Analytics & Data Mobile Society

A Key Question of the Digital Era: How Much Information is Too Much?

image courtesy Shutterstock

image courtesy Shutterstock

Mobile technology is rapidly changing the way we live. This is most dramatic in emerging countries that have simply skipped the static world of desktop computers and one-to-one emails and moved directly to the untethered, always-on Internet. According to the GSMA (the global cellphone trade group), mobile phones are now used by half of the world’s 7.2 billion people. They not only connect people easily and cheaply, but they are spawning a rapidly-developing technology ecosystem that provides cheap and easy access to the web along with a host of other services, such as low cost ways to send and receive money without the need for a bank account.

Mobile networks also produce, as a by-product, rich and dynamic streams of data about individual consumers. This data, it turns out, can be interpreted to generate powerful predictors of creditworthiness and how people are likely to respond to product and services offerings. Big data analytics companies like Cignifi, where I am CEO, and others can now for the first time design financial products and reach millions of underserved customers in an efficient, data-driven way. This has been incredibly transformative and positive, especially in emerging markets.

But on the other side of the coin, all of this is bringing an explosion in data consumption. Last year we consumed (by GSMA estimates) 4 billion petabytes of data a month globally on mobile phones. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Within five years, as smartphone penetration continues to rise, GSMA calculates that the monthly amount will likely grow to the astonishing figure of over 24 billion petabytes – an annual increase of more than 50%.

As technologists, our first instinct is to celebrate this rapid increase in connectivity. After all, it means greater opportunity for inclusion, the democratization of information, and so many other positive advancements. But we might also want to reflect on whether the unconstrained growth is unambiguously a good thing. In previous generations we agonized over consumption of material goods – how many cars, clothes and electronic gadgets do we really need? In the digital era perhaps we need to reformulate this question: how much information consumption is enough?

The personal and highly-addictive nature of mobile devices makes this question a lot more troubling than, say, worries over the impact of television a generation ago. Most of us in the developed world are already familiar with the way mobile devices routinely intrude on our time. We increasingly live our lives in a digital bubble. Facebook allows us to present an idealized, self-curated image of ourselves to our “friends”. We consume news and information that is pre-filtered to fit with our digitally-discovered preferences. We are distracted, checking emails at business meetings and often only half–present even with our closest family. And the mobile addiction means we have less and less time to think deeply and be ourselves.

There are no easy solutions to these dilemmas. As individuals we need to understand how to control our urge to consume digitally, while enjoying the benefits that technology brings. Technology itself must be a part of the solution. Digital is already an enormous force for social good. We could also try to envisage new and different types of digital communication channels for different types of relationships; solutions that strengthen our independent thinking; greater opportunities and incentives to encourage education, creativity, and self-control. These are themes that we must continue to grapple with as the new digital era envelops the world.

Jonathan Hakim is CEO and founder of Cignifi, the first-ever big data analytics platform to translate mobile phone data into marketing propensity and credit scores.

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