The thinking is that data has become the new oil. It made a lot of sense given the fact that oil is what drives most of the world’s economy, dictates foreign policy and results in tremendous wealth to arbitrary nations.
The analogy that data is like oil probably fits because, just like oil, there is a race among a small number of companies to own and control its flow. The volume of oil isn’t a random thing. Had we known how intense our reliance on oil would become I’m fairly sure early nations would not have focused on the spice trade, or colonized India instead of pulling the future oil producing countries into their kingdoms.
Now the world is at the mercy to the price of oil. Not only the price we pay to fill our cars, buses and rockets but the price it exacts on our stock markets and our environment. Our entire planet is heavily weighted on the price of oil — where it goes, we go — and the price of oil is controlled by a small block of companies and kingdoms. The fate of our economy is in control by too few people and most decisions we make as nations have this at the centre. We dig up nature to extract it, we dig up nature to transport it and we give up our future habitation of the planet to use it.
And then we call data the new oil…but I hope we start thinking of it as the new electricity and here’s why.
Products and economies are built around oil. It isn’t just a part of our world, it is the influence that moves us, literally. Think of our transportation networks of streets, tracks, runways and launch pads. Our entire global infrastructure has been built and relies on one product in order to function. Oil is the centre of all our products from cars, to planes to rockets and even plastics and kids toys. The list is long and oil is not just a cog in this wheel, it is the hub that all products are built around.
This dependency on oil is exactly where we don’t want to be with data. Where we are in the oil economy means that to break up with it is next to impossible. The power the oil cartels have and the reach the oil ecosystem has makes it impossible to stop building products around it any time soon. Oil has become our planet’s heroin and businesses and countries the junkies.
Data as oil? No thank you.
Electricity is something that we take for granted but is mostly always there in most countries. For a lot of us, the switch is magic. Flip it and light comes on. We don’t even think about it. We’ve even become a little better at harnessing the power of the sun to help bring off-grid electricity to developing countries. It is a democratized source of energy that can be replenished with alternative sources at its root.
And this is the key. If I can’t get electricity from my grid or there is no electrical grid, I can hardness the sun or water or a hand crank. It may not be ideal, it may not allow me light up my entire house but I can find a way to bring power to a device or a lamp. It is, in its essence, available to anyone. Conversion and storage is an issue but those are problems that humanity will eventually solve.
Inventors and entrepreneurs don’t set out to build a product around electricity. Homeowners build a house and electricity is a component. Car manufacturers build cars with a spot for a battery to ensure it has a replenishable source of power. Electricity is an essential component of our daily lives but it is a democratized enabler to get our screens lit.
Lost in all of this conversation of data is the new oil is where that data comes from. WE are that data. The actions we take online and in real life is where the data comes from. Us. It isn’t extracted from beneath the earth. It comes from our actions, our clicks, our behaviours. It is also replenishable. The trough of the data well is endless right now. We can’t have that data mined and owned by a small group of for-profit companies that sell us to the highest bidder. Our digital avatar is being gathered up to sell to advertisers, to make a small number of companies that control that data a lot of money. It is one-sided and invasive. The oil nations are protected by borders but the companies that own our data are governed by laws that can’t keep up with the changes that are happening. The control of oil has led to wars. Are we going to eventually need to invade Facebook? If so, how?
The concept that data is like electricity is about making sure that the power that comes from the data is not controlled by a small cartel. The use of the data shouldn’t be the centre of any products but a contributing factor. Data is important but, like electricity, it should be the thing that is part of the finished product but not the core as to why the product was built.
Future industry is going to leverage data, that we know. What we need to avoid is this future industry making data its core business. The use of our data needs to be additive and not its reason. Oil has propelled our world forward. It has pulled countries out of recessions, built massive companies, laid the foundation of our roads and highways. It has led to the expansion of our cities, our knowledge of other planets. It has had a profound impact on our planet — but it has come at such a cost of reliance that we can’t break free of its grasp. It is at the centre of our existence right now and it holds too much power. We can’t let that happen to our data. We can’t let this be owned by the few at the expense of the many. We need to allow alternatives. To let others disrupt. To allow opportunities from all corners of the world.
Data is core to our economic growth but the power to choose where and when it is used cannot be in the hands of large companies. It needs to be turned on like electricity, converted to something meaningful and discarded. Data needs to be part of the system, not the system itself.
Photo by Alexandre Bringer from Pexels