By Sohail Rashid
Is data actually more expensive than crude oil? I don't know and, honestly, I don't care.
But what a lot of us should care about is the fact that it's even a question. Without meaning to get in to issues surrounding elements of the pseudo-ethical, philosophical or whatever other subjects the argument encompasses, there are a few realities that we have to acknowledge:
First - data is big business. In fact, some of the biggest in the world. Businesses like Facebook are built around the ability to be able to capitalise on all the numerous (and inconsequential seeming) morsels of data that we are throwing out on a daily basis.
Second - while organisations like Facebook are exploiting the data we (often unwittingly) allow them to access, it can also be used for a lot of bad - see Cambridge Analytica.
Having said all that, this is all - in many ways - data collected on an individual basis and meant to be manipulated to make us better consumers, voters(!) or whatever else. Let's be honest: if you haven't already worked it out already, this isn't really an equal deal is it?
Let's put it this way: you're giving away your data. For free. This data will be paid for. With money. Money which you will never see. This data will then be used. To target marketing at you. Marketing, as a result of which, you will spend your hard-earned money.
I think you get the picture.
The rate of transformation that we have seen in tech over the years has meant consumer legislation hasn't kept up, and a greedy few have capitalised on the innumerable loopholes while lawmakers play catch-up or (such as in the case of Cambridge Analytica) take advantage of them. That's just the story of humanity many ways, but will it stay this way? Nobody knows. I hope not, and so should you.
The trillion dollar question is if it must stay this way? One that - honestly speaking - no one really has an answer to, given all the different variables involved.
Personally, my hunch is that if we don't end up in an automated nuclear dystopia where the robots are doing all our jobs and Darth Zucker harvests humans for energy, the assumed default is we will still have money to spend and our data will still be valuable. With this being the case, data (and by extension, blockchain) should still have a huge part to play in proceedings.
In spite of working in the space, I can be the biggest sceptic of some of the crypto/blockchain projects out there; whether it's because they tend to be led by individuals with an acute lack of commercial awareness (albeit usually being great techies), or them fundamentally misunderstanding the tech's best application, they just don't seem to get "it", whatever "it" is.
One thing I don't doubt about blockchain is its ability to decentralise marketisation platforms. Think what Alibaba or eBay done to your traditional department store or Uber done to taxis, but without the centralised platform charging you exorbitant transaction fees. Decentralisation presents its own challenges (which are an article's worth of issues in and of themselves), but you're probably wondering how data fits in to this.
Data - much like the services or products we exchange in the examples above - is now a tradable commodity. So far it's one that we've not been able to monetise on an individual level, but it is one nonetheless.
Why haven't we been able to monetise it? Firstly, because there's many different sources of data (all the apps on your phone are all data storage points). Secondly, we gave away permission to giants like Facebook and Google to use our data as they would like already (thereby forfeiting ownership of it). We can't do much about this for the time being, apart from waiting for data privacy laws to catch up.
But the first issue of collating different data sources without compromising privacy and then putting it on a marketplace where its integrity is assured and it can be exchanged for value? A blockchain (or some other form of distributed ledger tech or #DLT for short) takes care of that through its ability to harness databases from different parties into a common platform.
Decentralisation brings challenges around ensuring quality control, enforcing consumer best-practices, conflict resolution and so on, so it might be that we actually end up using a partially decentralised platform. But that's a debate for another day.
Whatever happens, we think this is an exciting area and welcome any innovation in respect of it. It is somewhat hypothetical and relies on some good faith but all ideas start off as a mad man or woman's dream at some stage. If anyone has any thoughts to add, feel free to drop me a tweet or comment below!