Big data is just a big, distracting bubble, soon to burst

Big data is just a big, distracting bubble, soon to burst

Summary: Business has bought into the mythology of big data and pervasive "surveillance-based marketing and advertising", but its time is coming to an end, says 'Doc' Searls.

TOPICS: Big Data, Privacy

"There's a mania around big data, and there's a mania around surveillance-based advertising," David 'Doc' Searls told ZDNet on Tuesday. "It has all the marks of a bubble and a mania right now."

But big data, he said, is nothing more than the myth that collecting vast amounts of data can help companies know customers better than those customers even know themselves.

Searls is best known as co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999, and author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge in 2012, and he says that the big data myth was carefully created, largely by IBM and certain big consulting firms, to sell more big computing grunt to more big businesses. He mocks that myth mercilessly.

As Searls describes it, IBM's salespeople would be out there pushing a scare story. "Oh God, you're drowning in big data! You need to get control of this," they might say. "You need big systems from IBM. Then in comes Microsoft, SAP, Oracle and all the other big vendors, and suddenly big data is a great big meme. And marketing departments bought into that meme big time.

"Jeez, to order to really market well, we need to know our customers absolutely. We need to know every damn thing we could possibly know about that customer, oh and by the way we can do this with cookies," Searls said. "Larding two hundred cookies into your browser seems to be something nobody's bothering to stop, so why the hell not do it, right?"

"It is surveillance. We're being watched. Maybe being watched is OK for a lot of people, [but] it isn't OK for a lot of people as well ... more and more people are feeling a little bit creeped out," he said.

"Most people aren't walking through the world saying, 'I want to get spammed by messages from my favourite brands,' which is the idiocy that's coming off of the advertising world right now — which isn't the advertising world, it's the direct marketing world. Direct marketing is the junk mail business that has infected Madison Avenue. It calls itself advertising. It isn't. It never was. It's direct marketing. It's direct mail. It's got the same business model as spam."

Dr Matthew Landauer, co-founder of OpenAustralia, is equally sceptical about big data. "All it allows you to do is optimise your current business," he told ZDNet. "It's never going to tell you that you're doing business wrong or need another model."

And all that business optimisation is about one thing: money.

"We're potentially doing that to our entire society," Landauer said. "That scares the s*** out of me."

Searls was in Sydney for the Australian launch of Respect Network, a network of organisations and individuals built around the idea that users should be in control of their data and how much of it is released to the organisations they interact with. Members must agree to abide by other members' permission-based data sharing rules, and be able to prove that they're upholding the network's principles through a network-wide peer-to-peer reputation system.

Respect Network's first project is a login button, "Login with Respect". It's much like the similar buttons that allow you to log in to online services with your Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn credentials, except that organisations who use it must be Respect Network members.

That button doesn't exist yet. All Respect Network can offer today is registration of your "cloud name", that is, an individual membership for a one-time fee of AU$30. Memberships will be needed to pay for the development of the button, and even then it'll presumably be some months before you can use that button to actually do anything.

Searls admits that what Respect Network and its partners are building are "early prototypes", but he's confident that there'll be enough of a backlash against surveillance advertising to make it work.

"What's happened is that a business [advertising] that largely smokes its own exhaust, and excuses every excess that it has, and deeply, deeply, deeply wants to keep from the rest of the world exactly how it is that they work, including the complexities of it, has taken great liberties with what can be done at this moment in time, and this moment is a short one, and it's coming to an end," he said.

"Things change. One of the amazing things about human beings is our capacity to invent new things and to change. Why the hell not? Just because we have things that are working OK now doesn't mean that future things can't work."

Incorporating what's known as privacy by design isn't just a business differentiator, Searl said.

"The UK government is all over it. For that matter, the Australian government's all over it. They passed a pile of privacy laws [that came into force] on 12 March that are far more advanced — if you look at new rules as being an advancement — than anyplace else on earth."

Yeah, perhaps.

I agree that there's been a phase change in the way people view this surveillance marketing. Sixteen months ago, few of the young people attending my guest lecture to first-year media studies students at the University of Technology Sydney were aware that their smartphones were tracking them. But by the time of my most recent lecture in March, all of those attending were at least aware of the tracking, and were simply learning about some of the nuances.

It's clear to me that the more people learn about the data mining, the less they like it.

But people are also lazy, and easily distracted by shiny trinkets. So far, most of us seem to give away vast swathes of our privacy in exchange for what is really just the use of a few lines of PHP code. Will that ever change? Or will the big data myth-makers and the human centipedes of the advertising industry always win?

Topics: Big Data, Privacy


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • thoughts

    "Dr Matthew Landauer, co-founder of OpenAustralia, is equally sceptical about big data. 'All it allows you to do is optimise your current business,' he told ZDNet. 'It's never going to tell you that you're doing business wrong or need another model.'"

    He's probably right - you can do some optimization with some large-scale analysis. Although even then there are very likely diminishing returns; once you've hit upon what's optimal, how much more useful is big data going to be? Not very, to be honest.

    I also tend to compare it to looking for a needle in a haystack - when you're not even sure somebody put a needle there. Results from big data aren't really guaranteed; there's no proof that you will always find something.

    "and suddenly big data is a great big meme"

    Yup. And these memes / catch phrases / buzzwords are part of what I'm beginning to call taar - technology as a religion. Instead of giving a lot of thought into technology and how to use it as a tool to help both people and society, people who invest in taar blindly follow every new technology and trend; it's technology for the sake of technology, rather than a way to improve our lives.

    "Most people aren't walking through the world saying, 'I want to get spammed by messages from my favourite brands,'"

    I agree. I certainly didn't. In fact, I'm getting pretty sick of the advertising, and wish more places like ZDNet would offer a way to get rid of it, even if it means making a regular payment.

    "And all that business optimisation is about one thing: money."

    Yup. And to be honest - I think we're headed down the wrong path if all that's important anymore is money.

    I also think it's a big mistake to focus this much effort into marketing technology; to be honest, it seems as if other fields are being given the short end of the stick.
  • business used to be about making stuff

    But now it is about engaging in every possible excess to sell you stuff you don't need
    • I think you'll find...

      "Business used to be about making money", and it still is... ;)
  • You are right but you are mixing three issues

    The first issue is how much the world likes shiny objects. I totally agree big data is a buzzword as I expressed it here

    The second issue is that data does not mean insights. More data does not necessarily mean better decisions.

    The third one, and more complex issue right now is about privacy, transparency and respectful use of data. Marketers are trying to build a 360 view of customers based on the theory that cookies and other data can give us more information about what customers want, so we can offer products and services that are more relevant, more useful and even helpful. The reality is still far from that, mainly because the data we can capture does not provide the insights or the knowledge to do that.

    Good article, thanks
  • The problem with "big data" is the same as with just "data"...

    Which is to say, it's only as good as one's ability to analyze it. I'm reminded of how scientists reported declining populations of lobsters by analyzing the catches that Maine Lobstermen were bringing in, and noting the low numbers of young lobsters. Of course they didn't talk to the lobstermen, who would have told them that they THREW BACK all young lobsters, which of course skewed the data.

    "Big Data" is like a huge landfill of information, with answers buried under strata of "noise". To get information out of it, you have to know what questions to ask, what strata to dig down to, and separate the useful information from the extraneous and irrelevant "junk" data. Further, you have to know when your number crunching is leading you to the mathematically perfect... wrong answer, such as happened with the bundled sub-prime mortgage risk assessments, or the Hubble Telescope main mirror.

    Big data will always be useful, but it's usefulness will always be limited by our understanding, or lack thereof, the limits of what this data can tell us.
    D. W. Bierbaum
    • RE: The problem with "big data" is the same as with just "data"...

      "Big data will always be useful, but it's usefulness will always be limited by our understanding, or lack thereof, the limits of what this data can tell us."

      Big data is not a competency that yields understanding - it is just one (optional) part of analytics. If you don't know what the data is going to tell you before you rely on a big data solution to acquire the data, you're in the wrong business. Of course it has its limits - it's not a competency designed to spit out conclusions, just more acute data from obtuse datasets, structured or unstructured. No competency is limitless.
    • lobstar

      You must also remember Maine lobsterman never tell the truth it's always a bad year
  • The Matrix

    Somehow they knew that I liked Snickers Bars.
  • Several themes here...

    Just beg for expansion and more comment. For instance, buying stuff we don't need. Our attraction to shiny new things. Our inherent laziness. And finally, the thought that everything we do is about money.

    When we come to realize that we have far more stuff than we need, when we figure out that better made stuff in smaller amounts can provide just as much function and enjoyment as cheap stuff poorly made, and when we begin to get our appetites under control, then we'll likely see the collapse of the entire consumer economy as we currently know it. I probably won't live long enough to see that. But I really do expect it to happen. It will be harrowing for so many who are currently flying high.
  • applying a widely reaching competency to a very narrow topic

    This article is more about the usefulness of analytics and the inappropriateness for advertising and marketing than it is about the validity of purposeful use of "big data" solutions. There are more cogent "big data" implementations than the author explains here and that's where the premise of the article gets a little cloudy for me as someone knowledgeable about big data (IT Analyst in a BI Finance dept within the healthcare field). We know the invasiveness of all the advertising and marketing analytics firms is built up with big data tools. Unfortunately, the author throws big data under the bus for that. So, what ... we should dismiss big data solutions altogether? Big data is exponentially useful in an increasing number of areas outside of those involved in data mining civilians' private information that civilians make available to services and apps that specify they collect information - civilians have the option to not use those services, by the way. If you're giving up information to a web-based service, your information will be used for whatever it is that those services do. Read T&S's first! Sad, but true. Nothing is free, and you are not immune from reading a document before you hit "I agree."
  • Devil's advocate?

    Interesting and that's one way to look at it.

    You may be interested in this webinar "Ask an Architect":