Data is flooding into our lives. Almost all of our electronic devices are producing, transmitting, sharing and using data, and our lives are increasingly inseparable from our data. Data is gradually emerging as a new engine for social development different from traditional material resources such as oil and coal. It has been a vital force bolstering the sustained development of the information-based society and a crucial theater for the fourth technological revolution. Why has data become a new energy in the digital age? Why is the booming of data closely related to thriving platforms in the Chinese economy? What impacts has this transformation of the resource model generated on communication mechanisms? These questions deserve our discussion.
Data as new energy
Before elaborating on the significance of data, let’s first make sense of what data is. According to Claude Shannon, known as the father of information theory, data refers to a collation of units of information, namely, individual records of certain objects or phenomena.
The contemporary process of digitalization empowers massive amounts of data to break away from structured, unmalleable material bodies, to become independent from human brains, and to exist in more diverse and changeable forms through digitalized storage. When data samples continue to expand and show effects of aggregation, they constitute what is today called “big data.”
Through a historical lens, the growth of data usage has been exponential, and update periods are being shortened. Different from oil, data as a new energy has no scarcity. Instead, “massive,” “accelerating” and “expanding” are common words used to describe data. In this sense, how can data be considered as a new form of energy? How important is it?
In fact, it is justifiable to regard data as a new energy in contemporary society, but this new energy is not always important. In other words, data has an important side and an unimportant side as well.
Data is important because from the perspective of corporate development and social governance, data is actually the aggregation of information concerning human behaviors in modern society. Effective data presents many courses and maps of human development through history, and this helps the government, social organizations and enterprises formulate better-informed strategies.
Generally, big data has three key features: timeliness, comprehensiveness and predictive ability. Timeliness means data can realize all-time and long-term accumulation. Comprehensiveness refers to its wide scope for collection. And predictive ability hints at its guiding role in future expectations and actions.
In this light, the value of data manifests in its aggregation and prediction. For example, in recent years, with the popularization of electric automobiles, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has built a national supervisory platform for new-energy automobiles. The platform is capable of the synchronized monitoring and management of 1.6 million automobiles, alongside security control, dynamic prediction, vehicle management and subsidy accounting.
Meanwhile, data as a definable material is in fact unimportant. Raw data is a kind of social energy neither refined nor processed, like crude oil. It might be coarse, fragmented and disordered. It is basically impossible to interpret users’ behavior with raw data. Proper gathering, mining and analysis are essential to turn data into resources capable of prediction. This is why data visualization, data interpretation and data analysis have prospered in recent years. Following this logic, both the “big” and the “data” of big data are unimportant. How to refine and harness the data and transform it into forms of social productivity is what matters.
With the rise of the platform economy and many internet enterprises, platforms have become the primary level at which data functions as a new energy. Here platforms refer to virtual or real trading floors realized by digital technologies. They are an embodiment of the market.
As Chinese manufacturing is characterized by service orientation, the informatization of industry and the digitalization of enterprises, the platform economy has set a general trend of digital economic development in China and has a large bearing on people’s economic and social life. From Tencent, Alibaba, JD.com and Baidu to medium-sized, small and macro businesses serving all walks of life, the current platform economy in China is wide-ranging.
Various platforms that are being digitalized have extremely strong aggregation effects. Through market segmentation and precise delivery, platforms will aggregate vast numbers of users and track their usage.
To a large extent, the content generated by these users can serve as renewable resources for the sustainable development of platforms. A typical example is e-commerce platforms on which users browse, select, buy and share commodities, creating individual consumption profiles. By preserving and analyzing these data traces, platforms can successfully grasp users’ purchase paths, preferences, feedback and even consumption mentalities. Thus the data of integrated digital platforms can be a solid basis for predicting consumption and guiding user behavior.
When data accumulates to a certain degree, algorithmic models can be upgraded continuously and machine learning abilities further improved. As a matter of course, data begins to develop in the direction of intelligentization.
Even though platform intelligentization is merely in the “weak AI” stage, a series of market forecast mechanisms, such as “Recommendation” and “News Feed,” have been employed on many e-commerce platforms. This trend indicates that intelligent and man-machine communication will be important forces driving socioeconomic development in the future, and the continuously enriching and expanding form of data energy will continue to empower them.
The ongoing development of platforms actually represents the continuous accumulation of digital resources. From the angle of political economics, production, distribution and consumption are the three most crucial links for data accumulation in the development of platforms. Dynamic and long-term data collection can effectively predict market supply and demand, changes in spending power, and so on.
New communication mechanism
Undoubtedly, new data energy is breaking the traditional mechanisms of individual-medium communication and reshaping society’s communication ecosystem. The development of media communication has gone through the three processes of one-way communication, two-way communication and network communication. New communication mechanisms must explore how to impact and act upon the communication landscape of the information society based on the above developmental course.
First, data will underpin the formulation of communication strategy. From the perspective of news production, data is increasingly significant in the topic selection and communication strategy of media outlets. Digitalized production forms like data news, digital news, visual media and holographic information have been brought into being largely due to data accumulation.
Should media communication be extensive or accurate, diverse or professional, original or integrating content from other sources? For every strategy of communication, data feedback can provide decision-making bases. Having turned into a reference for new production, data is widely intervening in the production link of social communication. Meanwhile, standardized and quantified reference systems will determine whether related topics can be put on the communication agenda.
Second, the focus of communication is being shifted from information to values. In the data intelligentization era, deep learning and effective accumulation of data are not only about information aggregation in the long term, but more about the reflection of institutional values and ideology.
When man-machine and intelligent communication become major channels for social communication, rational and instrument-based communication will no longer set up technological and strategic barriers. Instead, emotions, values and cultures that are more related to the socialization of humanity and the intelligentization of machines will be the main areas for communication research.
Third, “retribalization” will take place amid the globalization of communication. Based on the history of internet development, the world’s internet industries have experienced the transitions from being open to being closed and from globalization to localization, resulting in the current decentralized pattern. One of the material reasons is that flourishing platforms and platform groups have shaped the fragmented situation of data bit by bit.
Since every platform is scrambling for users and trying to enhance their loyalty, demographic dividends have gradually turned into data dividends. When data serves as a renewable and exploitable new energy, internet platforms will engage in competition to fight for data and maintain their competitiveness. Large digital platforms, in particular, will create data ecosystems and communication mechanisms of their own through market extension and consolidation, which will further aggravate the retribalization trend in the global communication ecosystem. Examining how humanity fosters new communication and social features in the era of retribalization will be a key topic in future intelligent communication studies.
Sun Ping is from the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.