If data is the new oil where are its wells?
September 5, 2013
John Naughton in his recent column for The Observer, wrote that in 2006 or thereabouts, a phrase that data was the new oil came into public consciousness. At the time I was sitting on the board of a company specialising in large scale social data analytics (in those days mobile networks were large scale social networks), And I liked to use the term raw data has no value but refined data is the black gold of the 21st Century.
My thoughts were that better information created at the size of bytes could deliver better. Commercial models could evolve and made more effective and efficient, transformed even, by raw data becoming refined data. But there was the potential for much greater things, significant improvements if not transformation in healthcare, education, agriculture, finance, that could deliver so much to us as a society.
The argument for an open model: my argument was that if data was shared, in an open context; open data, open society, open api’s we could all benefit. For example, MIT shares its entire curriculum under a creative commons license. Openness is resilience, the default setting not only of what we call nature but our entire cosmology works because of its connectedness and diversity.
The darker side of data: of course this is all true, but the recent developments and revelations from Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Wikileaks is that governments are hoovering up of vast amounts of data, and breaking their own constitutions, it seems, in the process. Whilst we do not know a thing about it. In the same way corporations are behaving in exactly the same way.
The key question about any major technological development is: who benefits? The answer in the case of big data is: huge corporations – the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of this world, which are the only outfits (outside of the US National Security Agency) with the computational resources to mine, analyse and process the data torrents unleashed by us as we go about our networked lives. The companies don’t talk about it this way, of course. Instead they have soothing patter about how their analytical capabilities enable them to serve you better: how the ability to analyse the web searches conducted by you and your friends enables them to provide better search results, for example; or how analysis of your online behaviour enables Amazon to suggest products that you might like; and so on.
All true, of course, but skilfully avoiding the awkward fact that you are the resource that is being mined and that the playing field that is cyberspace is tilted in favour of the corporations who have come to dominate it.
We, Naughton observes are the wells.
Data, power, privacy, democracy: Naughtons view is dark and dystopian a bit like J.G. Ballard and I don’t blame him. After giving a presentation to a technology audience earlier this year, in which I explored the potential of data combined with networked mobile communication technologies to deliver better healthcare, civic infrastructures, education etc., I explored how a city becomes more efficient through large scale data monitoring – then I became deeply concerned, because, if Rio De Janeiro, or Paris, or wherever has all its utilities managed at an atomic level via data and that is run by a private company (IBM), then the question I asked was, has the city lost its sovereignty? My unease is that corporations are first and foremost responsible to their shareholders and the stockmarket, not to civic duty. And of course this presentation dovetailed with the breaking news of Edward Snowden, and the trial of Bradley Manning. Data, control, coercion, power, and privacy. They all intertwine, democracy in essence is the concept of an open world and that is what I think many fear – we have turned away from the well of democracy to suck at the well of data for darker purposes. And it is darker as there is no consultation of the public realm, no communication of why, purpose and legal remit. We simply must, says the state, be saved from ourselves.
Therein lies the catch 22, data is information, nature runs on information freely shared, we call it diversity, the universe is an open eco-system that is perhaps the greater giver of life, taking that idea further communications is also all about power, who has it, who controls it, and ultimately who wields it. Manuel Castells has written extensively on this particular issue in his book Communication Power.
And that is the point John Naughton and Slavoj Žižek make on communications, privacy, democracy Perhaps even the potential of our democracies to progress in their current state. For me the bigger picture is that, the more we remove openness from the public realm, the more we monitor because we are fearful of ‘the others’, the more we attempt to extract rather that regenerate – we are not in a good place. I still believe that data used in the right way can deliver extraordinary benefits to everyday lives in a multiplicity of ways.
I worry that since 911 however, our fear of ‘the others’, has driven us away from working out why our world feels more unsafe, and our response of ‘control at all costs’, inadequate, because it does not solve the problem. And I also worry that the pursuit of financial gain at all costs (growth for growth sakes is the MO of a cancer cell) also erodes our society.
So the point is then to offer an alternative positive view of what next might look like. Because if we cant describe a new destination, we will never be able to get there.
- Open systems evolve to states of higher organization
- Designing a better NHS with data
- Monitor me, data, health and technology
- Six steps to transform the way we do business
- Ushahidi: a story of non-linear innovation
- The web giants pumping us for data