Big Data: The New "Oil" for a Social Era

Author: Mike Edelhart

Humans find it so easy, so natural to imagine the verities we know will always remain in place. History, though, has shown us this isn’t true. What we see as verities- the fundamentals for how the world works- are merely temporary arrangements, brought about by short-term circumstances, whose reshuffling is inevitable and will be profound.

We have all grown up in, and live in, a world that has been defined by physical resources. The economies of recent history have centered around wood and water and coal and oil and arable land. Government have risen around these resources. Wars have been fought over them, and probably will be again. Whoever controlled the resources controlled the world.

But is that really a verity, or are we about to see that cornerstone crumble before our eyes?

“Personal data,” said a 2012 report from the World Economic Forum, “will be the new ‘oil’….It will emerge as a new asset class touching all aspects of society….It will demand a new way of thinking about individuals.”

Talk about power to the people! Actually, this is power from the people. Or even more precisely, power that is people.
So, when we think about big data, in the Social era, it should not only be in terms of scale and corporate impact. It should view it in the frame of global transformation.

Let’s skim quickly through just a couple of the innumerable transformations big data may bring, and soon, too.

Currency was created to artificially and portably represent wealth. But, if all the data of all the actions of all the people on earth exist on the worldwide network in real time, what’s the need for currency? The gross global product, and the exact share in it of every person and action on Earth, should be extractable at any moment. Each individual can be literally “valued” in any interaction. Who needs traditional banks if value is intrinsic to the Net? Doesn’t Square trump the Bank of England? How can governments tax value that never hits the ground in any particular state or nation?

Corporations were created so that large numbers of people could operate as a single unit, aggregating their work, but more importantly limiting risk. This structure has fostered amazing achievements. But, looking forward, when individuals of any skill, with access to any resource or any market can find one another instantly, evaluate each another, connect and operate together against a common goal, isn’t the core of the traditional corporation undermined? Aren’t these interlaced individuals functioning in corporate ways without being a corporation? Won’t we someday be trading shares in people based on their value to society and the problems they can solve, rather than companies? Aren’t Kickstarter and its ilk baby steps in this direction?

Big data, as it is emerging from online Social interactions, isn’t merely vast, it is transformative. It shifts power from centers to the edges where individuals stand. It overmatches structure with flexibility and responsiveness.

It ushers in a new world, brave or otherwise. And we had best get ready for it.

March is Big Data month at Pivot. What do you want to know about Big Data? How is Big Data transforming your business? Answer in the comments below or send Mike your thoughts on twitter.

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