Data is, they say, fast becoming the currency of the future. We’re not talking about those old fashioned spreadsheets of information collected and combined in various very basic and excruciatingly dull ways. We’re talking about masses and masses of global information with layers and layers of data abstraction that takes browsing, location, shopping, financial and search data to build complete pictures of the entire world.
“Well, duh! Obviously…” you may say. And it may sound pretty obvious that data will be vitally important in the future, but have we really stopped to think about the implications of having hugely complex and abstracted layers of information used for (or against) us? What are the problems with having a small number of global data gatekeepers? Who is going to win the hearts and minds of future consumers and businesses and keep providing the data-keepers with their precious life blood of information?
Young, free and gullible.
For so many years businesses were able to survive and thrive by collecting the most basic information (like the sale of product, address of a customer or a visit to a website) and that outlandishly basic data was obsessively analysed and obfuscated by accountants the world over to appear to be the pinnacle of business forecasting and planning.
But that information is at the starting blocks of the data race. The global roll out and reach of the web has seen the rapid rise of big data players who specialise in grabbing armfuls of independent information gatherers (us!) with the provision of temptingly free services.
Like ships in uncharted waters, some data players didn’t realise what they were doing and floundered.
My Space was saddled with a bizarre sub-set of users all creating pages for their indie band; and suddenly found that they were irrelevant.
Friends Reunited found that they had aimed far too low with their entire concept …and they were soon irrelevant in the grand scheme of data collection.
Last FM made the fatal mistake of complaining about the quality of the MP3 tag data they were collecting (with an automated message demanding users correct their own data). They were soon overtaken by competing services and were irrelevant in the data race.
An important rule of modern data collection is that you should NEVER appear to be collecting data for yourself and you should never appear needy or pedantic about the data you collect. That is sooo last century.
Your Teddy Bear
Today is all about the dominance of the successful data companies. The near future will be about the manoeuvring of these big data players as they gouge on the masses of data needed to keep them relevant.
To increase their user-base the data companies behave like a visiting relative dishing out candy to your kids; or a gossipy aunt who knows everything about everyone. It is all about appearing to be your friend and confident with no evil deeds and lots and lots of presents. The cuddlier or more intriguing they appear to the user, the better.
The data hoarders use every device they can think of to make the user feel all warm and fuzzy about giving them more data.
Pronouncements of openness and web freedoms? Check.
Infantile robot logos, toys and devices? Check.
Distracting pie in the sky projects and features to keep the media benignly interested? Check.
Plinky plonky adverts, bright colours and a friendly picture or doodle on your homepage? Check.
Conduits for gossip and tittle tattle? Check.
Picture repositories of people you want to stalk? Check!
All these “features” will help grow the number of misty eyed evangelists; all ready to fight for the perceived cause of their beloved corporate data keeper. The new believers will then actively recruit and persuade the next billion users to give the data keeper all their information. And on it goes.
Late to the party…
Businesses that use data to plan and target their resources probably see the data companies as relatively benign. After all, as we are constantly told by anyone with the tiniest bit of business schooling, the user is the product. And that product is sold to other businesses at prices far lower than it would be to actually get the users and data themselves. It’s all good, surely?
But as the data-players get better at collecting and using their data, other businesses will start to find they don’t have the bargaining power to get access to the data that they once had. It will cost more – or they will demand YOUR data is added to theirs. If a business refuses to join the data party, they are suddenly at a massive competitive disadvantage.
As data extraction, storage and analysis becomes ever morecomplex, it will become practically impossible for competitors to provide a service that matches the incumbent’s data set. You just can’t get enough information without those billions of existing users.
And this should start to scare us.
Just look at the Google / Apple Maps kerfuffle. This involved a big (nay HUGE) company attempting to move in to a small slice of the data game. Apple felt they could only do this by promising an improved application (so we saw flawless demos and some hyperbolic marketing).
The product they provided was still free; had new features; delivered a more elegant interface; brought better compression and map delivery; and generally looked and behaved better than before.
But they didn’t have the data. They didn’t have 7 years of user collected, crowd sourced and brute forced information that would underpin their service.
And it was no contest. In the age of data, the design and behaviour of the application didn’t matter at all. It was just about the data sets.
This leaves me to think that we’re already approaching a tipping point in consumer data expectations.
Web citizens have grown to be an impatient and entitled bunch and they expect new players to be perfect “straight out of the door”.
The more time they invest in a service, the better they expect a new rival service to be; but a new service can’t possibly have the amount of data that makes the incumbent service so powerful. And so they sleep walk towards (or vocally encourage) a data monopoly.
Do people not make the connection between a “free” service and the data they willingly hand over? Or do they see absolutely no down side to the agreement?
The only visible annoyance may be the constant stream of ads; but ads are just a profitable distraction from the main business model. That model is the eventual total and utter control of the worlds largest data sets. These repositories of information can be used to provide costly services (to increasingly desperate lower tiers of businesses) or to influence policy, infrastructure and legislation (where weakened or naive governments provide an environment where the incumbent can never die).
The modern-day preachers in the church-of-the-data-keepers have a warped view of other belief systems.
It is bizarre to see people who are simply exchanging money for goods or services (in that most ancient and straightforward method of trading) being accused of acting like deluded zealots. Millions of consumers are said to have a warped devotion to a cult that is somehow changing how they perceive reality in order to make them buy something. Just look at the forums and meeting places of the web and see how distracted and angry so many have become by basic commerce in action.
Apple is basically a straightforward, old-fashioned company. It lives and dies according to the quality of the goods it produces, its marketing ability, its supply lines and their customer support. If consumers don’t like their products, they WILL stop buying them.
All the while, the data-evangelists try to ensnare ever more people to a trap that actually DOES have the power to distort their future reality. Remember: The Data-keeper has the power to pre-select the information provided to a user that will effect what they decide to buy or visit; how and where they travel; and what they actually believe or support. Troubling.
This starts to pose uncomfortable questions about the relevance of the mainstream media, governments (and perhaps democracy itself) in the near future.
So many Questions
If a private company has more data than entire countries, what then?
Will it eventually be down to countries to provide and protect the data of their citizens? Will we expand on the French system of providing each town with a fully featured website and information portal? How much data should countries allow companies to gather about their citizens? (Don’t forget how a country has to provide that nicely available pool of citizens along with the transport and data infrastructure that allows the data-keeper to become all powerful).
Will we eventually see a schism in data handling with the ring-fencing or socialisation of vital data in the coming decades? Will we see data wars?
…or is data just a nebulous concept that we won’t care about? Will we all just drift along thanking our lucky stars that we’ve got some access to these vital data sets?
Like the early oil companies, phone companies and PC OS Makers of the past, soon we will see data companies that are just too big and powerful. But with the modern global economy and the interlinked governmental and corporate self-interests, what will we do with these monopolies this time?