To find the answer, we need to go back to the origin of the word “data”. ‘Etymology can give a startling new perspective on many of the phrases we frequently toss around in business’, says Gillian Tett in her FT column Language matters: the real meaning of Big Data. The word “data” comes from the Latin verb “to give”, and could therefore be translated to mean “a gift”. If the original meaning of words is important, then we should be careful how we use them or risk distorting the effects they have, without even realising it.
Another example is the word “credit”, for which the Latin root is “credere” and means “to believe” or “to trust”. In addition to thinking of big data as “big gifts” (as Tett suggests), we should also consider how we entrust (credere) our “big gifts” to the big tech companies that have access to them. We should treat our “big gifts” as “data credit” that we as people extend to the tech companies. This will change the power balance – and obligations the companies have to us, their data creditors.
Tett also reminds us of the popular tech mantra that ‘data is the new oil’. But it is wrong to think of our data in this way – merely as a consumable commodity that can be used only once before it loses its intrinsic value. Commodities can also be unfairly extracted or exploited by prospectors. They can be bought and sold by traders independently of their primary use, sometimes even fuelling speculative bubbles.
Instead, we should think of our data as a form of capital like money – something that is issued according to a social contract (in this case, originated and issued by individual people) and circulated for productive use and re-use within the economy. When we entrust our data to tech companies it should be like when we entrust our money to banks. Perhaps using this rationale, we will form a better sense of what a “good deal” is versus a “bad deal” when it comes to our data.
The social contract with the big tech companies is likely to be different if we think of them more like the asset custodians and asset managers in the financial sector. Sometimes we may want the tech companies to be trustworthy custodians, holding our data safely without being stolen or used without our consent – or we may want them to actively invest some of our data on our behalf, to work productively in the economy in exchange for a risk-adjusted return.
In which case – what is a market-rate of return on our data?