Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Big data’s big impact

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 12, 2012 23:09 UTC

The Internet is, of course, old hat. We are all getting used to social media, too — your grandmother probably has a Facebook account, and every CEO worth his salt, along with all the world’s would-be revolutionaries, is on Twitter. Mobile, once the new thing, is now taken for granted as part of the world’s hardware. In 2010, more than 4 billion people, or 60 percent of the world’s population, were using mobile phones. Twelve percent of them were smartphones, whose presence is increasing more than 20 percent a year.

But don’t get complacent. A new wave of the technology revolution is cresting and, like its predecessors, will again change the way we work and live. This latest transformation is being called “big data” — a term for the vast amount of digital data we now create and have an increasing ability to store and manipulate.

If wonks were fashionistas, big data would be this season’s hot new color. When I interviewed him before a university audience a few weeks ago, Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary, named big data as one of the three ideas he was most excited about (the others were biology and the rise of the emerging markets). The McKinsey Global Institute, the management consultancy’s research arm and the closest the corporate world comes to having an ivory tower, published a 143-page report last year on big data, trumpeting it as “the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity.”

To understand how much data is now at our fingertips, consider a few striking facts from the McKinsey report. One is that it costs less than $600 to buy a disk drive with the capacity to store all of the world’s music. Another is that in 2010 people around the world collectively stored more than 6 exabytes of new data on devices like PCs and notebook computers; each exabyte contains more than 4,000 times the information stored in the Library of Congress.

McKinsey believes that the transformative power of all of this data will amount to a fifth wave in the technology revolution, building on the first four: the mainframe era; the PC era; the Internet and Web 1.0 era; and most recently, the mobile and Web 2.0 era.

The view from Alcoa and McKinsey

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:12 UTC

At this morning’s Newsmaker “Thriving in the New Global Economy,” Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld and McKinsey Global Managing Director Dominic Barton told Chrystia their outlook for the world economy. From his perch atop one of the world’s leading aluminum producers, Kleinfeld was “really positive” about global growth prospects. Coming off a strong year in which aluminum demand rose 13 percent, the Alcoa chief forecast that aluminum demand will grow at a slightly slower rate of 12 percent this year thanks to China’s efforts to slow down its economy:

While also bullish on global growth, Barton noted that there was a sense of fragility in the world economy that concerned him. Specifically, the McKinsey head was worried about the government’s response to looming inflation, which he predicted would rise to the range of 6 to 7 percent. Mounting government debts and the rising cost of capital, which Barton believes will be “up fairly significantly” as savings rates in the emerging markets decline, will exacerbate the inflation problem:

“We’re in a slack period if you just look at what the cost of money is. It’s an incredibly unique period. I think that’s going to go away, and that’s going to make it challenging.”

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