Between 1984 and Star Trek

Big data may lead to a sinsiter surveillance state. But a bigger problem will be the amount of spam we'll be hit with, says John Stepek.

In the 2002 science-fiction film Minority Report, the main character (played by Tom Cruise) is chased through a shopping precinct. As he runs past advertising billboards, they call to him by name, images shifting to show things he might want to buy. I was at Wired magazine's money conference this month, and an executive from online payments giant PayPal asked if the audience would find this cool' or creepy' in real life. As an evangelist for a firm closely linked to online retail, he thought it was cool' that firms could easily spot you, and sell you goods you might actually want. Much of the audience thought it was creepy'. I didn't think either fitted. The word I had in mind was annoying'.

Yes, there are lots of creepy' aspects to our heavily monitored existence. Look at the fate of US spy agency whistleblower Ed Snowden, seemingly destined for exile in Venezuela. He may turn out to be a cunning double agent. But I suspect he's just an idealistic 30-year-old who hasn't yet quite realised what he gave up to tell the world what we already knew. Equally, lots of cool' benefits can come from sharing data. Our cover story looks at some of the uses for big data and ways to invest in the sector. We also profile the billionaire founder of one of the most useful companies you've probably never heard of map-making specialists Esri.

But on a mundane level, somewhere between the horrors of 1984 and the optimism of Star Trek, the biggest problem I see with big data is all the spam (hi-tech junk mail) we'll be hit with. Who wants to live in a future where your every step sees you surrounded by virtual hawkers jostling aggressively for your attention? If you think dealing with your email is bad now, wait until we're all wearing Google or Apple glasses and companies can advertise directly into your field of vision.

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Technology fans tend to be impatient with such fears. The PayPal man argued that transactions can be convenient, or they can be anonymous. Using anonymous', rather than private', is a smart way to reframe the debate. We all feel we have a right to privacy, whereas anonymity is a shield you hide behind because you think others won't approve of your actions. And judging by the ire directed at digital currencies such as Bitcoin, and the unquestionable lure of convenience, I suspect privacy advocates are fighting a losing battle.

So what does all this mean for investors of the future? Going beyond our big-data tips, as the world becomes ever-more connected, I suspect solitude and logging off' will be valued at a premium. So I'll be keeping an eye out for shares in companies offering luxury retreats where smartphones are banned, or tech stocks working on virtual filters' that cut out the spam. And houses in places with little or no mobile-phone reception the makings of a property bubble in the Scottish Highlands and Islands perhaps?

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.