No, Seriously Folks, Data Is Not The New Oil


A commonplace of our times is that data is the new oil. An unfortunate thing for people to think for it’s entirely bass ackwards – data ain’t the new oil at all, it’s entirely the opposite in economic terms. And, of course, we’re being asked to think of this data as being that new oil in exactly those economic terms that they’re getting wrong.

Think through this for just a moment. With oil the people who own the raw stuff in the ground get all the money. What is it that we’re complaining about over data? That we, the people who own the damn stuff in the raw, don’t get all the money. Data and oil therefore aren’t even remotely similar in economic terms then, are they?

James Pethokoukis is interesting on the subject but doesn’t to my mind, go far enough:

Data is just like oil, other than these few minor differences

And he’s right and fine in those differences. But we can and should go further.

Oil is a resource. Sure, OK, so are lots of things. But we do talk about natural resources in a slightly different manner in economics. Including pointing to resource rents. This is money, value, that accrues to someone just because this resource exists. Oil exists, no one manufactures it. The same might be true of spectrum, raw land, a number of things. Whoever owns it gains value simply from being able to appropriate that value that is already extant.

This is entirely – and conceptually – different from value added by activity. Drilling for oil, pumping it up, refining, transporting etc, these all add value. So does building – usually that is – on a piece of land, or other people building a city around your piece, someone inventing radio adds value to spectrum and on and on.

And we do distinguish, a lot, in economics between these two. The addition of value to a resource is something that people should profit from. For they’ve undertaken effort to add value of course. Actually, that’s not quite right, it’s so that people who are thinking about undertaking effort to add value elsewhere see that they’ll get to keep some of the value created. But that is distinguished from the natural and bare value of those resources. Resource rents should be taxed until the pips squeak. We’ve got to gain our tax revenue somewhere, if people didn’t create the value then we cannot diminish the amount of value being created by taxing away that not-created value.

We’re great with frackers making money from fracking, the tax system should get the value of the oil itself, in its natural form, in the ground and unfracked.

We can also view this the other way around. Who does gain that value of that raw oil in the ground? Whoever controls the ground above either in a legal or military sense. And in the larger system, the entire oil extraction industry, the value flows to those who own the resource itself. Sure, Shell, BP, Exxon, they make money, but it’s a return upon the capital they’re employing to do the work, not the resource rent. Saudi Aramco makes much more than they do precisely because it also collects the resource rents itself.

So, in order for data to be like oil it would need to be true that the owners of the original, unprocessed, resource end up with all the money. That’s exactly what does happen with resource rents and natural resources. We, us out here, are the people who generate and own that data in its raw form. The entire complaint in the field is that we ain’t the people getting the money. Rather, it’s the Googles and Facebooks doing the processing who do get all the oodle.

It’s as if the oil companies are gaining all the resource rents and governments and the tax system none of them. Which isn’t, as we can observe, how the oil business works. Ownership of the data in its raw form isn’t creating any resource rent at all in fact. Which is why data isn’t the new oil. In fact, in this economic sense, data is entirely unlike oil in the slightest.

If data were oil then people would be lining up to buy it from us. Our complaint is that no one will pay us for our data. Therefore data isn’t the new oil, is it?