Monday, 1 December 2014

Who cashes in on Big Data?

So the recent baring of Kim Kardashian’s bottom didn’t break the internet. But the fact that it was billed as a plausible attempt to do so was an extraordinary comment on the times we live in.
The obsessions with peepshow nudity, vacuous celebrities and the net brought together in a weird nexus.
The internet is now so all-pervasive that people of school or college age can barely conceive of a world without it. Yet it is only 16 years since I was in the team that delivered the Ipswich Star’s first website. And we were ahead of the trend, not behind it.
There was no sound, no video or moving graphics. We had to keep images small, just one per page, to avoid overstretching people’s patience while they downloaded. In this age of streaming movies and real-time high-definition news and sport, that seems like ancient history.
Developers of the early computers would have been amazed (maybe) at the computing capacity most of us now carry around in our pockets. Gadgets so cheap most schoolkids take them everywhere provide ready, rapid access to most of the world’s stored information – and we use them to share videos of cute kittens and photos of Kim K’s curvy bits.
“Wearable technology” puts its users in a world fore-imagined in the Terminator movies. Internet-gathered information superimposed on ones view of the real world around you.
A dream to some, this sounds to me like a nightmare. But then I was a late convert to the CD and the VHS video. Maybe I’ll come round to internet-enabled specs.
All this new capability is empowering, exciting and just a little scary all at the same time. And we’re still, in historical terms, only in the early days of the internet. Expect the changes ahead to be bigger and quicker than those already behind us.
Next up, what’s been dubbed “the Internet of Things”.
Already you can use your mobile phone to set your satellite TV box to record programmes. With the right kit you can get an app to operate your home central heating from anywhere in the world. It’s apparently possible to buy internet-connected washing-machines, fridges, slow-cookers and vacuum-cleaners, and light-bulbs that switch themselves on when you and your phone get near home.
All this is based on Big Data, and inevitably it means Big Bucks for some very Big Companies.
The boss of one of those companies, Cisco Systems, has calculated that “the Internet of Everything” will be worth £9trillion by 2022.
That’s about £1,275 per person on the planet. Or, to put it another way, about five times the total size of the UK economy. All heading for the coffers of a handful of mostly American firms. Cripes.
The writer and “social theorist” Jeremy Rifkin, getting all excited, reckons this amounts to a Third Industrial Revolution. He predicts that the inter-connectedness of people and machines will make everything so efficient it will reduce the cost of producing things to “near zero”, thereby overthrowing capitalism and making us all happy ever after. Calm down, Jeremy.
If manufacturing is so efficient it no longer needs to employ workers and all the money goes to the firm, who’s going to buy all the wonderful stuff produced?
And apart from creating all this lovely warm customer satisfaction, what is all this Big Data actually for?
Cisco Systems is working on a piece of kit called “the Connected Athlete” that “turns the athlete’s body into a distributed system of sensors and network intelligence. The athlete becomes more than just a competitor – he or she becomes a Wireless Body Area Network, or WBAN .”
Very clever, very futuristic. And worth a second thought.
Google, your phone provider – and potentially anyone they want to sell or give the information to, such as the government – already knows at any given moment where you are. Or, at least, where your phone is.
Hook up your body to the internet and anyone who wants to know – your employer, your insurer, your privatised health-care provider – can access your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing pattern.
Cars that record where you are, how fast you’re travelling and how many passengers you have are equipped already with the equivalent of an aircraft’s “black box”. How long before the police demand access to such information?
A public already inured to the prevalence of CCTV probably won’t object. Most don’t seem to mind living in the most intense surveillance state the world has ever seen.
Cases such as the phone-hacking scandal, paranoia about people taking photos of other people’s children (as if they didn’t show their own images constantly on Snapchat and Facebook anyway) and constant bleats by royals and other celebs would suggest we still believe in privacy. That it’s something we feel we have a right to, and don’t want “invaded”.
Too late, guys. Google, Facebook, MI5 and the CIA have already brought the Age of Privacy to an end. The Internet of Everything merely erects its tombstone.
  • Next: what happens when all this Big Data falls into the hands of hackers?

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