Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Google Switches To Defence In Its War On The Human Race

Nine months after Google's Chairman, Eric Schmidt, used his speech at Davos to declare war on the human race, he and the other  Big Data commanders find themselves very much on the defensive.

"I was suprised it turned this quickly," Mr Schmidt is quoted as saying of the political tide, after his European smarm offensive in June failed to avert calls for Google to be broken-up.

The trouble is that Big Data funds itself by selling the opportunity to find humans and present advertising to them. Even the craze in wearable devices is all about geolocating the wearer (and potentially their companion(s)) for advertising purposes. Ideally, you'll buy a watch or pair of glasses that will keep you reading ads and search results while on the move, but a wristband that tells your 'friends' what you're doing and where will do just nicely. Maybe one day you'll even go for the driverless car, so you can watch ads instead of the road.

As I mentioned in January, the advertising revenue that initially helped fund the transition from the analogue/paper world now dwarfs the value we actually get from Big Data and the Web. Mutuality - and humanity - is being sacrificed in the Big Data rush to sell you tat. Oh, and in the quest for The Singularity, when the high priests of SillyCon Valley believe that machines will achieve their own superintelligence and outcompete humans to extinction. Yes, really. 

In the same way that banks have grown from their mutual origins to suit themselves at our expense - keeping most of the 'spread' between savings and loans to suit themselves - Big Data platforms are primarily focused on how to leverage the data you generate ("Your Data") without rewarding you for the privilege.  GCHQ and the NHS are playing pretty much the same game.

But not all digital platforms finance themselves by using Your Data as bait for advertising revenue. Since eBay enabled the first person-to-person retail auction in 1995, that model has spread to create marketplaces in music, travel, communications, payments, donations, loans, investments and personal transport. The marketplace operators thrive by enabling many participants to use their own data to transact directly with each other in return for relatively small fees, leaving the lion's share of each transaction with the parties on either side. 

The marketplace model also reveals that most of daily transactions could be carried out between our machines. After all, they are much better at crunching all the data than we are. They are in the best position to combine our own transaction data, open public data and commercial product information to recommend the right car, mobile phone tariff or insurance products, without disclosing our identity to every advertiser in the process.  And why couldn't they arrange it so you switch to the cheapest phone or energy tariff each day, or switch car insurers depending on time of day or where your driving?

True, the platforms that enable you to leverage your own data more privately haven't yet attracted investors to the same extent as Big Data. eBay is solidly profitable and doesn't depend on substantial advertising revenues for its existence, yet it has a lower market capitalisation than Facebook or Google. It should come as no surprise to you that Wall Street and the world of high finance attaches a lower value to democratic and sustainable business models that don't suit a short term, institutional view of the world. But the financial news of 2014 must show institutional investors that we humans doubt whether Big Data has our best interests at heart. So the stock market value of marketplace operators may yet exceed that of the Big Data boys.

That's not to say that the whole Big Data movement has been a wasted experiment - it has just strayed from the path of simply digitising our daily experiences to trying to exploit them. Much of their technology could be re-aligned to empower you as an individual user, rather than treat you like a farm animal for the benefit of advertisers. 

Neither should we underestimate the Big Data giants' ability to reinvent themselves for the better. They are well-funded and more responsive to customers than banks and other institutions which have lost their way.

And it would be good to know they're working to sustain the human race, rather than kill it off.

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