Why (Expert) Human Talk Matters in the Age of ChatGPT

Alex Preda

We live in an era of techno-financial capitalism in which financial trading is largely conducted by machines and the spoken word doesn’t seem to play much of a role anymore. We have come a long way from the time when buying and selling financial assets meant calling, shouting, whispering—in a word, talk.

Talk has seemingly disappeared from finance, and it is being replaced by algorithms and documents. There is no space for talk anymore, except perhaps the new AI chatbot ChatGPT talking back at us—and even that is not quite talk, but rather written text.

This is puzzling. Historically, talk has been at the core of financial transactions. Financial marketplaces are talk—or, at least, they were until the 1990s. Where has financial talk gone? Has it disappeared? Or have we only forgotten about it?

In the Spectacle of Expertise, I set out on an ethnographic journey to discover financial talk, guided by a rich tradition of ethnographies of talk. Specifically, I wanted to rediscover and bring to light expert financial talk, not least because the legitimacy of finance is largely built on expertise, which is in turn partially built on expert talk. Since at least the mid-nineteeth century, financiers have claimed that their profession is a science and have striven to make it so. In the U.S., the UK, and France, there is a broad corpus of publications on the science of financial market(s) emerging from the 1840s onward, which was later paralleled by financial economists’ efforts to establish finance as an academic discipline. Claims to expertise are joined with claims to science, making it hard, if not impossible, to disentangle financial expertise from expert financial talk.

I strongly believe that, if we want to understand how capital circulates and is allocated, we need to understand expert financial talk.

So what are the properties of this talk, and how is it organized? In a world of trading algorithms and global markets, is talk still consequential? That is, does it have any effects? If so, what properties does talk need in order to produce effects? To my surprise, I could not find ready answers to these questions.

My rediscovery of financial talk was triggered by the following episode: in 2016, I was traveling from London to a conference in Beijing and made a stopover of a few days in Hong Kong. I had a scheduled meeting with a financial analyst there—as an ethnographer of financial markets, I talk a lot to finance professionals from different parts of the world. I discovered that the analyst in question, and many others as well, spent the largest portion of their working time in TV and radio studios talking about finance. The analyst took me on an introductory tour of the TV studios where the talk was taking place and introduced me to other finance professionals who routinely provided expert talk about markets, interest rates, or asset prices

For me, in a certain sense, this was quite the revelation. Expert financial talk had not gone away—how could it, when it plays such a key role with regard to attracting investments and capital? It had simply moved from the trading pits into media studios and YouTube. I came back, time and again, to the TV and radio studios to have a closer look at how economists and analysts, together with producers and anchors, assembled and displayed public expert talk on financial matters. I discovered that this was a complex enterprise, not entirely planned, but not left to chance either. Expert talk was organized; it was a commodity; it had more than one audience; and not all audiences were immediately visible. Expert talk was consequential when it came to capturing investments. Above all, public expert talk was not any kind of talk. It had to have specific properties, which were produced on site and were not guaranteed in advance.

It seems that, at least when it comes to intermediating investments, channelling capital, and obtaining funds, human talk cannot be easily replaced.

After completing my Spectacle of Expertise project, I launched a new project on venture capital and blockchain firms. Talking to both venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, I learned that oral presentations—that is, expert talk—played a crucial role with respect to funding decisions, much more so than glossy documents. Expert talk also plays an important role at invitation-only finance events. As an ethnographer, I have managed to witness a few of those, and have seen that talk matters a lot when it comes to capturing investments. We can regard this as private expert talk, since broader audiences do not have access to it.

I strongly believe that, if we want to understand how capital circulates and is allocated, we need to understand expert financial talk. To gain that understanding, we need to compare private expert talk against public expert talk. To that end, I continue investigating forms of expert talk and their properties

Will talk ever be replaced by ChatGPT? I have participated in group discussions among finance professionals about ChatGPT and its future impact on the finance professions. As was to be expected, since its launch in November 2022, ChatGPT has generated a lot of buzz both in the broader public and within professional groups, including finance groups. More than once, I have heard analysts and traders questioning the potential and limits of natural language processing. Despite the prevalence of these conversations, I never heard these professionals express worry about the demise of human expert talk. It seems that, at least when it comes to intermediating investments, channelling capital, and obtaining funds, human talk cannot be easily replaced.

Even in an era of algorithms and advanced chatbots, human expert financial talk remains as relevant as it was when traders elbowed each other in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade or on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Bot-generated text doesn’t supersede human talk. More than ever, we need to look closely at the properties and consequences of this talk—and in The Spectacle of Expertise, I have done just that.

Alex Preda is professor of professions, markets, and technology at King’s Business School, King’s College London, and the author of The Spectacle of Expertise: Why Financial Analysts Perform in the Media.

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