From kilobytes to exabytes… an information overload

When you think of it, the era of kilobytes and megabytes is not that long ago.  Our trust C64s back in the 80s had 64 of those kilobytes, no physical permanent storage capacity and exchanged information with say a BBS in the order of megabytes (measured over a relatively lengthy period of usage) whereas the computer you’re using to read this article probably had memory in the order of gigabytes, storage likely to be around the terabyte and exchanges a couple of hundreds of megabytes (or even gigabytes) per day… but how much information storage is there currently in the world and how much do we exchange?

A recent article in “Science Express” on the world’s total technological capacity i.e. how much information humankind is able to store, communicate and compute has some rather big (well, they’re huge) numbers:

  • Researchers have calculated that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. (that’s 295 with a whopping 18 zeroes behind it).
  • In 2007, humankind successfully sent 1.9 zettabytes of information through broadcast technology such as televisions and GPS.  To give you a better idea of the sheer size, that’s equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day.
  • On two-way communications technology, such as cell phones, humankind shared 65 exabytes of information through telecommunications in just one year, the equivalent of every person in the world communicating the contents of six newspapers every day.
  • All the general-purpose computers in the world computed 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second.  Doing these instructions by hand would take 2,200 times the period since the Big Bang.

Although these numbers are dazzling, compared to nature, they’re still quite humble.  Take the data storage for instance… the 295 exabytes of information, a huge number, is still less than one percent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a single human being.
Nevertheless, natures numbers are constant, whereas the world’s technological information processing capacities are growing at exponential rates.  Take for instance the computing capacity… this  grew, from 1986 to 2007, by 58 percent a year.
Alongside, telecommunications grew 28 percent annually, and storage capacity grew 23 percent a year.

Given these numbers, one can only imagine what our technological capabilities will be in 10 years time…

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