There is no shortage of information on information. Even if you are getting a little tired of data on data, an interesting article last week on The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate and Compute Information by Martin Hilbert and Priscilla Lopez in Science magazine is worth a bit of thought. According to their research, the digital age “officially” arrived in 2002 when digital storage capacity overtook analog capacity. Since then the digital data deluge has exploded. By 2007, 94% of information in the world was stored digitally, versus just 25% in 2000. The introduction to the special edition on Dealing with Data suggests: “We have recently passed the point where more data is being collected than we can physically store.” Digital dilemmas are growing: How do we manage the data deluge? How do we filter or aggregate information so we get rid of the “noise” and focus on what matters? If we can’t store everything, what information do we keep and what do we discard? What’s the exploding digital world going to mean for us and our industry?
To give you some context on the size of the digital deluge, here are a few highlights from the study and a related interview with Dr. Hilbert on the BBC:
- By 2007 the amount of data stored in the world on 60 core digital and analog technologies was 295 exabytes – one exabyte is a billion gigabytes.
- “If we were to take all that information and store it in books, we would cover the entire area of the US or China in 13 layers of books,” Dr. Hilbert told the BBC. If it were stored on CDs, the stack would reach from the earth to the moon and one quarter of the distance beyond.
- The fastest area of growth in information is computation i.e. transformation and manipulation of data. General purpose computing capacity (human-directed) grew at an annual rate of 58% from 1986 to 2007. In the same period, telecommunications capacity grew at 28% per annum, although has been accelerating since 2000 with the spread of broadband technologies. Overall storage capacity grew at 23% per annum, while broadcast capacity showed slowest and most stable growth at 6% per annum. So we are producing information faster through computation and telecoms than our ability to store it – which clearly has implications for the data storage industry.
- Despite the slower growth of broadcast information, which even in 2007 was 75% via analog channels, we broadcast around 1.9 zettabytes of data (one zettabyte = 1000 exabytes) in 2007, the equivalent of 175 newspapers per person, per day, worldwide.
- Discussing the study on the BBC, the scientists also suggest that the digital divide is growing between rich and poor countries in terms of the capacity to process information. People in developed economies in 2002 could communicate 8 times more information than those in developing countries. By 2007, this gap had nearly doubled, with people in the developed world having 15 times more information carrying capacity.
- Putting the study in perspective: The information processing and storage capacity of nature and the universe around us dwarfs our human-made capacity. The DNA of one human can store about 300 times more information than all of our technological devices put together. The number of instructions per second that all humans on the planet can carry out on general purpose computers is about the same as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second.
Given people are creating and receiving an exponentially growing amount of information per day and time is not expanding, author Adrian Ott on Fast Company suggests we are in an “attention arms race.” Despite the massive information processing power of the human brain, the senior executives we work with confirm this challenge. Even with faster computers and an ever-expanding array of mobile devices to receive and process information anytime, anywhere, people struggle to keep up. Often we try to multitask, but according to McKinsey on information overload, multitasking is not productive or creative. A recent study by researchers at Stanford suggests that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could. So are those of us who were born in the analog world damaging our attention capabilities by trying to deal with the data deluge? Are we bringing up the digital generations to have chronic attention deficit disorder? How do we balance the benefits of wider and deeper access to knowledge worldwide, with its potential ability to damage our human capabilities to process and apply this knowledge productively? Information production is only going to accelerate, so what tools and processes do we need to develop to manage information effectively in future?
Another digital dilemma which becomes more obvious from the study is around the future of books and paper-based media more broadly. Even back in 1986, the starting point of the study, paper-based storage solutions captured only a tiny fraction of all information storage, at 0.33% of the total. By 2007 this was down to just 0.0007%. Based on the vast amount of information we now store, there is no way we could ever store this on paper, even if we destroyed vast amounts of natural resources! This puts into stark context the Wall Street Journal reports that Borders Group, one of the largest US booksellers credited with helping to change the way Americans bought books, was expected to file for bankruptcy – in fact, Reuters reports that it has done so today. Borders’ difficulties are founded in its failure to stay ahead of the digital revolution of the last decade, including outsourcing its internet operations to Amazon rather than building its presence and brand in an online world. It also failed to grasp the importance of e-readers, unlike key competitors Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Beyond strategic missteps there is a bigger question, debated by strategists online and off — what is the future of books in a digital world? Will the printed word die out? If so, is this good or bad? How will our behaviors and knowledge-sharing change? What about other industries where digital technologies are completely rewriting the shape and dynamics of the space, such as music? The dilemma: How to retain all that is positive for human development from the analog world but reinvent this for our digital world.
So what do these digital dilemmas mean for us as people, and for our organizations? Is it really as Albert Einstein once said: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Or do these dilemmas present vast opportunities? Einstein also said: “We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” Worth spending a little while thinking about this from my perspective – time to switch off the man-made information processing devices and use the one nature gave me. How about you?