Co.Design

Game Developer Kevin Slavin On How Algorithms Mold Our Cities

Slavin, a noted game developer, notes that entire city neighborhoods are being remade to resemble computer chips. And we've barely even noticed.

Forget Rise of the Planet of the Apes ? it's Rise of the Planet of the Algorithms. In the 15-minute TED video below, game developer Kevin Slavin explains how formulas are not just beginning to control aspects of our lives like Netflix recommendations and Wall Street trading, but also how we are quite literally changing our architecture and shape of the earth to accommodate them.

To illustrate what he calls the "seismic terrestrial effects of the math we're making," he describes a fiber optic canal that was dug between New York and Chicago to deliver stock market information microseconds faster, and the way buildings are being carved out from the inside to house trading servers.

If that wasn't enough, Slavin, whose games include Sharkrunners, where players look for virtual sharks controlled by real sharks being tracked by GPS, and the popular Facebook game Parking Wars, argues that we're writing code that we can no longer read, and the inability to read what he calls "the machine dialect" impedes our ability to understand what we're making. And while a limited taxonomy of algorithms are beginning to be identified--with names like The Boston Shuffler, Twilight, The Carnival, The Knife, and Pragmatic Chaos--Slavin goes a step further and suggests that is only the first step toward a greater understanding of these formulas as a third co-evolutionary force in nature, which is "terraforming the earth with algorithmic efficiency."

He begins the talk with a photograph from Michael Najjar's "High Altitude" series, in which a normal-looking mountain range has been digitally manipulated to mimic the topography of stock markets around the world. Then, using a company called Black Box Trading as an example of how algorithms move 70 percent of the American stock market, Slavin describes "the flash crash of 2:45," in which nearly a tenth of the stock market disappeared in 2010, only to recover it 20 minutes later.

These glitches in the matrix, so to speak, or what Slavin calls "algorithms locked in conflict without any adult supervision," can occur in cultural scenarios too. Amazon inadvertently charged $1.7 million for an ordinary science book--a steal compared to a few hours later, when the price jumped to $23 million. Epagogix is a firm that uses formulas to determine how much money a Hollywood script can be expected to earn before it's made.

But one of his biggest points is an architectural one. After describing how humans "freak out" in destination-control elevators (no buttons=no feeling of control), he talks about how buildings near the Carrier Hotel, which houses 45,000 square feet of server space for 130 network providers in downtown New York City, are being gutted so that Wall Street firms can store trading servers nearby, saving what amount to microseconds by their proximity to the source. The result is a bizarro Manifest Destiny, reshaping our homes and our lands, for the sole purpose of pulling money out of thin air.

Video via TED. See more videos featuring Slavin here.

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1 Comments

  • m bayaa

    Interesting, especially how seemingly invisible these changes are to us. Data centers are bound to increase in number as more and more services pop up. I'm curious to see how we'll cope with the demand.