“Data is the New Oil” — A Ludicrous Proposition

Natural resources, the question of ownership and the reality of Big Data

Michael Haupt
Project 2030


Southern Mississippi Marine Science Professor Vernon Asper documents the oil spill seen on the surface of the Gulf waters a few days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010. (University Communications photo).

Technology capitalists are showing more and more enthusiasm for the comparison of Big Data to Big Oil:

  • Clive Humby, UK Mathemetician and architect of Tesco’s Clubcard, 2006 (widely credited as the first to coin the phrase): “Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.”
  • Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner, 2009: “Personal data is the new oil of the internet and the new currency of the digital world.”
  • Richard Titus, CEO AND, 2010: “Data is the new oil.”
  • Peter Sondergaard, SVP Gartner, 2011: “Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine.”
  • Bill Diggins, CEO Diggit, 2012: “We’re able to view just everything that they do. And that’s really where data is going today. Data is the new oil.”
  • Ann Winblad, senior partner at Hummer-Winblad, 2012: “Data is the new oil” in response to the question: “What is the next really big thing?”
  • Gary Wolf, Quantified Self Co-Founder, 2012: “People are saying, ‘Big Data is the new oil.’”
  • Ginni Rometty, IBM CEO in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, 2013: “I want you to think about data as the next natural resource.”
  • Abhishek Mehta, CEO Tresata, 2013: “Just like oil was a natural resource powering the last industrial revolution, data is going to be the natural resource for this industrial revolution. Data is the core asset, and the core lubricant, for not just the entire economic models built around every single industry vertical but also the socioeconomic models.”
  • Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour, 2016: “Data is the new oil. The companies that will win are using math.”
  • Qi Lu, the chief of Microsoft’s Applications and Services, 2016: “Data is the new oil.”
  • Piero Scaruffi, cognitive scientist and author of “History of Silicon Valley”, 2016: “The difference between oil and data is that the product of oil does not generate more oil (unfortunately), whereas the product of data (self-driving cars, drones, wearables, etc) will generate more data (where do you normally drive, how fast/well you drive, who is with you, etc).”

A Google search for “data is the new oil” will quickly show how entrenched this meme is among big data pundits.

Google trends for “data is the new oil

However, there is a huge problem with treating data as a natural resource, particularly if we blindly accept that tech giants are the rightful owners.

Joe Brewer has described capitalism as the privatisation of natural resources to extract wealth. Examples of natural resources that have created immense wealth for small pockets of individuals are:

And now, as traditional natural resources are nearing extinction, tech titans are busy privatising our data in a bid to profit from the next natural resource.

If data follows the precedent set by other natural resources, we only have ourselves to blame.

One possible answer lies in the rise of the Personal Data Economy.

Yes, big data might be the new oil, but let’s remember what data really is: a natural resource created by, for and because of sovereign human beings. Let’s not allow a new breed of corporations to extract wealth from us, like we’ve allowed in the past. If we allow privatisation of data, as we’ve permitted with other natural resources in the past, we only have ourselves to blame.

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