Megabytes are dead.
Gigabytes are passe.
So much digital data now moves around the globe that those who endeavor to measure it employ a new - or new to non-nerds - term.
Meet the exabyte.
How much data is an exabyte? It's a billion gigabytes - and it signifies just how digital and data-intensive the world has become.
In 2007, the global capacity to store digital information - on computer hard disks, smartphones, CDs and other digital media - totaled 276 exabytes, a new report finds.
How much is that? Imagine a stack of CDs - each holding an album's worth of digital music - shooting from the top of your desk to 50,000 miles beyond the moon.
But not everyone has equal access to those resources. In fact, the digital gap between rich and poor countries appears to be growing, said Martin Hilbert, of the University of Southern California, who led the effort to tally all of civilization's information and computing power.
In 2002, people in developed countries had access to eight times the bandwidth - or information-carrying capacity - of people in poorer nations, Hilbert said, citing data he will publish soon. By 2007, that gap had almost doubled. "If we want to understand the vast social changes under way in the world, we have to understand how much information people are handling," Hilbert said.
To address that question, Hilbert and co-author Priscila Lopez spent four years poring over 1,110 sources of information spanning from 1986 to 2007, including sales data from computer and cellphone makers and the music and movie industries.
In 1986, a year after digital CDs widely debuted, vinyl records still accounted for 14 percent of all data on Earth, with audiocassettes holding an additional 12 percent.
By 2000, digital media accounted for just 25 percent of all information.
After that, the prevalence of digital media began to skyrocket. In 2002, digital storage capacity outstripped the non-digital variety - mostly paper and videotapes - for the first time.
"That was the turning point," said Hilbert, who published the report in the journal Science. "You could say the digital age started in 2002. It continued tremendously from there."
By 2007, the last year documented in the study, 94 percent of all information storage capacity on Earth was digital. The other 6 percent resided in books, magazines and other non-digital formats, particularly videotape, Hilbert and Lopez found.
But despite the forecasts of futurists, a paperless world has not arrived. Although stupendously outstripped in growth by digital media, the amount of paper produced for books, magazines, newspapers and office use climbed steadily over the two decades of the study.
Humans generate enough data - from TV and radio broadcasts, telephone conversations and, of course, Internet traffic - to fill our 276 exabyte storage capacity every eight weeks, Hilbert said. Of course, most of the digital traffic is never stored long term.
The study also found that Earth had 3.4 billion cellphones in 2007, with telecommunications traffic growing at an average rate of 28 percent per year between 1986 and 2007. In a second report Hilbert plans to publish in a few months, he found that an ever-increasing slice of our daily data resides not on home computers and the smartphones in our pockets, but in giant data warehouses owned by Google, Facebook, Citibank, the federal government and other huge entities. Microsoft's recent ad campaign touts the benefits of moving all of your personal data to "the cloud." In 2006, the nation's "server farms" - the home of the cloud - sucked down 1.5 percent of all electricity in the United States, double the amount used in 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency reported.
But Hilbert offers a humbling comparison. Despite our gargantuan digital growth, the DNA in a single human body still stores far more information - and a single human brain computes far more calculations - than all the technology on Earth.
"Compared to Mother Nature," Hilbert said, "we are humble apprentices."
by Brian Vastag Washington Post Feb. 12, 2011 12:00 AM
Data capacity spikes in expanding digital world
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