If data is the new oil, then why I am still broke?
Just over a century ago — 107 years ago to be precise — the United States Supreme Court made a landmark ruling to break up the Standard Oil Company, ruling that it was an illegal monopoly.
At its peak, Standard controlled nearly 90 percent of the country’s oil production, to the frustration of the government and the general public alike. It struck deals with railroads, refineries, pipeline operators, and marketing companies, tapping the oil wealth buried beneath the American continent to amass a legendary fortune for founder John D. Rockefeller.
But in 1911, after the filing of an antitrust lawsuit by the Department of Justice two years previously, Standard Oil was ordered to be broken up into 34 smaller companies each of which operated independently. The ruling was made so as to foster greater competition in the field, and to break up a trust that was acting against the best interests of the American people.
For much of the 20th century, it was these kind of fossil fuel companies along with manufacturing firms like Ford Motors and General Electric that were the archetypal American corporations. But in the 21st century a new commercial model emerged: that of the information economy. Last year, British financial magazine The Economist wrote: “The most valuable resource is no longer oil — it’s data.”
Information has always been valuable, of course. But it had never before been a resource that was generated, captured, analyzed and indexed at such a huge scale. The data economy has spawned its own infrastructure for delivery: Instead of pipelines, undersea fiber optic cables. Instead of oil rigs and refineries, server farms and data storage centers. And most of this wildly valuable data is about us: Regular internet users, with our likes and dislikes, our credit scores, spending habits, political opinions, geographical locations, travel preferences, and so on.
So if we generate the data, why don’t we have a say in how it’s used?
The answer comes down to ownership. As the new data economy birthed internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, as users of these platforms we entered into a deal we didn’t even know we were making: give up control of our personal data as the price of using an otherwise free service. Theorist Shoshana Zuboff has given the economic model a name: “surveillance capitalism”. Just like commodity capitalism, Zuboff writes, surveillance capitalism began with an accumulation phase in which large companies took over the resources provided by individual participants, without sharing the dividends.
By the time the value of this resource became clear, it was too late: individuals had already ceded ownership of their data to tech giants.
In the modern media and entertainment industry, there are clear cases in which masses of data are being extracted and commodified. Netflix has been a pioneer in this space, using complex algorithms to decide which shows or movies to suggest to individual users, and aggregating these preferences to select which shows are commissioned in the first place. For viewers this is a positive feature: personalized recommendations are a key part of the user experience, and the platform’s content development strategy has largely paid off.
But the losers are the smaller independent filmmakers, who don’t have access to the kind of complex analytics used by Netflix, Hulu and others, and so struggle to capture the finer details of how audiences are reacting to the content they create.
That’s where blockchain-based platforms like SingularDTV come in. Counter to data harvesting practices at Facebook, Google, and the other tech giants, SingularDTV will by default collect only the minimum amount of transactional data needed to operate the platform, with further exchanges of personal and demographic data being opt-in or opt-out on the part of the users. Opting in — which can also be done in an anonymized way — opens the possibility of a future where fans can share data about their preferences directly with the artists they admire, helping level the steeply sloping playing field which the media streaming giants dominate at present.
We’ve taken on the mission of building a new media platform based on respecting users’ right to own their own data and decide how, when and with whom to share it. We think it’s important for the future of media, and the health of the internet more broadly. Though data is not the same as oil, for both resources the threat of monopoly stands in the way of consumers’ best interests; that’s why individual choice, and control over our own data, is a cause worth advocating for.