Doing enterprise financial data visualization after data journalism

Most of my work experience has had something to do with charts. I spent a couple years as a data journalist at a business magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, illustrating stories in one way or another. Then I spent a couple years at a financial analytics company, Kensho, working on information software for banks and hedge funds and such. The small tasks and parts were very similar; the big goals and context were very different!

Some of this follows from the users being specialists; some of it follows from that specialty being finance. Specialists make different space-time tradeoffs, in computer science terms; they hold large systems and models in memory, and expect parsing data to take little marginal time, because they see a lot of it. They are more willing to learn a system than to learn interesting and idiosyncratic encodings for every new thing they see. Novel forms repel attention; novel information in familiar forms attracts it.

The work is applied like an ouroboros to itself. A chart captures something salient because we believe it does. Visualizations are fed back into their subjects; the terrain is remade by the maps made of it—as ever, but especially so here. When Emanuel Derman describes the sudden appearance of the volatility smile in options markets after 1987, it is almost as if the smile (the upward curve in the implied volatility of an option as a function of its strike price) appeared because you could see it. Or, as someone else said, “It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it.” Not that I saw this up close! But it made up much of the background and the horizon.

This is written for someone who, like me, has a background in data journalism and not finance; I’m sure it shows naïveté in both. Each bullet point could be a post, but I had to start with something broad and shallow. The basic headings are classic and essentially conservative truisms: respect the people, the market, the incumbents, the normal forms, the limits of the craft. Insofar as it is too conservative, I hope it helps inform your defiance!

1. Respect the people

2. Respect the market

3. Respect the incumbents

4. Respect the normal forms

5. Respect the limits of the craft

6. Do not avert your eyes

For a while in this job I worked out of One World Trade Center. I made a habit of looking up the names on the memorial and read a lot of old news coverage, including some really wild responses I had not heard at the time, as I was 11. Baudrillard said the attacks “respected the symmetry” of the towers, and that whatever was built in their place “would not even be worth destroying”. A composer called the attacks “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. The parent of the company my dad worked for was based in the South Tower; they all got out. The next day, Ward Churchill said some rather harsh things about the supposed innocence of all those people working in those buildings in the finance sector, calling them “little Eichmanns” (after John Zerzan).

I like finance; I find it subtle and compelling, even sublime, transcendent, beyond human comprehension (or maybe just mine). It is cleverer than many criticisms of it. I surely owe to it various properties of the modernity I enjoy. But that doesn’t make it good! Nick Land again (on too many amphetamines, by his own account): “Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.” (Whew!)

Obviously I do not know what that means, nor how to apply it to my work. Just, feebly: the work is very abstract, but there is something concrete underneath, and I think it’s still breathing!

This is just going for a sampler of a baseline. It doesn’t cover money, tooling, teams, etc. It’s mostly stuff I failed at. Doing great work may mean rejecting or violating any of these; in fact, it might require it. And if this is not your context, don’t take these as lessons — just reports from a distant land by which to illuminate your own.

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