Data = Plastic?

Photo by Jordan Beltran

You've probably by now heard the expression, 'Data is the new oil.'

While this metaphor has proven effective for those whose job it is to sell digital products or make splashy news headlines, it is not necessarily accurate.

In 2019, the legal scholar Elettra Bietti proposed that data is like plastic. Why?

  • Both are produced in large quantities (i.e. Big Data)
  • Both allow for great benefits, very useful
  • Both have harmful consequences when produced at large scale

Elettra pointed out that the amount of plastic produced each year (300,000,000 tonnes) weighs more than the weight of the planet's entire adult population combined. Half of this, 150,000,000 is used once and then thrown away. 

As with plastic, we have set up large-scale industrial systems that generate far more than we use. "By 2020 each person will be responsible for the generation of 102 MB per minute on average," she states. The question becomes: what happens to all these data?

A visualization of data GPS tracked by a ride-share app.

Without responsible ways to manage and dispose of data, we perpetuate and normalize serious societal harms like:

  • Invasion of privacy, which can lead to things like being denied a mortgage due to a health condition or being fired for something an employer could find in data about you
  • Exploitation by industry of loose laws around worker-created data. As an example, imagine that a rideshare app sells data to a city about traffic patterns. If these data were generated by drivers themselves, should they not be entitled to some of that pay?

Check out Elettra's recent talk on the topic here:

So lets remember this phrase: Data is like plastic: the more we produce, the more we pollute!