My guest on the podcast today is Stewart Cowley, author of the new book Man vs Big Data.
Stewart is a regular columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and the financial magazine Citywire. He’s a regular guest on BBC Newsnight, Radio 4 and SKY News.
Having worked in finance in New York and London since the 1980s, Stewart is now passionate about reporting on economics, and Man vs Big Data is his latest book taking a deep dive into an interesting topic.
Man vs Big Data distills the complexities of the most absorbing statistics and data of modern life and shows us how understanding a little more can help improve your life.
In the book, Stewart explains to readers the science and theories that impact on our everyday existence. He taps into our instinctive curiosity about the world around us, but also show how, by understanding these things, we can learn to take greater control of our lives.
Here’s my conversation with Stewart Cowley, author of Man vs Big Data, in episode 288 of Informed Choice Radio.
Martin: Welcome back to Informed Choice radio. Today on the show we have a returning guest. Stewart Cowley who was our guest back in episode 139 about a year ago actually is back today, so Stewart, welcome back to Informed Choice radio.
Stewart: Thank you very much, Martin. It’s good to be back on this drizzly November afternoon it must be said.
Martin: Yes. Yeah, well let’s try and cheer things up a bit. So, for listeners who didn’t hear you all the way back in 139, could you start with a bit of an introduction. Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
Stewart: Well, I was probably best known as a front manager and sort of financial market commentator and I used to write for the Telegraph and go on News Night and all that kind of thing, did a fair amount of journalism and about three years ago, I jacked all of that in, and I was very fortunate. I was offered some writing assignments, so for three years now I’ve been writing books for Aaron Price and this is my second one. The first one was called Man Versus Money which did very well, and this one called Man Versus Big Data is a follow one which they kind of asked me to do really.
Martin: Fantastic, and what’s the inspiration for Man Versus Big Data? What piqued your interest in that subject?
Stewart: Well, they approached me because I mean, they liked what I did on Man Versus Money and the style and that kind of approachable style and your kind of educating and amusing people along the way sort of thing. It’s kind of, it’s got a serious intent but do it with a light touch and they said look, we’ve got this subject which we don’t know anything about. Do you know anything about it? And I said no, and they said brilliant. Your exactly the person to explain it to everybody then. So, it was as much a journey for me as it was for anybody else and the reader when I started looking at Man Versus Big Data and sort of looking under the rock because I’d heard a lot of the, I’d heard the words around. I’d heard some of the concepts and we had a rough outline for it, and said look, these are the subjects we probably want to tackle, and we want to come at it from the point of view of a user, like how is data being used?
How is big data infiltrated its way into our lives either knowingly or unknowingly and what is this thing For the uninformed who just want to kind of get up to speed a little bit with what the phenomenon of big data is, and that’s where we started off from and away we went. About, it was just over a year ago now really.
Martin: Well I think I’m in that position you were probably in before writing the book. I’m the uninformed. I’d love to sort of learn more about this because I’m broadly aware of the concept, but I guess the big question here is what is data? What are we referring to here?
Stewart: Well, it’s mutated over time. I mean, we used to think of data as just sort of numbers and things like that, and then it became textual obviously through word processing and our ability to store it, so there’s a new level of data and analyse that. Then it became pictorial and we start taking photographs on cameras and we used to be bamboozled by the idea of a mega-byte or mega-pixel picture now. They are several mega-bytes, and then it became oral as well, and then we started adding all this stuff in and it suddenly became available through all the appliances around us like our phone, like our browser, like our fridge even, like our appliances and what people started to do is say okay, how can we dump all of this at the same time into a database and then analyse it and bring out information about people so we can start predicting either the things that they’re going to need, the things that they’re going to want or where they are in their live cycle and can we find out interesting things about society which are fundamental or things which are sociological trends which are changing over time? What can we learn by bringing all this data together?
So, now data has a much broader definition than just kind of digits. It’s everything. We are leaving a kind of snail’s trail of data behind us wherever we’re going. Whatever you touch, whatever you do it’s data. So, our relationship with it is completely changed. Our ability to analyse it …
Martin: I was going to ask [inaudible 00:04:22] I mean, how has that changed because obviously as you say, the amount of data we’re producing even knowingly or unknowingly has massively changed over recent years, and I guess, as well as all those types you described there, there’s also things like geographical data, where we are when the data is produced and it’s a scary amount, so how has that relationship changed?
Stewart: Well, it’s certainly more intrusive. I mean, that is certainly the case. Our fridges are now talking to our washing machines behind our backs sort of thing, you know? Their gossiping about us. And there’s a chapter in Man Versus Big Data where I set down and I read ten sort of random privacy agreements which are in my life and the kind of things which they’re extracting off us and so for instance my Samsung television can record my voice and it can relay it back to headquarters so it can hear what I’m saying, talking about, that kind of thing. My Jaguar car, I have to read out a disclaimer to you if you get into it, saying that you’re being tracked if you’re a passenger. Your privacy is being violated. All of the major internet service providers, Facebook, et cetera, Google, they’re all sharing our data with governments. It isn’t a conspiracy. It’s a policy. And so what you’ve got is this situation now where nothing is free, okay?
Everything that you’re using on the internet, you’re paying for it with your privacy, and if you aren’t using encrypted services or encryption services to send email and store data, then you are prey. It’s as simple as that.
Martin: That’s an interesting thought, though. Our privacy almost is a currency for being able to use these services.
Stewart: Yeah, and so for instance Twitter is selling, and data’s become a commodity as well, so Twitter makes about 220 million dollars a year or something like that out of just selling the data coming out of tweets, where you are, what you’re saying, the textual content, when you’re saying it, the time of day, all of that stuff is being sold on. Google do it as well. Facebook is selling your data on. I went to an interesting conference on artificial intelligence in New York this summer and the guy from Facebook was there and he said look, we’ve got a billion products and a billion users, so that’s one billion by one billion matrix. How do we sort out what to sell you next or show you next? And he goes and here is the equation. I mean, they’re quite excited about this. They’re quite open about it, about how they’re doing it, what they’re learning from you and how they’re able to use it. It’s absolutely fascinating and I wrote an article recently called The Rise of the Awesome Nerd because there’s an awful lot of these kind of computer guys going on, and nerd by the way in this context is not a derogatory term.
It’s actually a term of affection, and these guys, there’s a huge amount of stuff going on because we can rather than because we should, and so the moral angle is not really being looked at and I try to bring this out somewhat during the course of Man Versus Big Data in the book.
Martin: Earlier this year I bought myself a new car, a used car. It’s a VW and I was delighted at first, at least to realise that whenever I park the car, when I go back if I look in my maps app on my iPhone, it tells me exactly where my car’s parked. Now, I was delighted at first but actually after a while I thought that’s quite scary that my phone and my iPhone and Apple no doubt know where the car’s parked, so is data and is this way data’s being used solely a force for good or should we be worried about it? Do we need to be worried about it?
Stewart: Well, look, everything can be misused, can’t it? And that’s the problem, and the kind of, the data evangelists if you like, the people who are the libertarian view of things like why should the government watch me, there are some quite strong opinions out there about this, and they say, the standard question is why should I be bothered? I’m not doing anything wrong, okay? So, and the libertarian approach to this is to say well, the thing is is that as soon as you know that somebody’s watching you, then you start to self censor, and the moment that you start to self censor you’re effectively a prisoner in your mind. It stops asking you difficult questions of the human beings, and they are human beings, don’t forget, who run society. They’re just like you and me. They’re no more competent than you and I are to do these things. It’s just that they happen to be in power and they’re as faulted as anybody.
So the libertarian point of view is very much well, look, we’ve got to have checks and balances against these guys listening to us because what if I want to go and research ISIS or ISIL on the internet and I plug that into my Google browser and some operative in GCHQ, a light starts flashing that I’m looking at how bombs are made, right? You want to know about that information not because you’re going to use it, because you’re curious and what they say is it starts to limit human curiosity. We’re only being shown things which reinforce our current prejudices and therefore become the echo chambers of those prejudices and we can never break out of them, and also that process can be [inaudible 00:10:06] as well. So that’s why I said there’s this kind of morality which is kind of rising around it and there’s one chapter in Man Versus Big Data about politics and how it’s mutating politics.
And don’t forget, this is written before the Trump, Russia thing and also the rise of Jeremy Corbin as well, and how the data is being used to target people and there’s a section on that about how it’s done and the people behind it, but also what is the role of politicians? In a situation like you have for instance in Chicago, I think. Sorry, it’s in Boston I believe, is that for instance there is an app you can have on your phone. You’re riding along in your car, there’s a bump in the road, and it registers on your app as a GPS location. That then gets fed back to Town Hall which creates a heat map of where all the pot holes are and they then send out in the middle of the night, the crews in order to fill in the pot holes, right? So you’ve got this organic feedback system of self-regulating city, so where is the role of the politician at that point who turns around and says vote for me, and I will fix the roads? So, the role of politicians and what they are, effectively they become perception managers to get re-elected in organically controlled cities.
And actually what we’re actually doing through a lot of this stuff is handing back control of many of the things which are happening on the ground which politicians used to be in charge of. It’s absolutely fascinating. And of course, it’s happening faster in America than it is here in the UK and Europe.
Martin: So where do you fall personally on whether you’re happy, comfortable with your data being used in those ways or if you’re worried about as you say, change in behaviour to try and fit the monitoring of data?
Stewart: I mean, Barrack Obama said something very good. I should quote him in Man Versus Big Data. He said look, we’re never going to get the balance absolutely right in society but what you have to be is you have to be vigilant and open and have checks and balances around who’s collecting data, how long they are storing it, how are they using it and what you really need is those checks and balances around it, and what’s interesting is that the actual leaders in thought in this area actually here in the UK. There’s a fantastic department over in Bristol which are doing it, and also the Europeans are legislating right now for AI and the limits of AI. The people who are somewhat behind it are the Americans because they are seeing big data, artificial intelligence, et cetera, et cetera, as a way of increasing productivity and taking costs out of businesses and increasing the size of the bottom line. So, they’re coming at it from a purely sort of economic bang for your buck point of view and then you’ve got a whole lot of Europeans thinking from a moral angle, and I think that you’ve got to be careful about what’s going on in the States right now as much as anything else.
Martin: And of course, here in the UK we’ve got the GDPR coming into force sort of next spring which should put some checks and measures in place around the data organization’s hold about us.
Stewart: Yeah, yeah. And that’s to be welcomed, but I say, this is my point during the course of the book. I think it’s the kind of great rallying cry at the end of it, the final chapter of it is talking about where are we in the life cycle of big data and we are almost certainly in the hype phase, and the kind of euphoric, highly excited phase of things. This will come to a crescendo and then collapse and down and then we’ll have a more mature response and the rest of the 21st century and into the 22nd century will be dominated by the products of what we’re seeing the beginnings of right now, but in that hysterical phase, I think we’ve got to be careful about kind of an understanding that the context that we’re in rather than just accepting things because we can rather than should we be doing this stuff? I mean, like, there’s another chapter in Man Versus Big Data where I have my DNA done, and I have my exomes, it’s called, which is the important part of your DNA which, as opposed to all the junk which tells you to not grow a tail and things like that.
There’s lots of other stuff and all the viruses which have got inside of us which are just redundant sort of piggybacking and it’s all this stuff which says where do you come from, what may you, this diseases develop in your life. It doesn’t mean you definitely do, and there’s a whole lot of morality which goes around that about what we should know, is it useful for us to know it. So for instance, I don’t carry the BRCA gene for breast cancer which is of great interest to my daughters for instance. I found out I’m three percent Neanderthal, and …
Martin: That’s more than me actually. I’ve had mine done, too, mostly to find out about the Alzheimer’s gene e4 which it turns out I have got two copies of, so it’s interesting.
Stewart: Have you?
Martin: Yeah, yeah. But I sort of, I had a sense before I sent off for the test that that would be the result that came back which is odd. But yeah, I find this stuff fascinating. Of course, now that you’ve got your DNA profiled it gets out there in the world somehow. Somebody could tailor a poison that would be particularly effective on you, so that’s the downside.
Stewart: Or you can tailor medicines which target you as well which stops cost in pain and suffering as well.
Martin: Yeah, that’s the positive.
Stewart: So that, there was a brilliant guy at this conference in New York I went to and they’re working on this kind of stuff and they sent some case studies of a boy who is literally dying, and so the last throw of the dice, they couldn’t work out what it was. They had him sequenced. They found out he was carrying a particular susceptibility and they treated it through targeted gene therapy and it worked. Within two weeks he was up and about, and it’s stuff like that which is that tailor made medicine which is coming your way, but again, the problem is that what if insurance companies get hold of this stuff and right now it’s voluntary to declare whether you’ve had your DNA sequenced or not, but what happens if you’ve had it done and you don’t declare it and they find out about it one day and they invalidate your insurance claim because you’ve lied to them? And that kind of stuff and adjusting insurance premiums as well based on your genetic profile, that’s coming. That’s already in the States. It may well come here.
So, there’s exciting things coming in that particular area, but it comes with, again it comes with caveats about how we use the technology.
Martin: That’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s the weighing up all of the advantages, all of the pros with the risks and the cons and the bad stuff, so you talked about us being in this hysterical phase of big data at the moment. If we don’t want to wait for governments, for politicians and for industry to evolve and find a more mature stage, how can we ourselves, individuals, make more conscious decisions about our relationship with data, the way we’re exposed to big data in the world?
Stewart: Well, I mean, the problem with things like privacy agreements right now for instance, you can read them but if you want the service you have to say yes, okay? So there’s no way around it. The other thing we can start doing is start paying for encryption, and so email services which are encrypted, telephone services which aren’t stored where your conversations aren’t stored, and using browsers which have encryption on it as well, and on your personal computer go through it and clean it out on a regular basis. I give 10 or 12 tips about how you can protect yourself somewhat more, but again, I come back to this point that if you aren’t paying for encryption and you aren’t paying for privacy, you are prey. It’s as simple as that. There’s technologies incredibly open. There was one slightly salacious anecdote in the book about the way GCHQ hacked into a Skype type system which Yahoo were using and they found a hack into it and they gave it up after nine months because they found out that basically people were swapping pictures of their body parts with each other.
And so, they said well, this is not really of national interest sort of thing.
Martin: No, no.
Stewart: But they can get in. They can switch your phone on even if it’s off. That’s why some people have bits of tape over the camera on their phone. You can stop things like LinkedIn and other apps and websites when they say can we have access to your camera and your microphone on your phone. Say no. Just say no to these people. You don’t have to do it. And I think a degree of care and caution around who and how you allow access to your personal devices, I mean, people really got to start paying attention to this.
Martin: It’s a fascinating subject. I do highly recommend anyone gets hold of a copy of Man Versus Big Data, your book, and has a read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it myself. I want to set you back a year, Stewart, if that’s okay. We spoke around this time last year and one of the things we talked about was Bitcoin and crypto-currency and how it was making money and economics in general, just a little more curious. I was interested to know if your opinion on Bitcoin has changed since then, as the market’s matured a little bit. Obviously the price has shot up since we spoke a year ago. So what do you think of it these days?
Stewart: No, I’m afraid all of my thoughts about Bitcoin have been reinforced by another manic episode in its value. It is not a currency. It’s a commodity and an electronic commodity at that. I don’t see it as a currency at all. I did do a calculation at one point which my publishers, Aaron Press didn’t allow me to put into the book because they said oh, it’s speculation, Stewart, and I tried to put a value on where I thought Bitcoin could go because the amount of Bitcoins which can ever be mined is limited and it’s mainly limited by the fact that eventually in order to mine one Bitcoin it will require most of the energy of Japan or something for a day in order to do it because the computing power [inaudible 00:21:24]. So ultimately it becomes limited by that, but also they said they would limit the number, but I can’t remember how I came out with it, but I came out with one day it would be worth 250,000 dollars per Bitcoin.
Stewart: If it continues in this particular vein.
Martin: As a ceiling on its value.
Stewart: Yeah. I got to, I can’t remember how I did it. I think it was partly because it was through demand outstripping supply because supply became finite as opposed to a national government currency which you can just keep on issuing, but I got it, this is not a prediction, nobody should invest on this basis, but I thought about should I put 1,000 dollars into Bitcoin and just sit back for the next 20 years and see what happens.
Stewart: But no, it’s just …
Martin: It’s now down about 30 percent I think in the last week.
Stewart: Is it? So, I’m still watching.
Martin: It’s incredibly volatile. Yeah.
Stewart: Everything I see in the past year has just reinforced it, but what I’m really interested in is the way that more and more stories have appeared about how people are seeking to use the child of Bitcoin which is the blockchain in order to secure transactions and I think that is a complete game changer. If nothing comes of Bitcoin and all the people, shady people involved in it right at the beginning, the really good thing that’ll come out of it will be the blockchain.
Martin: And something else we talked about a year ago was interest rates and you made quite a bold statement, I think, that Mark Carney would never raise interest rates in his tenure as Governor of the Bank of England. I suppose technically he still hasn’t because they’ve only returned still at previous .5 but do you think he’s got what it takes to raise them again up any higher than .5?
Stewart: Again, I couldn’t … Well, it was a mistake, what he thought he was doing and the MCP thought they were doing last year by cutting interest rates from half a percent to .5 like that was going to do anything in the economy besides penalise savers is quite beyond me, and if your business model works at half a percent and it works at a quarter of a percent, you shouldn’t be in business I’m afraid. So I didn’t know what that was all about. Look, I mean, they’ve already said that they’re going to follow the model of the Fed and go this very gradualist approach to things, and it wouldn’t surprise me that they didn’t touch them for another year, and I think personally we’ve passed peak inflation in this country. And I think there’s some numbers came out today saying there was a surprise kind of stop in the rise of inflation. I didn’t quite read the details, but I saw the headline, and that says to me that that allowed Carney to sit on his hands again because he knows quite well what will happen is they make a policy mistake here especially at the time when the Brexit negotiations are going on. They have no desire to touch interest rates except in a symbolic way like they’ve done recently.
Martin: Stewart, it’s always good to chat. Before you go, where can we get our hands on a copy of Man Versus Big Data and how can we connect with you online?
Stewart: Well, it’s available on Amazon and it came out on September the 19th and I haven’t seen any sales figures yet, but I understand it’s going well. If you want to connect with me online, then I’m on LinkedIn, sadly. Having said that about LinkedIn don’t let them touch your phone and the camera, but you contact me through LinkedIn and if anybody’s got any requests for interviews or interviews or articles then just get in contact with me. Very happy to talk about it.
Martin: Fantastic. We’ll put links in the show notes for this episode to the Amazon page and to your LinkedIn profile, too. Stewart Cowley, thank you for joining us on Informed Choice radio today.
Stewart: Thank you, Martin.