Last night I made a comment on Twitter that metadata is digital black gold. It was in relation to comments around spying and privacy issues. It was a bit of a throw away comment but at the same time a serious one.
Funnily enough once I had turned in for the night I couldn’t get that image of digital black gold out of my head. It rolled and rolled around looking for context and meaning. This is me getting that down the morning after looking for that point I wanted to make.
Gold is a precious commodity. Mostly it’s not useful, just used as a measure of wealth. That may be a use but it’s an abstract one. Oil, when we (as in humanity), realised how useful it could be was described as black gold. Finding oil made you wealthy and it was dug out of the ground. As a commodity it is more useful than gold. Indeed the application of oil based technologies have revolutionised the world and led to a number of conflicts.
Slowly I think many people are coming to realise that metadata is a digital black gold. As a commodity it is becoming more and more precious, and its application is starting to revolutionise this digital age. The big difference is that everybody creates it, intentionally and unintentionally. You don’t dig metadata out of the ground. Although some folks like to go metadata mining.
As a librarian committed to open access, I create metadata. I let it out into the world free. How does this creation tie into metadata being digital black gold? I’m creating digital oil to lubricate the internet and giving it away free. Mostly it’s not going to be valuable as a commodity except in the research process.
But there is a class of metadata that we can create that others will want to commercialise. This is around personal information. This is the metadata we create when we post online, the metadata we create when we make a phone call, the metadata we create when we log into a site. This is the real digital black oil. And now we are starting to see just how valuable that metadata is and the lengths some folks will take to capture it.
As a society we need to be careful about how we handle that metadata. How right were those futurists who feared us being reduced to a number? And how wrong – we aren’t one number, no we are a complex set of metadata points cross referenced across the database of the world.