Your browsing history, your online purchases, your likes and dislikes, these are the currencies that power the data economy, a vast digital ecosystem of buying and selling growing so rapidly in tandem with the “normal” economy that it has been referred to by some as a “second economy” that is gradually superseding the existing one we know. The business of gathering, sorting, selling and buying data constitutes the data economy, a field unquestionably dominated by the Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In 2017, The Economist called data “the world’s most valuable resource,”
How big is the data economy? It’s difficult to estimate, and though different sources disagree on the economy’s size, the consensus is it is rapidly growing. In its worldwide datasphere forecast, Market research firm IDC predicted that the next three years of data creation and consumption will eclipse the past 30, and forecasts 175 zettabytes (1 Zettabyte = 1 trn Gigabytes) of data use by 2025.
OK, so how can we measure it? A UN publication estimated that in 2017 the size of the data economy in the EU — based on the total revenue of all firms in the business of buying and selling data — was only 0.49% of GDP, while in the US it was equivalent to 1%. Estimates from Statistics Canada — calculated based on the value of stock of companies in the data business as well as their software and intellectual property — put the value of the data economy somewhere between USD 157-218 bn, meaning the size of the data economy in the US would be between USD 1.4-2 trn, or 5% of the US’ stock of private physical capital. There is no unified methodology for sizing up the data economy as of yet, and so estimates will vary.
Who benefits the most from the data economy? Large firms are already at an advantage as they have more resources to collect more data, thereby growing their ability to collect, and profit off of, even more data. The inequality also runs along geographic lines, with America and China accounting for 90% of the market capitalisation of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, and Africa and Latin America accounting for only 1%.
This is an economy reliant on surveillance for its survival: Gone is the era of the internet as an anonymous space; the monetization of our behavioural data requires that we leave digital footprints everywhere, raising a plethora of ethical questions about the boundaries of privacy in the digital age. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, who popularized the term surveillance capitalism to describe this new business model, warns that the ubiquity of data collection from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep (and indeed, sometimes as we sleep) risks turning us into automatons. The ambitions of the data economists, she argues, is to perfectly map out our behaviours in order to influence and predict the next pair of shoes we buy, the next restaurant we eat at, and our next holiday destination before we even know it ourselves.
And of course, the personal is used for the political: Our browsing data can be used for commercial ends, such as pushing a particular brand and ads onto our screens, but is also now being deployed for more sinister purposes. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated how the use of and manipulation of data can be used to undermine democracy, while you only need to look at China’s Social Credit System to understand how it can be wielded to construct an entire system of social control.