In 2017 The economist published an article with the sentence; The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data and I heard or read this statement in many other occasions and on social media. Is it true, is Data the gold of our time? I guess it depends on who you ask. Some would argue that the value of the largest companies in the world such as Amazons, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, proves it. Others argue that data and oil have very different properties as a recourse and should therefore not be compared in such manners. Data is infinite, you can use data in one area and the same kind of data can be useful in another. Oil when used as plastic can in the best cases be recycled a few times. Data is therefore better compared with renewable energy such as wind power since data might even solve some of our largest problems, not causing a major environmental crisis, such as the use of oil has.
Regardless of what is true, the role of data in the field of sustainability, I believe, is too often ignored. There are pioneer work where data is seen as a tool and method to reach several of the Global Goals. In health (Goal 3), data can be used to map peoples searches on their phone to predict spread of diseases, sensors connected to water pumps (Goal 6) can track access to water and connecting rainforests (Goal 15) to the web, can send real time alerts on illegal deforestation. To use data in sustainable development can create change on a much quicker, efficient and accurate way.
However, there are of course some challenges when it comes to Big Data, AI and Internet of Things. My concerns are:
The monopoly and highly screwed market in which the technology is developed
The lack of transparency of these business models
The lack of ownership, security and privacy
If I only had to write about the short-comings of using data for sustainability, I guess that would be a very good place because we’re not there. At the moment we’re in a situation where data is so highly valued, so unregulated and so many people being so unaware that I don’t know where to start.
Have you watched the documentary The Great Hack (you’ll find it on Netflix)? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. The way Facebook data has been used by Cambridge Analytica to target certain American voters suiting their profile of being “insecure” in the last presidential election, is highly worrying. Because what this implies is that there are no such thing as free elections. Maybe there have never been free elections since there has always been propaganda trying to change people’s minds. But at this scale, this accurate and with this speed? That’s something we have never experienced before. Your mind is already being hacked and it’s going to get worse.
So how does this relate to data being more valuable than oil. Because sometimes we tend to focus on the thing causing problems, such as use of oil causing higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere resulting in climate change. The logic here is to stop using anything produced by oil and tell people to live more climate friendly. But we neglect the areas which could actually lead to a quicker change. If you really want to tackle climate change, the most efficient way is to change policies. How do you change policies? You have a government prioritising actions to transform their carbon dependent society. How do you get that kind of government? In a democracy, you vote for them.
How will people vote for climate-friendly policies when they’re being exposed to communication adressing their fear center telling them they have other things to vote for - such as not losing their job? Think a moment, do you really believe that a large group of people are actually racists, don’t care about the climate and believes in nationalism á la the 19th century? Or can it be that most people just want to have good lives, probably would say they see humans as equals and think a nice environment is a good thing? I believe so. But when it comes to voting and their own lives are at risk, they’ll vote for what’s gives them a quick solution. This is where their data is being used, to nudge them into voting for right-wing parties.
All this might sound as some kind of conspiracy theory, but the documentary shows a true-case where this is actually happening. And even if you disagree and believe I’m taking it to far - wouldn't it be interesting to see how many extreme right wing political parties are buying these services? To be fair, other political parties should be included too in the research. It’s an important question to ask because even if humanity has always had the philosophical debate about freedom of choice we’re suddenly in a situation where that freedom might be non-existing. If not us, who are into sustainable development, takes the debate, we might risk creating a world run by governments neglecting this planet’s capacity to sustain us and its peoples fundamental human rights.
Data might not be more valuable than oil, but surely it can be far more dangerous.