Friday, 23 August 2013

The Next Big Thing

The macroeconomic mood is increasingly skittish, despite the insistence (and general desire to believe) that recovery is underway. There are a number of reasons for this, chiefly the fear that the emerging economies are decelerating, that the end of quantitative easing and other government bond-buying schemes could trigger higher interest rates in the US and UK, and that this in turn could result in currency crises in vulnerable economies (such as India), as capital decamps, and possibly recession in economies over-dependent on natural resources (such as Australia). On the domestic front, no one is seriously claiming that the UK recovery is anything other than a reversion to type, i.e. increased household debt to fuel consumption plus all-new sub-prime mortgages, and will do well not to fizzle out before the 2015 election.

The mood has also infected the technology sector, where the NSA/GCHQ revelations are (allegedly) leading to less sharing of personal data and suspicions about US cloud providers, thus undermining the potential value of the Big Data asset. In terms of the hype-cycle, Big Data is now entering the "questions are being asked" phase, specifically: is the failure to massively monetise the sucker simply the time-delay of new technology, or is there just not enough value substance? To a sceptical observer, Big Data looks like a speculative bubble: it's fashionable, it isn't widely understood, there isn't even agreement among "experts" on what it is, and ridiculous claims are routinely made for it as a panacea.

Of course, bubbles are rarely without substance altogether. There was a market for tulips in the seventeenth century, the potential of the South Seas was real (fortunes were later made in copra and palm oil), and every housing bubble is predicated on the basic need for shelter. The analysis of very large datasets undoubtedly offers enormous potential across many industries, not to mention its value in "evidence-based policy-making" (though that seems to be going out of fashion politically), but it is better thought of as a mode of approach (and a specific application of existing technologies) rather than the "new oil".

This eulogisation of Big Data as a new asset class has been undermined by the recent concerns over privacy, which could in turn accelerate the bursting of the bubble. This is prompting a fight-back, an example of which is Polly Toynbee's atypical praise for David Willetts facilitating the creation of an NHS dataset of clinical data for commercial exploitation. Toynbee bigs-up the research potential (which is valid), downplays the paranoia about personal data (which is sound, though she does fail to understand how anonymised data can be easily de-anonymised), and considers the economic benefits to be incidental: "If, as David Cameron asserts, it aids economic growth too, that's to the good".

As a social democrat, she sees this valuable dataset as a justification for the NHS (this would not be possible in the fragmented US health system, though Obamacare may eventually change that), but fails to spot the neoliberal characteristic of an asset created by the people, owned by the state and exploited by business. We're not anonymising our personal data for the public good so much as for private gain.

Toynbee echoes some of the voodoo beliefs of the Big Data evangelists: "the NHS's electronic surveys could be more effective than randomised control trials". That phrase may be the work of a sub-editor (it's in the article sub-title), but it still implies that Toynbee doesn't understand what a randomised control trial is. Big Data will not abolish the need for RCTs any more than it will abolish testing on animals.

What it will (potentially) do is boost NHS productivity by identifying inefficiencies, accelerating decision-making, and isolating best practice. This will please government, by bending down the previously inexorably rising trend in per capita costs (though a moratorium on reorganisations would achieve the same result), and will also please business, by providing increased profit margins and new revenue streams. However, this may ultimately prove illusory, as real productivity gains are wasted through excessive rent extraction and privatisation overheads, but for now the hype-cycle is still in a positive phase.

The underlying story here is the age-old search for value. i.e. the desire of investors to find an asset that will handsomely beat inflation and deliver capital appreciation. Given the long-term dearth of investment opportunities due to technological advance (declining surplus value due to automation plus commodity deflation), and the huge amount of "hot" funds swilling around the international financial system due to the money creation of the last 5 years, this looks tailor-made for the creation of an even newer asset class, so investors have a hedge in case Big Data sputters out. If I were a con man, I'd be printing prospectuses now (the government's enthusiasm for fracking has a certain je ne sais quoi). I have no idea what this next big thing might be. I just know that something will, of necessity, "bubble" up. It probably won't be a smart-watch.


  1. David,

    There are a number of "next big things" in the pipeline. I doubt 3-D printing in its present form is going to be the bonanza its hyped to be. Its slow, do you really want everything produced in the same bland plastic? However, developments in nano-technology could lead to atomic level fabricators in the next decade or so. We are only at the frontier of developments in medical science such as gene and bio-technology, as well as the use of mobile devices to constantly monitor, and even deal with changes in people's vital signs. That will revolutionise healthcare and the debate over it and the NHS.

    However, as I've written elsewhere, the pace of these innovations, or more correctly their transformation into commodities is likely to slow down in the next period compared to the last 13-20 years. That is because the easy pickings have been had for this cycle, and the new conjuncture of the Long Wave means that the costs of developing new commodities, new production methods etc. will rise relative to the value of the output, i.e. the rate of profit will fall.

    I have no doubt that the current economic improvement is real. I predicted it would happen a year ago. There is a 3 year economic cycle that has operated for at least the last 30 years, which is probably technology related. It coincided with 2008 and began in the third quarter of 2011. But, it will also kick in in the third quarter of 2014, which is bad news for the Tories. Also as I've written elsewhere, the irony of the economic improvement will be that it will speed up the rise in the demand for capital, at a time when the fall in the rate of profit will reduce its supply. That is the real reason interest rates are rising, not central bank action. That will crash financial assets like property, bonds and shares.

  2. Boffy,

    I agree with your assessment re the underlying productive base, and also the likely direction of travel for interest rates, but my point was less about productive capital and more about the speculative variety. As Paul Krugman noted (see "hot" link), bubbles have been a persistent feature of capitalism since financial deregulation in the 80s. With Big Data potentially losing some of its lustre due to the NSA fallout, there looks to be a vacancy for a new froth-machine.