“Data is the New Oil” — A Ludicrous Proposition

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

Michael Haupt
May 2, 2016 · 4 min read
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.”

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.


Project 2030

You made it to the end! If you’re interested in helping us solve some of the planet’s grand challenges with our ambitious Project 2030, please check out the overview, and invite others to do the same.

Postcards from 2035

Have you come across Postcards from 2035? It’s a series of profoundly simple interlinking ideas describing life in a highly desirable society, where everything and everyone is advanced, happy, intelligent and problem-free. It’s a blueprint of the world we need to co-create. Here’s what that world could look like.

Project 2030

An audaciously bold, sweeping plan to decisively eradicate…

Michael Haupt

Written by

Founder, The Sensemaking Collective| writer | speaker | certified strategic foresight practitioner | In-progress book: Society 4.0 — Humanity’s Epic Journey

Project 2030

An audaciously bold, sweeping plan to decisively eradicate poverty, hunger, disease and inequality. Read the proposal for smart, self-organised, decentralised peer-to-peer societies.

Michael Haupt

Written by

Founder, The Sensemaking Collective| writer | speaker | certified strategic foresight practitioner | In-progress book: Society 4.0 — Humanity’s Epic Journey

Project 2030

An audaciously bold, sweeping plan to decisively eradicate poverty, hunger, disease and inequality. Read the proposal for smart, self-organised, decentralised peer-to-peer societies.

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store