Data, Oil and Analogies

Data is the 21st century is increasingly seen as analogous to Oil in the 19th.   Why?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, oil and coal drove industrialisation.   Britain’s last coal fired power station has to close by 2025.   Yet we only had our first ever coal-free day just a few weeks ago – on Friday 20th April to be precise, a very warm and sunny day in the Southern Britain.   Old habits die hard it seems.

The providers of coal and oil grew rich and powerful.   Today’s power brokers are the leading tech companies.   And what do they have masses of?   Data.   Data which has been mined through each and every one of our activities.

Our consumption of news, our shopping, the way we research information is driven by technology.   The free gifts it gives us are not really free.   There is an exchange, whether you’re aware of it or not.   From online shopping to Amazon’s next day delivery; from Facebook’s free newsfeed to Google’s free search engine … all delivered via smartphones, tablets or laptops.

And it’s in this latter context, the way we use technology, that so much of our data is gathered.   In simple terms, each search you carry out, each comment you make on Facebook or every shopping decision you make online is logged.   Algorithms (artificial intelligence) look at this data and build up a picyture of who you are, what your state of mind may be, what ‘floats your boat’ as it were.   The information is used to target advertising, news or information at you and people like you.   And if it needs to, it can be about you, just you.   That granular degree of personalisation as the trade calls it – a nice, friendly sounding term – is perfectly possible.   It’s also, frankly, a bit spooky.

The Internet of Things, a reality today, right now, is multiplying the data gathered about every aspect of our lives.

I don’t have answers as to what we need to do.   Like you, I have my own ideas.   They may be informed by my exposure to many years’ experience of working in digital marketing and with digital media, but they will utlimately be informed by the knowledge I can access.   All of which will be logged, of course.

Regulating the Internet Giants (The Economist)