When data becomes a natural resource

Opinion

When data becomes a natural resource

There are times when the hyperbole of the IT industry can get a bit wearing. God knows we get plenty enough hype as it is, enough to keep four or five normal industries busy. It’s become so commonplace that the industry even has its own ‘hype cycle’.

The latest entry in the IT industry’s litany of statements that sound definitive but don’t quite mean what they should comes from IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Rometty unveiled the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. In itself, there’s nothing wrong about the initiative at all which seeks to encourage developers to create mobile consumer and business apps that use IBM’s Watson supercomputer platform. Watson, as nearly everyone knows, is the supercomputer that became a ‘Jeopardy’ champion by defeating two all-time champions of the US game show in 2011.

During the course of her presentation, Rometty described data as “the world’s new natural resource” (mobileworldlive.com) or “the world’s next natural resource” (Barron’s) or “the natural resource of the 21st century, just like electricity was in previous eras” (thedrum.com). As you can see there are slight variants, depending on which news source you read (which is weird as I assumed the journalists writing those reports were all either at the event or watching the live stream).

On a side note, it would have been a tad weird if she had made the comparison with electricity given that electricity isn't actually a natural resource. Another report suggested she had made the comparison between data as a natural resource and hydrocarbons which would have been more accurate in that hydrocarbons are a natural resource even if data isn’t.

I know the point Rometty’s trying to make by associating data with a natural resource but the fact is that it isn’t a natural resource. It may well be as important as sunlight, air and fresh water in terms of its own environment but that environment is not a natural one because it does not spring from nature.

Now, you could argue that the 21st century could become an era where the importance of the natural environment gradually (or not so gradually) diminishes in favour of an artificial environment of IT where data is the air, sunlight and fresh water that enables computing power to flourish and prosper. But wouldn’t that environment still be reliant on natural resources to power it?

Rometty may well be in correct in predicting data will become the resource that powers the 21st century but, if it does, it will be a very unnatural resource. And if she is right, it will mark a very clear break between the shape and progression of this century and those that preceded it. If the unnatural becomes the natural what will it mean for the world – and for us?

This was first published in February 2014

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