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If data is knowledge then our knowledge economy is doing very well. As we produce more and more of the stuff, businesses are discovering more and more ways to turn all that information into cold hard cash.
Unless you’re the sort of zen master of computer cleansing, chances are that your data files, including your email, have ballooned beyond your wildest dreams - or maybe nightmares. Twenty years ago, setting sail in the data stream called for not much more than a row boat. Now, the colossal deluge of data threatens to inundate us more completely than a monsoon flood. If we’re not careful, we’ll be just as swamped too.
The tide isn’t for turning. There's been more data produced in the last five years than in the entirety of human history - and that's an ongoing thing. Every five years creates more data than in the entirety of human history.
Because this immense mountain of intelligence is no longer the stuff of filing cabinets and card indexes, it hardly ever gets discarded. Take the average commercial server. Stored within could be the collected works of the Library of Congress, with enough room left over for every edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now you have some idea of our capacity to accumulate information, useful or otherwise.
That ability to store and retrieve vast catalogues has, in itself, revolutionised the way we all live and do business. When a phone or laptop can access all the names and addresses you’ll ever need - by the thousands - then it becomes a temptingly simple task to organise everything from a flashmob birthday party to a flash marketing campaign. It’s the latter of course that’s driving modern business, for better or worse.
Collating data on the most trivial of personal and corporate activity has allowed corporations to ever more accurately target their markets. Markets in this context means you and me and people like we all are. It’s by no means an exact science yet, as all those spam adverts in your social media feeds patently demonstrate. However, this Big Data is also an almost irresistible opportunity for businesses to exploit perfectly human behaviour in a less than perfect way.
Recently, the Financial Conduct Authority challenged the insurance industry over its use of data derived from your swipe of a loyalty card, your posts to social media, and many more esoteric online sources. As recently as 2013, the Association of British Insurers found that more than seven out of ten consumers would be unhappy with their social media activity impacting on the price they pay in premiums.
With the growth in data collation far outstripping the growth in world population, there’s an obvious conclusion to draw. There’s more and more data being held on each and every one of us.
That fuels the ongoing debate over the ethical use of captured and shared data. Making use of this vast mine of raw material needs careful consideration, and ever more so as the data waves grow higher and higher.
Still, the data torrent gets greater and greater. When it is commissioned in 2018, the ground based international telescope - the Square Kilometre Array - will be able to observe the ocean of stars in the heavens in more detail than ever before. More than just the past five years, the SKA will return more data in a single day ... than the entirety of human history - from the Pharaohs to Facebook and the equivalent of everything in between.
If we’re not to be out of our depth in the rapacious jaws of such an ocean of information - then, in a paraphrased movie quote that can easily be retrieved from one of those easy to port servers - we’re going to need a bigger memory stick.