Reality Mining: How Big Tech extracts value from reality

Big Tech is mining our reality to extract value, generating enormous wealth for their shareholders. Losses and waste are socialised.

The tech industry is buzzword-driven like few other industries. And these buzzwords come and go, sometimes quite fast. To an extent, the Gartner Hype Cycle does a good job covering this tech lingo development.

Do you remember the time when data mining was hot? In the early days of the web, the term web mining was then coined for what essentially became web analytics. Another few years later, a new mining metaphor appeared: reality mining. Now that was about sensors, like the early smartphones came with, which allowed to track the analogue world in a new way.

The common denominator is data, that is analysed to generate higher-value information. The mining metaphor implies a process to extract and generate value from mountains of otherwise worthless data. These mountains eventually grew into Big Data, another buzzword. Back in 2011, we considered Big Data big enough to dedicate a whole event to Data Love.

Data explosion

What has changed over the years and with these different buzzwords are the sources and the amount of data. Back in the olden days, data had to be typed into computer systems, or even punched into punchcards. This was tedious and generated only small amounts of data, compared to what we have today. Data, plural of the latin word datum (given), came into existence as a given, something that existed before it was captured in digital form.

With digitisation, the spread of digital systems and the increase of processing power and storage, the amount of data exploded. The internet, the web and the smartphone were milestones of this data explosion, each leading to more data generated, distributed and stored. The sensors that were first tied to computer systems and smartphones got a life of their own, spread into the wild and generated even more data.

Thus reality mining – an ever-increasing portion of our world is mapped by data, converted into data, or even generated through data. Data becomes reality, and vice versa. We are moving into cyberspace, to borrow another metaphor that has been around for decades. The Parallelwelten of the physical and the digital world are merging.

The proliferation of analytics

What was once limited to the relatively small realm of data is now almost without limits: we can analyse our reality with the same tools once invented for the use of specialists. Nothing wrong with that, but the proliferation of analytics has a bunch of consequences.

For example, with analytics came the definition and measurement of key performance indicators (KPIs), that were then used for optimisation. When it comes to things like revenue per user in an online shop, that’s not an issue. But we already saw that optimisation for engagement in social media can have serious consequences for our societies. We’ve discussed this at NEXT and on this blog for years now.

Our information ecosystem is heavily vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation, as the investigations following the 2016 US elections showed. And the next step is the automation of optimisation through machine learning, or artificial intelligence if you prefer. This automation will close the loop of human behaviour control, of reality control. If it hasn’t already done so. Keep in mind that web analytics was called web intelligence for a while.

Losses and waste are socialised

These days, we see a lot of new realities emerging: from augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to mixed reality (MR) or cross reality (XR). The virtual world becomes real, and the real world is virtualised. Increasingly, the digital world defines, controls and governs the analogue world.

Mining is the process of extracting value, leaving behind waste. That’s exactly what we are doing to our reality these days. What Big Oil does with planet Earth, Big Tech does with our human reality. Both are generating enormous wealth for their shareholders. Losses and waste are socialised.

And that’s, in a nutshell, why we now have some serious discussions about new regulations for Big Tech.

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash