Data isn’t oil, whatever tech commentators tell you: it’s people’s lives

This morning’s Observer column:

The phrase “data is the new oil” is the cliche du jour of the tech industry. It was coined by Clive Humby, the genius behind Tesco’s loyalty card, who argued that data was “just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

It turned out to be a viral idea: marketers, tech companies, governments, regulators and the mainstream media went for it like ostriches going after brass doorknobs (as PG Wodehouse might have put it) and it rapidly attained the status of holy writ.

But it’s a cliche nevertheless and cliches are, as my colleague David Runciman once observed, “where the truth goes to die”.

Humby’s cliche, however, is also a metaphor – a way of describing something by saying it is something else and that should concern us. Why? Because metaphors shape the way we think and, as the philosopher George Lakoff pointed out aeons ago, the best way to win arguments is to use metaphor to frame the discourse and dictate the language in which it is conducted. Thus American anti-abortion campaigners framed abortion as murder and the music industry framed filesharing as theft. And who’s in favour of murder or theft?