BLOG: Data as a catalyst to change in science and in society

by Tero Huhtala, Oulu Business School, University of Oulu

We live in an increasingly data-driven world, where business decisions are based on customer relationship management databases and big data, and where much of the global population use the internet daily. Every action we take in the internet produces data, whether it is uploading a video to Youtube, or browsing an online webshop. Over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day at current rate, and that rate is only going to increase exponentially. Indeed, over 90% of all the data in the world was generated in the last two years.  Some researchers claim we have already entered a new phase of society, characterized by a plethora of labels and concepts - information society, post-industrial society, network society and many more - that have been debated over for decades (Bell, 1972; Beniger, 1986; Castells, 1996).

Emergence of Written Language

Information has always been used for informed decision making. It is, in fact, the motivation for the emergence of the written language. Human societies beyond a certain size will require a medium through which information can be conveyed, for how else could the village chieftain or king keep tabs on who owns how much grain and how much of that can be taxed. An individual person couldn’t hope to retain or understand all that information. Instead many people collected that information across lands and that information could be added up to give predictions of how much money the realm had to use that year – could a war be waged, or a palace be built.

Written language is something we all take for granted today, but this wasn’t always the case. It was a tremendous innovation back in the day. The first written language conveyed information but it wasn’t detailed or nuanced. It dealt mostly with things like: “The temple farm: seven cows, 18 stones of grain”. This seems simple, but before written language gathering information this efficiently was impossible. Recorded information is a prerequisite for a society to grow beyond a certain limit. (Powell, 2009).

Gains and Costs of Internet Age

In the advent of the modern world, information has been freed by the internet. Data is ever more plentiful and new innovative resource configurations have changed the whole world. Data has allowed new kinds of consumer innovations to arise, such as hotel chains without hotels, taxi services without their own taxis, monetary transactions without banks. The information needed to invent these novel services have been there for years, but it is the combination of both data and a suitable infrastructure or data platform that really enabled these innovations. Still, most of the data available in the vast cyberspace are underutilized.

For example, Google Flu Trends is an experimental service, which utilizes location and search data to identify trends and calculate predictions for outbreaks of flu-like diseases. The algorithms it uses can predict outbreaks up to ten days earlier than any conventional disease control agency, and they have been generally consistent with traditional surveillance data. These kinds of tools that utilize aggregated user generated data can, for example, prevent possible future pandemics, or thwart a terrorist attack. But ethical questions arise from using this kind of data. People’s privacy is on the line. Generally, scientists and companies comply to privacy issues by using only aggregated data, but it is not as simple as it sounds. Using wide varieties of user-specific data is inherently prone to privacy incursions, regardless of attempts to anonymize data.

Throughout history information has equated to power. Power equates to control – and control has historically been the privilege of kings, political parties, presidents and dictators. This is slowly changing before our eyes. A watershed moment was when the so-called Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed. Cambridge Analytica had been harvesting the personal data of millions of Facebook users for political purposes. By analyzing the user data, they created psychographic profiles to match with persuasive political advertisements. Cambridge Analytica has been linked with the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump, in 2016 the Brexit vote, and in 2018 the Mexican general elections. Is power is sliding away from governments into the hands of private companies?

To summarize, data can afford to society and science unprecedented gains in terms of usable information and innovations, but it may come with a dear cost.

Data Privacy Challenges

The need for data will not be diminishing in the perceivable future. It can be argued that the history of human societies has been a story of recursive paradigms of various information processing methods for control (Harari, 2018). The capitalistic way of information (e.g. derivative goods, services) processing has proven to be the most efficient paradigm in recent history, outshining the failed communist -and even earlier imperialistic models. Will the capitalistic societies of the world remain unchanged now that information is free? Will the scientific community? Unlikely.

China is on its way to becoming a superpower, with a GDP greater than that of the United States. In 2016, the Chinese president Xi Jingping announced plans to make China the leading actor in science and technology globally. In terms of information, the Chinese do have a clear advantage: it’s domestic data economy. With almost a billion internet users, China has the world’s largest e-commerce market, triple the size of that of the U.S. But e-commerce itself isn’t propelling China forward. It is personal data.

In the “western world”, governments and companies are controlled by legislation and privacy regulations, such as the globally enforced EU General Data Protection Regulation. This ensures the privacy of individual people and attempts to act as a predictable framework in which organizations can act. This is not the case for China, wherein privacy is the privilege of only the top political actors and party members. The bulk of the Chinese society is really, and in a very real way, under constant watch of the Big Brother. Privacy is of no concern to the political brass of China, and it does make the use of and experimentation with datasets far easier.

For the average person in China, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. A female college student may feel safe in the city, knowing that she is watched over - pre-emptying a possible rape or a robbery. Then again, a journalist with one critical publication about party-policy can be barred from having a passport, preventing him or her to leave the country.

To someone from a western society, this kind of government control seems oppressive and outdated. But if this “Chinese mixed-capitalistic” way of information processing turns out the be more efficient than that of western countries – producing greater GDP, services, wealth – will the European countries and the United States remain as they are? Or will they assimilate characteristics of the country that navigates in the world more successfully? This remains to be seen, but at least historically, less efficient societal systems have eventually failed or adapted.


Bell, Daniel (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

Beniger, James R. (1986). The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Castells, Manuel (1996). The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Harari, Noel Y. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London: Jonathan Cape.

Powell, Barry B. (2009). Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell.

Last updated: 18.3.2019