What we risk by hyper-focusing on “data” as a problem to solve
In 2018, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Every Company is Now a Tech Company” arguing for the importance of a strategic plan and vision around a company’s use of technology. Earlier this year, The Economist published an article arguing that data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset. In 2019, we can safely say that every company is a data company.
From corporate board rooms to committees on the Hill, to the G20 and beyond, the “data” conversation is everywhere. In the last year, there were more than 100 data-related legislative proposals in the U.S. alone.² Google searches for “data protection,” “data governance,” and “data management” are surging.¹ And while no one can argue against the prominence of data in the public psyche and discourse, we still don’t have a good answer to this fundamental question — “what is data?”
It’s not for lack of trying to define it. The number of “data as ____” metaphors proliferates daily, with some of the more commonly-cited examples including “data as oil,” “data as property,” “data as water,” “data as labor,” and “data as nuclear waste,” and the list goes on. I most recently heard a computer programmer at MIT propose a “data as a vector” metaphor (based on the notion of vector data, having a starting point, duration, and directionality).
The more I think about it (and I think about this a lot), the more I land on a new metaphor — data as a red herring. Data is so difficult to define that it often keeps us paralyzed, and unable to act. After all, we cannot realistically govern or regulate something we cannot define. But maybe this is part of the strategy. What if it’s not about the data? What if this focus on “data” is just a red herring?
In a prior post, I explained why, despite an array of new “privacy” related legislative proposals, we are unlikely to end up with more privacy or a better deal as individuals. My reasoning, in part, is that these proposals largely focus on the data rather than the underlying practices of relevant parties (e.g. corporations) themselves or the resulting impact on individuals. I cautioned that our “data” may well end up with more rights and protections than we have as individuals.
So why all this emphasis on data? What do we lose by focusing on the “data” and who does it serve? Data has an air of neutrality that veils the deep structural biases and inequities that give rise to our data-related challenges. The reality is that our data governance challenges are symptomatic of much deeper problems. But talking about “data” is easier than talking about power, inequality, exploitation, predatory business practices, democracy, racism, and misogyny, among other issues.
Focusing on this abstract and amorphous notion of “data” acts as a distancing tool, sitting between those who stand to gain from addressing the root causes of our data governance-related challenges and those who stand to lose from the status quo. Maybe if we can begin to recognize data as a red herring, we can start to make progress on the issues that matter.
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² A search for data-related bills in GovTrack.us for the 116th congress alone returns more than 100 results (search terms include “data governance,” “data management,” “data act,” “data privacy,” and “data protection”). Searching for “data” alone results in thousands of hits.