unleashes crowds for, as their theoreticians have shown so well, it is indeed the crowd that is mise en scène and performed, with its pressures and its passions, its mood swings and its mimetic deregulations. They can become suffocating (Henry Miller spoke of the air-conditioned nightmare); they poison with their toxic products and other junk bonds; they produce cold sweats and, in the most extreme cases, drive people to throw themselves out of windows. Each type of market generates its recalcitrances. That of atmospheric markets could be the doing of anonymous crowds that find the air unbreathable.

I suggest that an anthropology of these markets remains to be developed; a historical and comparative anthropology that tracks their constituent elements and explores their functioning. It seems to me that financial markets could be a fine subject for such anthropological inquiry.


[1] I wish to thank Catherine Grandclément for drawing my attention to this text (Grandclément 2008).