‘Data is the New Oil!’ – the cliché, repeatedly stated by politicians, journalists and TV pundits as a profound new truth of the Digital Age.
Unfortunately, it’s dangerous and not entirely true. The term was coined by Clive Humby in 2006 when explaining that raw data needs to be ‘refined’ to be useful, like refining crude oil. The meaning morphed, to include the immense commercial value of data in a global digital economy. In the 20th century, oil ruled our world; in this century data rules, hence ‘data is the new oil’.
However, ‘data-is-like-oil’ portrays a dysfunctional view of ourselves and limits our potential as a digital society. Language and labels we choose to give to things are important. They anchor the stories we tell about ourselves personally and collectively.
Perception becomes reality
Think of crude oil. The words that spring to mind are likely to be far from positive: exploitation, hoarding, polluting, trafficking and profiteering. Now think about data. Directly or indirectly, our most valuable data is human data. What happens when you transfer the ‘oil words’ to humans? Human exploitation, human trafficking. You get the picture.
Our language sets expectations for what is acceptable. The ‘data-Is-like-oil’ analogy makes harmful actions excusable. There’s a better analogy. In the 21st Century ‘data is like water’. Want to know why?
1) Water gives life (oil takes it)
Crude oil is zombie soup. It’s the remains of fossilised plants and animals from millions of years ago. Even worse, burning oil to create energy kills people and causes environmental damage. Where oil is death, water is life. It sustains us and enables life as we know it. Used properly, our data can nurture life too, helping us cure disease, improve our self knowledge and mental wellbeing. Used wisely, it’ll enable us to understand each other better and make collective progress beyond our imaginations. Data can help humanity to flourish.
2) Water is abundant (oil is scarce)
When we burn it the oil, it’s forever gone. Meanwhile, water covers 78% of the Earth’s surface, we’ll never run out of it. It’s in the air we breathe. Like water, data is all around us. If you have a smartphone and WiFi, you’re practically bathing in data. In fact everything around us is ‘data’. From the sun rising over the rainforest, to bedouins braving a desert sandstorm, everything becomes digital, if recorded. With the arrival of ubiquitous satellite, sensor and smartphone coverage – the world is now becoming measured and digitized, especially if it involves humans. Data is now exponentially abundant.
3) Water is purified (oil is processed)
Oil is cracked and processed into consumable products. When we consume, we pollute. Water isn’t processed, it’s purified. We remove pollutants. With data, we don’t need to ‘refine’ it to use it. It’s purified. We purify data to give us what we need for a specific use, and no more. The principles of privacy by design and data minimisation are great example of this.
4) Water is distributed (oil is centralised)
In the Industrial Era, a handful of centralised oil refineries supplied global mass production. TV advertisements push the products to everyone with the same message: consume. Water is the opposite: it’s distributed, it’s everywhere there’s life. In the Digital Era ‘distributed’ is the default, from the internet to renewable energy. Products and services will increasingly be personalised based on the data that we hold and control locally, distributed to our smartphone (as a first step).
5) Water is democratic (oil is ‘owned’)
In the 20th Century we used oil for power. Big Oil became very powerful. It’s scarcity and value led to stockpiling and hoarding of ownership. Yet water is the shared property of all living things. Open Data is information about your community shared with everyone in your community. We’re seeing the emergence of a new ‘digital commons’. If data-as-oil is about humans consuming, data-as-water is about humans ‘being’.
6) Water is fresh (oil is stagnant)
By definition, oil is old and ‘dirty’, from spillages to emissions. By contrast, we use water to clean and refresh ourselves. In a digital world, old and dirty data is worthless and when it ‘spills’ it’s a huge mess. Digital information is borne of moving particles and, like water, naturally wants to flow. When data flows from it’s source, it’s fresh, transparent and at it’s most powerful. When data is ours, we can chose to share it as we choose, in real-time. In control as individuals and as a society. Refreshing.
7) Water is human (oil is synthetic)
Oil is a product. It’s a raw material which has shaped a century of human development. Water is literally a part of us. It’s 60% of our bodies and over 70% of our brains. We consider the water that forms us as ours. We’re a flood of living data points, constantly creating new flows with every single heartbeat. Our actions, bio-signs and thoughts are very much ours even as they become digitized. Like water, we excrete an invisible trail of our data everywhere we go. Unlike sewage, the data that we unknowingly leave in our wake is highly valuable and fuels a multi-trillion dollar industry of industries. The internet.
If ‘data-is-the-new-oil’ is obsolete as an analogy, Big Data companies have a choice to make. If they don’t change their business models to a more human-friendly and sustainable data-is-water model, will they face becoming obsolete? It’s time for brands to realise that ‘being human’ is the key to success. It’s no longer 2006, data isn’t oil. Data is water, and human.