More isn’t just more. More is new. More is better. More is different. As businesses can collect, store and process more data, this changes what they do, how value is created and how organizations are run.
The basis of commercial enterprise is information. That hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
However, those who feel that today’s big data is just a continuation of past information trends are as wrong as if they were to claim that a stone tablet is essentially the same as a tablet computer or an abacus similar to a supercomputer.
Today, we have more information than ever. But the importance of all that information extends beyond simply being able to do more, or know more, than we already do. The quantitative shift leads to a qualitative shift. Having more data allows us to do new things that weren’t possible before. In other words: More is not just more. More is new. More is better. More is different.
Of course, there are still limits on what we can obtain from or do with data. But most of our assumptions about the cost of collecting and the difficulty of processing data need to be overhauled. No area of human endeavor or industrial sector will be immune from the incredible shakeup that’s about to occur as big data plows through society, politics, and business. People shape their tools—and their tools shape them.
This new world of data, and how companies can harness it, bumps up against two areas of public policy and regulation. The first is employment. Big data and associated algorithms challenge white-collar knowledge workers in the 21st century in the same way that factory automation and the assembly line eroded blue-collar labor in the 19th and 20th centuries. But there are benefits: Big data will bring about great things in society. We like to think that technology leads to job creation, even if it comes after a temporary period of disruption. That was certainly true during the Industrial Revolution. To be sure, it was a devastating time of dislocation, but it eventually led to better livelihoods. Yet this optimistic outlook ignores the fact that some industries simply never recover from change. When tractors and automobiles replaced horse-drawn plows and carriages, the need for horses in the economy basically ended.