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The Persistence of the Physical at the London Metal Exchange (2015)

Digital photographs.

"Whilst most financial exchanges around the world have long-abandoned open outcry trading, the 140-year-old London Metal Exchange has continued to commit itself to the practice where deals are struck by a select few in intense bursts of yelling and gesturing.


"These images were taken as part of my MSc fieldwork in 2015, at a time when the LME was already the sole-remaining exchange in Europe to have not gone fully digital, but further surprised many commentators by not only announcing it was sticking to its physical-trading roots, but investing further millions into them. 

"Starting as a bunch of men gathered around a circle drawn in chalk on the floor of a 19th century coffee house, the LME has since become the world centre for the trading of industrial metals. In 2018 4.1 billion tonnes of material was traded, made up of 185 million lots costing a total of $15.7 trillion. But, the spirit of this original chalk circle still remains in the form of 'the Ring’, a bright red doughnut-shaped sofa at which many of the most important deals are done.

Many of the Ring’s current occupants are not who many may expect: they are often from Essex, many not university-educated, often the children or grandchildren of traders who would have been dealing in fish or vegetables rather than metals futures—a good haggler is a good haggler."

"These photos aim to show some of the physical aspects —the architecture of the deal—that many of the traders and LME staff I spoke to claimed digital technologies could not yet replace. Being able to see the whites of the eyes of the dealer you are bartering with; the gossip in the downtime that allows trust to be built and speculation to be spread; the visible theatre of the deal wowing vip guests; the coil of the corded phone acting not only as a secure line but also as a leash tying the speaker to their booth - what at first may look archaic often holds underlying purpose. And if these old-fashioned solutions still work - and indeed the LME does outperform its competitors - then are they really old-fashioned at all?

"One of the images also represents a possible-future of the LME, imagined in dialogue with interlocutors, investigating ways in which the exchange could incorporate digital technologies whilst still retaining the feeling of gathering seen by many as still so important in an age where the virtual and anonymous is always being pushed."


Joseph Cook is a PhD researcher in Digital Anthropology at UCL. His research focuses on the quantification of the individual in the contemporary corporate workplace; the measurement of attributes such as creativity and innovation; and the ways in which new digital technologies are influencing architectural design and practice. His current fieldwork is with the engineering giant AECOM, at their offices in East London and New York.​

Twitter: @josephmcook


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