James_Burke.jpg

A consultant once told me a wonderful story – so wonderful I don’t even care whether it’s true or not – about how the monthly European benzene price in the 1950s was calculated based on the US price once the latest issue of Chemical Market Reporter had arrived in Rotterdam by boat.

Are we now wasting time and money on dealing with market volatility that’s the result of how we gather and process information?

Nicholas Carr of The Atlantic.com argues that the Google age is making us think and behave differently.

The furious linking between one site and the next, the feeling of never knowing enough, of never being entirely up-to-date, might have turned us into what the playwright Richard Foreman calls “pancake people”. In other words we have a broad range of knowledge thanks to all that surfing – but have an inability to read more than a couple of pages of text at any one time and to take a break from information-trawling long enough to consider what we have read. We have, as a result, lost our intellectual depth.

As our attention spans ever-shorten with the volume of information and information-solutions out there, are we making energy and chemical markets more volatile?

Are we no longer able to take a deep breath and stand back and contemplate what is really going on?

The financial players and the physical traders contribute to erratic price movements because they have an interest in volatility, but to what extent?

Could it be that the way we gather and process information plays a bigger role in erratic price movements than the speculators?

Fundamentals still play the biggest role. For example, oil supply is so stretched that the slightest disruption to production – or even only rumours of a disruption – can have a big effect on pricing.

But the speed with which information is flashed around the globe and how we react to that information might be increasing volatility in tight markets such as crude.

Quantifying the impact of the way the Internet is shaping the way pricing markets behave could be a job for the nueroeconomists who I wrote about earlier this month.

Perhaps the good old days were better, when CMR arrived by boat and a few wise old men with leather patches on their jackets puffed on their pipes and came up with a benzene price that was more stable and less damaging to both buyers and sellers. Or is this just rose-tinted and ill-informed nonsense?

James Burke (see picture above) has so far been proved wrong about the information technology revolution giving us the ability to be free, to create our own realities and to not be dictated to by governments, companies or other institutions.

In this clip from his wonderful series, Connections, he envisages such an era because knowledge will be freely available.

This is the great democratisation of knowledge written about by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail.

Sadly, the reverse has happened. We have become a slave to our machines – from our mobile phones, to our Blackberries to our PCs – and a slave to markets that we are nowhere close to predicting or controlling.

But give Mr Burke a break. His programme was broadcast in the 1970s, was way ahead of its time and perhaps so far ahead that one day his prophesies will come true.

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