The Inside Agenda Blog

Guest Post: Are You the Next Big Cash Crop?

by Allison Buchan-Terrell Tuesday March 13, 2012

Guest post by Alan Mitchell, Strategy Director of Ctrl-Shift. Ctrl-Shift is a research and advisory business focused on understanding the implications of consumer empowerment.

What are you? A human being or a vegetable?

Okay, it’s a silly question. But in the context of "Big Data," -- the collecting of massive amounts of online data by companies, advertisers and marketers -- it’s not that silly.

Consider some differences between a human being and a vegetable. A human being has some sort of ownership and control over their own assets, a vegetable doesn’t. The farmer grows cabbages, wheat or coffee, and appropriates what they produce. The coffee plant doesn’t have any say over what its beans are used for. The only agenda that matters is the farmer’s: how to maximize the yield; what different uses to which the crop can be put; how to make more money out of it.

In today's online environment, where users' activities and behaviours are tracked across the web, we are the crop whose role is to yield up personal data to Big Data farmers. And online marketers’ only interest is how they can maximize the amounts of data we yield; the different ways that they can analyze, refine, and process this data; and maximize the money they make.

Another important difference is that human beings can participate in markets in their own right; vegetables can't. Human beings can decide if the price is right, and if it’s not, they can walk away. On the farm, the produce is simply appropriated by the farmer.

In a Big Data world, where personal data is seen as a corporate asset to be mined and analyzed, we can’t negotiate over the price at which our data is traded. The data is simply appropriated. Online services, such as Google and Facebook, insist there is a value exchange. They provide us with a free service and they get our data in return. It sounds great.

The problem with the model  free services in exchange for personal data  is that it makes it impossible for individuals to establish the real market price of their data. Is it worth $1 a year or $10? $100? $1,000? $1 million? With "free" services they’re all equivalent: the individual gets a service but the Big Data farmer gets the cash – without limit. The individual is the crop; the service is the data farmer.

You could get hot under the collar about this. Quite rightly.

But there’s another more pragmatic, level-headed, economic way of thinking about this. Technology is advancing fast. Technologies that were once expensive for even big corporations are now moving within the price bracket of individuals. New tools are coming on stream. For example, a number of personal data stores or lockers, such as Personal, Singly, and Mydex, are being launched to help individuals gather their own data, store it, manage it, analyze it, and share it in ways that they can control. These tools are making individuals data managers and controllers in their own right.

New technologies are also giving individuals the chance to hide behind anonymity shields if they want to. Privacy is becoming a personal setting, rather than a corporate policy. After all, only the individual knows what information he or she is happy sharing with whom, for what purposes, under what terms and conditions.

In this world, individuals can participate in the data economy as equal, active contributors; not just as data crop plants. If they feel able to do this – in a context where their data is respected, and where they can maintain control over who uses this data and how – they are likely to yield far more data than they are prepared to do so now.

In the 20th century, communist countries experimented with collective farming. In collective farms, peasants no longer had an interest in producing more produce because whatever they grew was appropriated by the farm. Today’s Big Data companies, including Google and Facebook, are the collective farmers of the 21st century. They are creating a low trust, adversarial economic system where individuals have every reason to be withholding, and no reason to become active contributors.

If only they could see that their current approach is as bad for them as it is for us.

Letting the control shift happen – empowering individuals with control over their personal data – is not only fair and equitable, it’s good for the economy, too.