Revolutions: From Cotton to Big Data

POSTED BY Windsor Holden
I have recently been rereading Paul Johnson’s magnificent opus The Birth of the Modern. For the uninitiated, the book provides an analysis, breath-taking in its scope and depth, of the key political, cultural and technological events of the 1815-1830 period at both the national and international level. While Johnson is exploring the economies of the Southern United States during this period, he highlights the impact that high-velocity gearing in cotton mills had on the price of cotton cloth, which “by the early 1860s… was less than 1 per cent of its price even in 1784”. According to Johnson, “there is no instance in world history of the price of a product in potentially universal demand coming down so fast”.

Johnson wrote The Birth of the Modern in 1991, at which point mobile phone ownership was limited to those with money to burn: in the UK, the first mobile handset, the Motorola 8000X, had been launched six years earlier at a retail price of £3,000, or a shade under £8,000 at today’s prices. If you go into a high street store today, you can purchase a Samsung E1230 for the princely sum of £4.99, or 0.06% of the equivalent price twenty-nine years ago.

While it is in some ways an artificial comparison – the price range of handsets varies enormously, and we don’t have a “smart cotton” equivalent – there is no doubting that the reduction in the retail price of handsets and their associated components and supporting infrastructure (think also the even steeper decline in data storage costs) has had a seismic effect not merely on global communication, but on the ways in which we conduct our everyday lives. Furthermore, as a recent Juniper report makes clear, this in turn has created a wealth of data – big data – which (privacy regulation permitting) can be mined and monetised by a variety of content providers in all manner of ways.

All manner of ways. We must hold our hands up and confess that, in the strategic recommendations section of our Mobile Analytics & Big Data report, we did not flag up “Broadcasters have the opportunity to monetise Big Data by using predictive analytics to oblige two people who have never met to marry”. That one passed us by. But not Channel 4 executives, who will soon be bringing us Married at First Sight, a “groundbreaking social experiment” under which “six people will be chosen for a legally binding marriage with a complete stranger, with the television cameras following every step of the first six weeks of their relationship”.

Big Data clearly has the potential for brands and retailers to deliver precisely tailored content to customers; predictive analytics, to anticipate individual activity based on existing behavioural patterns. Channel 4’s brainchild takes things to a new – and rather disconcerting – level: we might have anticipated that broadcasters would be able to offer us individualised programme packages based on our previous viewing, but not that they would be throwing in our future spouse as part of the bundle.

Times have certainly changed since the high-velocity gearing revolution.