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

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"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?

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