At any other time of year, few people walking past Kramers Wine & Design store on the Promenade in Davos would guess it would become the temporary home for a discussion that’s central to one of the most important – and intractable – issues of our modern age.

But during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, as you can see, the humble wine shop becomes unrecognizable as it’s turned into a no-expenses-spared meeting and entertainment space by the enigmatic data mining company Palantir. While this is par for the course during WEF conference in Davos, the scale of Palantir’s transmogrification of the main street through town is noteworthy even by the standards of the Fortune 50 companies that make Davos the capital of capital this time of year.

Davos

(Interestingly, visitors to Davos during WEF week won’t, in fact, spot the Kramers, themselves. That’s because each year,  the owners very sensibly decide to get out of town when the elites of politics, commerce and culture descend. And before they headed off to Ibiza for a week of R&R, basking in the knowledge that they’ve made more money from renting out their store for 10 days than they do in trading all year, the owners probably scratched their heads and wondered just who or what “Palantir” is.)

A Sign of the Times

How come? Why does Palantir pitch camp with such high-end digs? What’s going on, you might wonder, if you – along with 99% of Davos attendees, let alone 99% of the global population – have only a foggy sense of what Palantir is and what it does?

Palantir is in the middle of the fraught issues of data, privacy, security, trust and sovereignty that will define what our world looks like, how it operates, who wins and who loses over the generations to come. The Palo Alto-based company has built the data integration and analysis layer that a large number of national security services around the world use to keep their citizens safe. This same software is now increasingly finding its way into a range of commercial areas such as banking and financial services, where it is being used both in securing financial infrastructure and in trading, as well as in customer profiling.

Still privately held, Palantir, which was founded by the high-profile tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel and less-high-profile but someone-you-should-familiarize-yourself-with Alex Karp, is pursuing the mission embedded in its name – literally becoming a “seeing stone” (Tolkien fans will appreciate the tip o’ the hat), able to take data and see what it means.

This has, of course, been the holy grail of data analysis since John Tukey first coined the term “bit” in 1947, the pursuit of which has had lots of false dawns and cul-de-sacs. But the goal is now within reach.

Suffice to say, there’s insufficient space here to outline what exactly Palantir does, how it does it, or whether it’s better than other vendors that operate in similar spaces. But you don’t have to spend too much time here or here to figure out that it must be quite good at what it does.

The digs would imply it is. As would the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

At the Center of the Data Privacy Conundrum

So, if data’s the new oil, Palantir is the company making the enhanced oil recovery bit, the pipes, the rigs, the telemetry networks, the wellbore, the rotary steerable systems and every other piece of technology necessary to extract value from the primo resource of the 21st century.

This gives it quite a catbird seat in seeing what a world dominated by data looks like – and will look like.

And what does it see?

Well, if Mr. Karp’s thoughts from a Digitalswitzerland-sponsored  breakfast event here on Wednesday are anything to go by, it’s a very complicated picture, full of Hegelian contradictions. [For those of you absent the day of Philosophy 101, that’s basically thesis, antitheses, synthesis]. 

Data is the route to security. Data is the route to oppression. Data is the route to individual ideation. Data is the route to the hive mind. Data is the route to civic wealth. Data is the route to civic collapse.

In his address, where the leaders of Swiss businesses gathered to discuss how to make a country that is “feeling very little pain” (in the words of the Digitalswitzerland CEO) understand the importance of “being digital,” Mr. Karp tried to square these contradictions by suggesting that Switzerland shouldn’t throw its baby out with the data/Internet bathwater. Switzerland should focus on remaining “Swiss” (i.e., retaining its world-class engineering and product development capabilities, first-rate educational opportunities, social cohesion, etc.) while adopting the technologies invented in California, but not necessarily Californian ideas, attitudes, business norms and culture (my paraphrase).

With his doctorate in neoclassical social theory from Frankfurt University in hand, Karp laid out a view that “the state” ultimately needs to decide the issue of data ownership and data privacy, that populism is a scourge, and that businesses and societies need to remain “ethical” in the face of many temptations to act – for short-term gain – unethically.

Remaining Questions

What Karp didn’t address (to be fair, time was tight) was how these issues are resolved. For example, how can synthesis be achieved?

Do the “state’s” rights overwrite the individuals? Do ends justify means? Does security trump (no pun intended) privacy? Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain? (He wouldn’t answer this question when I put it to him). Does economic liberty supersede social equality? Are “superstar economics” a fact of (modern) life or do they presage the re-emergence of Madam Guillotine on the world stage?

While the fundamentals of these questions have been with us since long before Hagel, and got a good outing in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, they all now rest on “data.” And when you talk of data nowadays you talk of, and about, Palantir. 

Attitudes toward data appear, as of January 24 2018, to be splintering among different regions of the world. Far from creating a global consensus of business and societal rules of the road, the obverse is happening. The U.S. (in reality, California) operates on “Wild West principles” – data wants to be free, and heaven help anyone who stands in the way of us monetizing it. China operates on “Wild East principles:” Central planning works, and you’ll all see quite how well in 50 years when Pax Sinica reigns. And in the middle stands Europe, with its General Data Protection Regulations and its GDR past and a terror of a new terror.

The stakes for big data couldn’t be bigger.

Which view will prevail? Or, will all three approaches co-exist? Maybe a global village (literally here on display in the village of Davos) was an illusion all along?

The Future of Data Is Our Future

Maybe these very different attitudes on data will see the same technologies used to extract value applied in very different ways. Maybe your own personal attitude on how your data, and data about you, is used will be a crucial determinant of how and where you want to live in the future. Of where you shop, and whom you favor with your dollar, pound, euro or yen. We suggested as much in Code Halos.

These are the questions du jour in Davos. In a pimped-up liquor store.

Complicated, huh? And remember, all before 8:30 AM local time.

So next time you hear the names Palantir or Alex Karp, stop what you’re doing and pay attention. The future – your future – is under discussion. Under construction. This little first draft of history of which you’ve made it to the end (congratulations and thanks) – the history of data – is of a future that will in time come to be seen for what it is: digital that truly matters.

For more on Davos, see my blog posts “WEF 2018: Laying the Groundwork for the First Industrial Revolution” and “WEF 2018 in Review: Splints on a Fractured World.”

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a co-author of the book What To Do When Machines... Read more