Uncanny algorithms and superstitious bankers

“They [superstitions] give us a feeling of control over uncertainty and so it might be predicted that the current feeling of instability in the world would create an increase in superstition,” said Prof. Richard Wiseman in 2003, just before launching his ‘UK Superstition Survey’. The research demonstrated that levels of superstition in the UK were surprisingly high, even among people with a scientific background (full details in the PDF.)

0aaaaaaaaaaaaasetup1.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

In this time of crisis and confusion, are we going to resort more than ever to superstition and irrationality in order to get back an illusion of control? The project that Shing-Tat Chung was showing at the work in progress show of Design Interactions, explores a world in which beliefs and rituals emerge from the seemingly harmless private sphere to infect larger and more complex public systems. In times of uncertainty will the population demand an alternative logic to be implemented? This project imagines a stock market in which superstitions abound, producing uncanny algorithms and illogical bankers attired in green suit and Feng-Shui briefcases.

an uncanny algorithm.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

Questions to the designer:

I found surprising that your project associate people working in the Stock Exchange with superstition. I thought they were the only people who had control these days. What triggered this interest in ‘illogical bankers’?

We’re at our most superstitious in times of uncertainty, as we are hardwired to gain control of a situation by recognising patterns, even if they ignore current rationale. When I started researching superstition, I started to concentrate on looking at contextualising my project in scenarios that would best suit my project. This drew me to the stock market and thus bankers. Due to the high levels of instability and vast amounts of money at risk, it seemed the ideal economy to play out my project.

The stock market is in essence a breeding ground for superstition. We have this view that trading is done the rational way, almost emotionless, and then there is this whole other part that is hidden in the private sphere of the banker or trader, such as being buried in their lucky trading jacket or large hedge funds using financial astrology as a source of advice.

One of my favourite researched rituals is a ‘reputable’ trader who establishes his starting trading position based on the nipple direction of the Sun’s page 3 model (up or down). Whilst these facts may be fun and whimsical, what really interests me is when these irrational beliefs start to emerge and become implicated into more cemented systems. For example, 70% of the largest lift supplier’s orders, request that the number 13 is removed. So in question, how far will it go, and how far do we demand such beliefs to be implemented? What I want to do is extract these irrationalness and redesign a system which is governed by alternative beliefs. One in which all these beliefs that exist on a private level emerge to infect larger systems. In effect creating this parallel stock market.

With the economic and financial systems collapsing, will we seek an alternative logic? One in which will give us illogical bankers.

Do you think people would trust them more (or at least see them in a more favourable light) if they knew that bankers’ decisions are influenced by superstition and illogical elements?

Maybe we would see them as more human and as a result vulnerable. However I think it says a lot more about us in general. The stock market is just another structure among many in which decisions are much more influenced by superstition. The same with extreme fishing, or even sports. That’s why a lot of sports stars or even politicians deploy more superstitions than average.

In the early 20th Century, the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski noted that islanders in the pacific who fished in ‘safe zones’ carried out their jobs with a high level of rational expertise. However the fisherman who ventured off beyond the coral reef displayed many superstitious rituals and ceremonies to invoke magical powers for safety and protection. So it would seem reasonable that bankers would use more irrationalities. What I want to see is what happens when they solely use illogical elements.

0suit detail 2.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

pattern detail.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

Can you talk to us about the Power of 8 suit? Why the number 8? And what do you mean by “The suit provides the owner with the comfort that even the process of the making of the suit has accommodated relevant superstitions’?

The idea was to begin to question what, why and how the stock market is run. What bankers and traders wear, the colours, the organisation. My first objective was to imagine what it may look like visually, would all the bankers wear green because green represents a rise in the market. However, I wanted to take this a bit further, so working with a pattern cutter, we came up with a pattern that had all its dimensions tailored towards a multiple of the number 8 (cm). Whilst it may look like a regular suit, the cuffs are in fact a bit wider than normal, the sleeves stretch out a bit more than usual.

Why I used the number 8? Well 8 is a lucky number in Asia. (Translates as sudden fortune and prosperity). A number 8 plate in Hong Kong sold for around half a million pounds, where as the Beijing Olympics started on 8.2008 on the eighth hour, eighth minute and eighth second. Part of the project is not only to critique certain collective beliefs but also to see how far we demand them to become implanted and that’s where the comment comes in. To what extent do we take our beliefs. Do we require that the current logic in manufacturing is replaced with alternative ones? So if all the measurements of products had to abide to the number 8, what would our reality shape to look like?

If I was rich and superstitious and someone came up with the proposal to convert the all my belongings to be tailored towards 8, I would probably go for it.

feng shui architecture.jpgArchitecture following Feng Shui principles in China

proposalandregulations.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

One of the experiments of Superstitious Thoughts involves an Uncanny Algorithm. What is this algorithm about? And what do people invest in when they invest in this Uncanny Algorithm?

The Uncanny Algorithm is a trading algorithm. One that is currently in stage 1, which is the call for investment and the creation of the actual algorithm. The algorithm will use a trading platform and buy and sell shares with the investors money. However, rather than using current rationale, the algorithm will use superstition as its principle logic. The rules or logic will be governed by collective beliefs such as the fear of the number 13. Buying and selling on a collection of numerological rules (that don’t clash). Whilst it will acknowledge collective superstitions, it will also generate its own. Hopefully it will recognise hidden patterns whilst it is trading. So upon a successful trade it will seek for hidden ‘charms’. Speculating a bit here, but if I could link this pattern recognition with, for example, the BBC sports webpage, it could potentially start to develop superstitions that are related to the performance, of say, Manchester United. It will then use this to govern how it trades. Or much more simply, if it made a successful trade at a certain time, it may consider the numbers in this time lucky and start computing these as the logic to trading.

So what will happen is that the algorithm will happily trade shares for one year, after this period, the result, whether it has lost or won money will be returned to the investor.

During the trading year, I hope to release quarterlies (reports) and AGMs where investors can attempt to raise trading performance supernaturally. At this very moment, £686 had been invested.

Essentially, what people are investing in is superstition. The experiment, rather than a tool to make money, is more about moving people into the thought space that an algorithm could operate with a very humane way of working and to also act as a live social experiment. As an experiment, that is why I am accepting investments as low as two pounds.

fengshui briefcase.jpgImage courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

How do you feng-shui a briefcase?

I like the term ‘to feng-shui’. Maybe I’ll use that more. What I was trying to be careful with, was not to embody the briefcase with, all aspects of superstitions, but to sub divide beliefs into more manageable slices. Feng-Shui has a lot of rules to abide to. So I didn’t want to use them all in one go (my project would be over in a flash). In this case, I wanted to take the iconic ‘hole in a structure’ that channels through chi. It still amazes me when I see those buildings in Asia that have huge holes in the middle of their architecture. Incidentally Feng-Shui is used a lot in businesses, I wonder how you could Feng-Shui a business plan.

Maybe I should go to a specialist and ask to Feng-Shui my thesis.

Did working on this project make you more superstitious than ever?

I would say I am on the half way line. I am pretty rationale, however I like to entertain myself with superstitions. But by working on this project, and unearthing all these wonderful superstitions out there and its effect on systems, it hasn’t made me more of a believer, but it has definitely made me admire them more.

Although now that my superstition knowledge has quadrupled and that I now know of more beliefs and rituals, maybe they will slowly or subconsciously affect me.

In fact, I recently found out the time I was born which was 8.18pm. Combine this with 8th Nov 1986 and I am starting to feel pretty lucky.

Thanks Shing-Tat!