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Massive Information Stockpile Guides Humanity's Course

By Mike Martin
Feb 11, 2011 12:38 PM PT

Sixty one CD-ROMS for every man, woman, and child on Earth.

Massive Information Stockpile Guides Humanity's Course

That's the amount of global data humankind stored on devices of every kind in 2007 -- 295 exabytes, or 80 times more information per person than exists in the historic Library of Alexandria, Egypt, according to a study published in the journal Science.

"We tracked 60 analog and digital technologies from 1986 to 2007," said study co-author Martin Hilbert, Ph.D., an information researcher at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

"Our computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58 percent, roughly nine times faster than the world economy," Hilbert told TechNewsWorld. "Our information storage capacity has grown four times faster, and telecommunication capacity has grown roughly five times faster than the world's economic power."

"As fundamental as steel was in the industrial age, information technologies which enable us to store information and analyze it efficiently are the most valuable tools in the business world today," said Tom Cook, CEO of Permabit.

The study reflects how "we now monitor and measure almost every activity in our personal and business lives," he told TechNewsWorld.

Storage Evolution

Though extremely powerful, biological evolution "is also incredibly slow and stays quite constant," Hilbert explained. "Technological evolution, on the other hand, grows exponentially."

In virtually every tech corner, Hilbert, along with co-investigator Priscila Lopez of the Open University of Catalonia, found growth rates that would make even the headiest hedge fund managers flush with excitement.

Telecommunication capacity grew at 28 percent annually; information storage at 23 percent per year. The team also discovered that "digital technologies now dominate," with data 94 percent digitally stored by the time of the survey.

Though unnaturally rapid, the technology evolution may be as natural as its slower cousin, natural selection. The two evolutionary formats seem to share decidedly Darwinian traits.

"Leading social scientists have recognized that we are living through an age in which 'the generation of wealth, the exercise of power, and the creation of cultural codes has come to depend on the technological capacity of societies and individuals,'" Lopez explained, quoting a line from Manuel Castells' End of Millennium.

In other words, survival of the fittest now depends on information, with "information technologies the core of this capacity."

Remastering the Mix

Previous attempts to measure information storage capacity have been numerous, but the results were so mixed that sorting them proved challenging, and included reconciling such disparate statistics as "the total amount of data consumed by computer games and movies," Hilbert explained -- a not surprising 99.2 percent.

"To reconcile these different results, we focused on the world's technological capacity to handle information," Lopez told TechNewsWorld. "We did not account for uniqueness of information, since it is very difficult to differentiate between truly new and merely recombined, duplicate information."

The end result was a measurement of three broad information categories -- storage, communication and computation -- divided into 60 subcategories. Previous studies tracked only three or four dozen subcategories over only a few years.

"Communication is defined as the amount of information that is effectively received or sent by the user, transmitted outside the local area," Hilbert explained. Likewise, computation is the "meaningful transformation of information," and storage is measured in bits (or bytes).

Analog and Digital

Though newspapers are said to be on their collective deathbed, Hilbert and Lopez still included print information in their estimates.

"We estimated how much information could possibly have been stored by the 12 most widely used families of analog storage technologies and the 13 most prominent families of digital memory, from paper-based advertisements to the memory chips installed on a credit card," Hilbert explained.

Their estimates revealed some common-sense findings that might cause today's tech observers to recoil in retro-horror.

"Before the digital revolution, the amount of stored information was dominated by the bits stored in analog videotapes, such as VHS cassettes," Lopez said. "In 1986, vinyl long-play records still made up a significant part (14 percent), as did analog audio cassettes (12 percent) and photography (5 percent and 8 percent)."

Y2K became the year digital storage made a significant contribution, coming in at 25 percent of the total.

And the bad news for newspapers: "Paper-based storage solutions captured a decreasing share of the total (0.33 percent in 1986 to 0.007 percent in 2007)," Hilbert explained.


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