“Data is the new oil” is one of those deceptively simple mantras for the modern world. Whether in The New York Times, The Economist, or WIRED, the wildcatting nature of oil exploration, plus the extractive exploitation of a trapped asset, seems like an apt metaphor for the boom in monetized data.
The metaphor has even assumed political implications. Newly installed California governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed an ambitious “data dividend” plan, whereby companies like Facebook or Google would pay their users a fraction of the revenue derived from the users’ data. Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes laid out a similar idea in a Guardian op-ed, and compared it to the Alaskan Permanent Fund, which doles out annual payments to Alaskans based on the state’s petroleum revenue. As in Alaska, the average Google or Facebook user is conceived as standing on a vast substratum of personal data whose extraction they’re entitled to profit from.
But data isn’t the new oil, in almost any metaphorical sense, and it’s supremely unhelpful to perpetuate the analogy. Oil is literally a liquid, fungible, and transportable commodity. The global market is designed to take a barrel of oil from the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia and, as frictionlessly as possible, turn it into a heated apartment in Boston or a moving commuter bus in New York. With data, by contrast, the abstract bits are functionally static.