Donald MacKenzie

Donald MacKenzie, a sociologist of science and technology, is a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Trading at the Speed of Light: How Ultrafast Algorithms Are Transforming Financial Markets was published by Princeton in 2021.

Short Cuts: A Puff of Carbon Dioxide

Donald MacKenzie, 19 January 2023

Dozens,​ hundreds, perhaps even thousands of online ads flash before your eyes every day, so many that you probably don’t even notice most of them. Generating the electricity to get just one ad to appear on your screen can produce a puff of carbon dioxide sufficiently large that, if it were cigarette smoke, you would be able to see it. Showing a single digital ad to a single user...

Blink, Bid, Buy

Donald MacKenzie, 12 May 2022

Click​ on a link to an article on a news website. If you have a fast internet connection, you’ll see the article almost immediately, but the slots for adverts will usually remain empty for another second or two. The ads which then appear aren’t generally chosen in advance. Instead, a near instantaneous, automated auction of each slot goes on behind the scenes to determine which ad you will be shown. Your phone or laptop may itself be gathering bids for the auction. Sometimes, an enigmatic pattern or grey rectangle will appear instead of an ad. What goes on during those few seconds is vital to the economics of journalism and is the subject of sharp, subterranean conflict among news publishers, the big online platforms (especially Google), and independent providers of ‘AdTech’, the technology of digital advertising. Sales of print newspapers have been falling for years, and revenues from online subscriptions alone are generally insufficient to support large-scale news reporting. So advertising income matters.

Cookies, Pixels and Fingerprints

Donald MacKenzie, 1 April 2021

Data protection measures and policies designed to enhance competition are often implicitly at odds. It isn’t so very painful for a big corporation to implement a data protection regime that requires it to get its users’ permission for what it does with their data, because its data transfers will often be entirely internal; such a corporation may even welcome rules that stop it sharing data with other companies.

Pick a nonce and try a hash: On Bitcoin

Donald MacKenzie, 18 April 2019

Every time​ a bitcoin ‘miner’ is successful they create for themselves 12.5 new bitcoins, currently worth around $60,000. If they don’t succeed, they can have another go roughly ten minutes later – all day, every day. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that despite the sharp fall in bitcoin’s dollar price in 2018 there is still a lot of mining going on. You...

Just how fast? High-Frequency Trading

Donald MacKenzie, 7 March 2019

About​ half of all buying and selling on many of the world’s crucial financial markets is now automated high-frequency trading. HFT is ultrafast. Whenever I speak to someone who might know and be prepared to tell me, I ask them just how fast that currently is: in other words, what’s the minimum time interval between the arrival of a ‘signal’ – a pattern of...

Hereditary Genius

A.W.F. Edwards, 6 August 1981

We are all prisoners of our backgrounds as well as slaves to our genes, and no field of science is riper for sociological investigation based on this premise than the development of biometry, and...

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