Wealth Issue 2018

Data Capitalism

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Romance and rewards

The wealthy are different. They don’t just have more money, nowadays they also know more. Or own databases that do. The world is well past the formative stage of the Information Age, after all, and ever since Mukesh Ambani publicly referred to data as “the new oil” a couple of years ago, guessing who has what reserves of it—and stored where—has been something of a parlour game in India. “We have it in super-abundance,” the chief of Reliance Jio had said at a telecom conference held in Delhi, “It will be a new source of value and will create opportunities and prosperity for India and millions of Indians.”

Less cheerful views of what binary digits—those harmless little zeroes and ones that make up data— could create have been aired too, most recently by Apple CEO Tim Cook who warned of a ‘data industrial complex’. “Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency,” he said in a sharp speech delivered in Brussels on October 24th, “Scraps of personal data are collected for digital profiles that let businesses know users better than they know themselves and allow companies to offer users increasingly extreme content that hardens their convictions.” “This is surveillance,” Cook declared, “And these stockpiles of personal data serve to enrich only the companies that collect them.”

Even as new arguments on modern wealth emerge, old anxieties on its distribution resurface. The richest 10 per cent of Indians have over three-fourths of all wealth in India, according to a Credit Suisse study just released, and the top 1 per cent have more than half the pie. Since it’s impossible to accurately trace the value of stuff owned by an entire population too far back in time, it’s not easy to say whether inequality has eased or worsened since computers first came about in the 1980s. All the same, it only takes a cursory look around to argue that the rich have clearly been getting richer. The gaps of the Industrial Era appear to have widened in the Information Age, even though it’s unclear if digital technology has had much to do with this general trend. It’s the enhanced role of market forces in the economy since the 1980s that remains the prime suspect, with wealth itself firmly in the dock.

Time, then, to get gloomy about the Indian dream of widely-shared wealth in the Info Yug?

No. On the evidence that has begun to arise, that sort of pessimism is overdone.

Sure, some perplexities of the Industrial Era do persist, while others confound optimists who had perhaps expected too much change too quickly in their hurry to leave smoke-spewing furnaces behind. Social attitudes towards wealth among the multitudes still seem somewhat rigid, marked by a mix of awe, envy and suspicion— as revealed by responses to India’s bonfire of high-value currency two years ago. It doesn’t help that while wealth is quickly made, it is also easily lost in a hyper-dynamic economy given to sudden disruptions, with philanthropy sounding more like entropy to so many tech entrepreneurs who’ve internalised Andy Grove’s maxim that ‘only the paranoid survive’. All this, while India sweats to foster the conditions needed for innovation to thrive.

Yet, it’s also true that data is data, available aplenty and ready to be turned into cash if put to clever use. Wealth, for once, can be generated from thin air, as it were, for information in itself is immaterial even if its storage boxes are not. Critically, unlike any other ‘raw material’, it can be copied and passed around at virtually no cost. In theory, it is limitless, and this is turning old theories of production into relics of the past.

Of course, data has commercial value only if it is put to use in satisfying needs in some way. This takes a lot more than ambition. It takes imagination. Intuition. Empathy. And more. In that sense, it’s still early days for a revolution set off by a ‘toy computer’. A whiff of la-la-land this may have, but given a reasonably open society that does not cramp anybody’s freedom of thought, Information and Imagination (I+i), open to all, could yet combine in creative ways to play the hot new exponent of good old Labour and Capital in the expansion formula of an economy, with ideas rewarded more and more handsomely by market forces. The ‘new economy’ could yet prove itself novel.

Already, there are palms of anticipation to be rubbed at the success of young entrepreneurs in India who are doing marvellous things with information. They aim to make money out of bits and bytes, stuff that’s not too far out of reach, without letting ethics slip. And their extraordinary approach to what’s ordinarily available should inspire many many more.

All this will have its effect. If data is no longer scarce, no deprivation can last too long.