Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Information Apocalypse

 “Do you remember, before the internet, that it was thought the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? . . . Well, it wasn’t that.” – popular meme

When I was in college 40 years ago, writing a term paper required me to go to the library, search through various reference books and journal articles, make handwritten notes using these things called pen and paper. I would hand write a draft of my report, then type it up using this device called a typewriter. It was, as they say, all analog.

Energy was used to make the paper, print the books and journals. Once made, no more energy was used, other than the calories I burned to go to the library and do the research using my Mark 1 eyeballs and brain.

It all sounds so quaint now, doesn’t it?

Today, we have all the possible information we could ever want available at our fingertips, because it is all stored on electronically “in the cloud,” also known as huge data center buildings full of server computers connected to the world at large via a network of routers, switches and cables.

We pay a monthly fee for internet and/or wireless data services, type a few words into a search engine (aka Google) and Shazam! We are digital information prodigies. It’s easy! It’s cheap!

Well, no, it isn’t. Those data centers consume over 200 Terawatt hours of electricity per year (and growing) to power them. All those hard drives and microchips take energy and resources to make as well.

The World Economic Forum estimates that about 48 trillion billion gigabytes of information is stored “in the entire digital universe,” much of it “in the cloud.” If the average PC has a 500 gigabyte hard drive, that’s equivalent to about 96 trillion personal computers. Between 1 and 2 trillion PCs worth of data is added every day. IBM estimates that 90% of the world’s data was created in just the last decade. My math could be off – but suffice it to say, a trillion here and a trillion there and soon we are talking about really big numbers.

Worse, the vast majority is wasted. Very little of that data is even being analyzed, according to Data Intelligence firm NodeGraph.

The American Institute of Physics published a paper last month entitled “The information catastrophe” which stated that at current rates of accumulation, by 2150 the amount of power needed to sustain all this data storage “. . . would equal all the power currently produced on planet Earth”. By 2245, “half of Earth's mass would be converted to digital information mass.”  

The paper may be just an exercise in mathematical projection, but this conversion of physical and energy resources into stored data is currently proceeding unabated at an exponential rate.

I can envision it now. In 300 years, huge robotic machines will scour the Earth, with the single-minded imperative to devour everything in their way and spit out microchips to ensure that tweets, Facebook posts, and people’s Google GPS tracks from centuries earlier are preserved in all their electronic purity.

Obviously, this headlong pursuit of data storage for the sake of storing it is unsustainable. If NodeGraph is right, we aren’t even doing anything useful with most of it.

Do I have a comprehensive answer for this conundrum? Not really – other than to suggest that at some point, data will need to be “retired”.  Think about it this way - Are we really going to turn every bit of matter on the planet into one big hairy data center to store every trivial piece of anything that has made its way into digital form? That’s objectively nuts.

I cannot imagine that Amazon and Google have not thought about this “crisis”. Look at it this way, if the Earth and all its inhabitants are turned into humongous data centers, they can’t make money.

So, think about what’s actually happening when you post to Twitter or Facebook, view YouTube videos, send an email, put a document on Google Drive, watch Netflix or do any other trivial thing with whatever media device you like to use. There is more going on than you realize.

Now, excuse me while I delete a bunch of 35-year old files from my cloud storage account so I can do my part to stave off the arrival of the information apocalypse.

Published in the Village News, September 11th, 2020

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