When does the digital age end?
The digital age began in 2002
Information technology has been around for 7,000 years - as cuneiform writing on clay tablets
In 2010 there were 1.2 zettabytes in circulation worldwide. That would be a number with 21 digits after the decimal point
A stack of DVDs from the earth to the moon and back - as much data as could fit on these carriers was distributed and stored in 2009 alone. That is 800,000 petabytes or 1.6 billion domestic hard drives with 500 gigabytes of storage capacity.
And the almost infinite flow of information is not ebbing: In the past year, according to calculations by the American consulting firm IDC, around a quarter of additional data was in circulation: 1.2 zettabytes, a previously uncommon number in terms of data volumes - it has 21 decimal places. So it's no wonder that the days of universal scholars are long gone. Even Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander von Humboldt would be desperate because of this amount of information. It has now become a science to determine how large the amount of electronic information is in the world. "It's important to understand the methodology: how to measure the amount of information to better understand socio-economic developments," says Martin Hilbert, communications scientist at the University of Southern California.
In 1986 the amount of information was easier to determine. Bits and bytes had no first names, at most the harmless "kilo". Electronic data was stored on floppy disks. In 2007, mankind was able to store around 295 exabytes on electronic data carriers. That equates to around 61 CD-ROMs per person, or "80 times more information per person than could be found in the historical library of Alexandria," says Hilbert. The researcher has undertaken the informational measurement of the world and published his study in "Science". He examined how much information was stored, communicated or processed between 1986 and 2007. "It was very enlightening," he says - and very surprising.
To get closer to the endless mountain of information, Hilbert divided the information into three groups. It registered storage capacities from analog video tape to chips on credit cards; Telecommunications information, from radio signals to smartphones; also information processed by computers. Hilbert separated information from data because there can only be one grain of information in a sack full of data. Hilbert only counted very compressed data as a unit of information. When Hilbert had before him the analysis of the amount of information worldwide, he was most surprised at how quickly the "digital revolution" had occurred. Up to the year 2000, 75 percent of all information was still recorded on analog data carriers. Back then, much of the information was on video cassettes, which are now gathering dust on shelves in the attic.
Only two years later there were for the first time the same number of analog and digital storage options. "We can say that the digital age began in 2002," says Hilbert. Another five years later, most of the information was stored on floppy disks, hard drives, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. While the mountains of data on digital media have continued to grow over the past 25 years, the pile of paper, the storage medium of choice in past centuries, has shrunk from 0.33 to 0.007 percent.
The turn to digital information storage is all the more impressive in view of the history of data carriers. There are around 7,000 years between the first data carriers - Mesopotamian clay discs - and the first hard drive. "The creation of the font was nothing else than the birth of storage capacity," says Michael Mikolajczak, computer historian at the Heinz-Nixdorf-MuseumsForum in Paderborn. From this point on, it was always a matter of finding the appropriate medium for stored knowledge.
The reason why there is so much more information today than in the past is also due to the fact that people are producing more and more data themselves. "Today we always have a smartphone on hand. We make a little note on Facebook or take a photo. We produce more and more data," says ICD analyst and data expert Carla Arend. A quarter of a century ago, apart from telephone and fax, communication had only one direction: from the media to the people. The internet has changed this flow of information. Now the data is flowing in all directions. In just seven years, from 2000 to 2007, the data capacity for telecommunications data multiplied by a factor of 28 - it grew four times faster than the global economy. According to Hilbert, the reason for this was the introduction of broadband internet.
Despite constant internet connections, in 2007 only 3.5 percent of the media information flow resulted from the use of the WWW. Traditional media, especially television, still produced the lion's share. Surprising at first glance, but Hilbert explains it with the different ways of using it. The television runs for three hours a day without interruption, around two and a half hours longer than the Internet is used. Yet the digital age is death for the broadcast media: its growth is declining. And they, too, are being digitized: With video-on-demand and podcasts, users have a say in when and how they want to consume the media.
In the area of computer data processing, too, capacity growth is slower than it was 20 years ago. By the end of the 1990s, office or home computers were able to process more and more information at an ever faster rate. There has been a kink since then. Hilbert speaks here of a normal course of innovation processes. "In the 1960s, cars became faster and safer. Tremendous progress was made. Today, great advances are still being made, just at a slower pace," says Hilbert.
The flow of information, on the other hand, is getting faster and faster. By 2020, the DVD stack should reach halfway to Mars. "The biggest challenge is data storage," says Carla Arend. The gap between the amount of data and the ability to store it is widening.
Today's storage technology is turning to the organization of data in the data center. First, explains Peter Wüst from the storage solution manufacturer NetApp, the hard disks are physically consolidated, i.e. managed in a data center. Then they are also virtually interconnected so that access to free memory becomes easier. In the next step, what Hilbert did when counting information happens to the data: Superfluous and repetitive data is deleted, only the important information is retained. Otherwise there is a risk of data collapse, says Wüst: "If we continue to store as we did five years ago, the expenses for additional data centers would not be financially viable in the future."
The massive storage of digital data leads to further problems: New strategies have to be developed in order to find information at all. Because the larger the mountain of data, the more the search for relevant information is like looking for a needle in a haystack. "We have to understand what data we have stored and structure it better," says Carla Arend.
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