Thu Feb 20 2020 Michael McQueen

If you had told your grandparents that in the future the currency of the world, the power of big companies and the division of wealth would largely centre around the movement of an invisible object, they would never have believed you. And yet it is increasingly becoming the case with the unstoppable use of data in the modern world.

My friend and fellow futurist Chris Riddell goes as far as to suggest that data will in fact ‘be the oil of twenty-first century – wealth and power will belong to those who can find it, mine it and refine it’.

Data today is more plentiful than ever. 

It’s widely accepted that 90 per cent of the world’s data has been created in the past two years[1] and Google’s servers alone handle 24 petabytes (equal to 24 million gigabytes) each and every day.[2]

This becomes even more overwhelming when you consider that private companies today collect and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points about the average individual consumer.[3]

The raft of web-enabled devices and sensors churning out this data is often referred to as ‘the Internet of Things’ and it is a trend that’s only just getting started. It is estimated that in 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices in use, and over a trillion sensors monitoring every conceivable facet of our lives.[4]  By 2025, a full 10 per cent of the population is forecast to be wearing clothing or reading glasses that are connected to the internet.[5]

Owing to its scope and volume, this ‘big data’, as it is often referred to, is transforming the nature of business. Reflecting on this, former GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt suggests that every company today is in the software and analytics business – whether it wants to be or not. [6]

To break it down simply, your data is being used to make you a:

1. Better Customer. Retailers were one of the first industry groups to recognise the benefits of monitoring the purchasing data of customers in order to identify trends. If you wear a device that monitors your sleep, exercise or the number and type of calories you consume, it won’t be long before your insurance company will offer you a discount on your premium if you agree to share this data with them.[7]

In the words of former Woolworths CEO Grant O’Brien, ‘Data is the new eyes of the retailer. Without it the shopper is invisible.’ A highly confronting case that highlighted this was when the data scientists of U.S. retailer Target discovered that there was a strong correlation between early stage pregnancy and the purchase of a range of 25 health and cosmetics products, they decided to put these insights to use. When a customer’s transaction history indicated the purchase of these certain products, the company’s marketing machine targeted the customer with pregnancy-related advertising.

This proved disastrous when the father of a teenage customer receiving this advertising complained to the store. It was left to the daughter to break the news to him. A national retail store’s data department knew she was pregnant long before her own father had any clue. [8]

2. Better Employee. Beyond simply improving the sales of major companies, data is also being used to improve the output and efficiency of employees. According to the technology research giant Gartner, around 10,000 companies worldwide offer their staff fitness trackers. BP for instance gives out Fitbit fitness trackers to its North American staff as part of an incentive program. In the UK and Ireland, Tesco distribution centre staff wear smart armbands ‘as a working aid’.[9]

 While employees appreciate the gift, the greater benefit is to the employer who monitors the employee’s health (with their permission of course). According to Chris Brauer from the University of London, such a move is actually a management diagnostic tool: ‘What impacts on your performance at work is not just what you do at work. In our early stage studies, we find strong, clear correlations between sleep patterns and concentration, between levels of anxiety and stress outside the workplace and performance inside the workplace.’

3. Better Product. A good rule of thumb to remember is that in the digital age, if you are not paying for a product, you are the product.[10] In other words, the data and privacy you give away is where the value exchange occurs.

WeatherBug, one of the most popular weather apps for Android and iPhone, is owned by the location advertising company GroundTruth. It’s a natural fit: weather apps need to know where you are and provide value in exchange for that information. But it also means that the location data that the app is gathering can be manipulated and resold to others.[11]

In a somewhat alarming example of what may become commonplace in the years ahead, a United States Senate commerce committee revealed in 2013 that an American company named MEDbase200 had sold lists of families with specific illnesses, including AIDS and gonorrhoea, to pharmaceutical companies. Even more despicable, they also advertised lists of rape victims at a price of $79 per 1000 names, and similar databases of domestic violence victims.[12]

While the market of our data certainly highlights the truth that we as humans are inherently special and valuable, it also highlights the lack of power we have over how that value is being used and the sordid consequences this can often have.

While privacy legislation in various countries around the world aims to protect our data and identity, we are entering an age where legislation, and even the ethics that support it, will struggle to keep up with the rate of technological advancement.

The old adage stands true: nothing in life is truly free. With recent years seeing more software, online tools and apps made available to us at no charge, what we’ve failed to realise is that we have in fact paid for these benefits – and the currency has been our data


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,


[1] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 154.

[2] Ford, M. 2015, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, New York, p. 86.

[3] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 153.

[4] Rothkopf, D. 2017, The Great Questions of Tomorrow, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 18.

[5] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, p. 26.

[6] Clancy, H. 2014, ‘How GE Generates $1 billion From Data’, Fortune, 11 October.

[7] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, p. 104.

[8] Ford, M. 2015, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, New York, p. 88.

[9] Fox, K. & O’Connor, J. 2015, ‘Five Ways Work Will Change in the Future’, The Guardian, 29 November.

[10] Goodson, S. 2012, ‘If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product’, Forbes, 5 March.

[11] Mims, C. 2018, ‘Your Location Data Is Being Sold—Often Without Your Knowledge’, The Wall Street Journal, 4 March.

[12] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 177.