How much information is there?


Humanity recorded some 2,900 billion billion (2,900,000,000,000,000,000,000) bytes of data in 2007, information researchers report, a data explosion from 1986 to 2007 abetted by a 58% annual increase in computing power.

That sounds impressive, but it is still less than the amount of data contained in our genes, or the computational power of the brain, says the report in the journal Science by Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California and Priscila López of the Open University of Catalonia. “However, in contrast to natural information processing, the world’s technological information processing capacities are quickly growing at clearly exponential rates.”



Edison cylinder phonograph ca. 1899. The Phono...

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The researchers studied 60 kinds of data storage technology, from computers to vinyl records.

Before the digital revolution, the amount of stored information was dominated by the bits stored in analog videotapes, such as VHS cassettes. In 1986, vinyl Long-Play records still made up a significant part (14%), as did analog audio cassettes (12%) and photography (5% and 8%). It was not until the year 2000 that digital storage made a significant contribution to our technological memory, contributing 25% of the total in 2000. Hard disks make up the lion share of storage in 2007 (52% in total),optical storage contributed more than a quarter (28%) and digital tape roughly 11%. Paper-based storage solutions captured a decreasing share of the total (0.33% in 1986 and 0.007% in 2007), even though their capacity was steadily increasing in absolute terms (from 8.7 to 19.4 optimally compressed petabytes).

Broadcasting is the slowest-growing communications systems in the increasingly digital world they find, expanding at a 6% annual rate. But telecommunications still deliver less information overall:

When compared with broadcasting, telecommunications makes a modest, but rapidly growing part of the global communications landscape (3.3% of their sum in 2007, up from 0.07% in 1986). Although there are only 8% more broadcast devices in the world than telecommunication equipment (6.66 billion vs. 6.15 billion in 2007), the average broadcasting device communicates 27 times more information per day than the average telecommunications gadget. This result might be unexpected, especially considering the omnipresence of the Internet, but can be understood when considering that an average Internet subscription effectively uses its full bandwidth for only around 9 minutes per day (during an average 1 hour and 36 minutes daily session).

The rate of growth in computation, communication and data storage doubles in times ranging from months to a few years broadly across the digital realm, the study concludes.

In 1986 it would have been possible to fill the global storage capacity with the help of all effectively used communication technologies in roughly 2.2 days. In 1993 it would have taken almost 8 days, in the year 2000 roughly 2.5 weeks, and in 2007 almost 8 weeks.




How much information is there? – Science Fair: Science and Space News –

Humankind has stored more than 295 billion gigabytes (or 295 exabytes) of data since 1986, according to a new report based on research by scientists at the University of Southern California.

The scientists also concluded that 2002 should be considered the beginning of the digital age because it was the first year digital storage capacity overtook total analog capacity worldwide.

[ Are your storage requirements out of control? Then start by eliminating data redundancy. InfoWorld contributor Keith Schultz lays it all out in our Deep Dive Report on Data Deduplication. ]

The study, published this week in the Science Express journal, stated that “if a single star is a bit of information, there’s a galaxy of information for every person in the world. But it’s still less than 1% of the information stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.”

The study tracked some 60 analog and digital technologies from 1986 to 2007, calculating the amount of data stored, communicated and computed. In 2007, 2.9 X 10^20 optimally compressed bytes were stored, almost X 10^21 bytes were communicated and 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second were run on general purpose computers.

The study includes information gleaned from IT research firms, such as IDC.

For example, it cites IDC’s estimate that in 2007 “all the empty or usable space on hard drives, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and memory (volatile and nonvolatile) in the market equaled 264 exabytes. However, using their own methodology, the USC scientists said they counted 276 “optimally compressed” exabytes on digital devices, which occupy 363 exabytes of digital hardware.

Before the digital revolution, the report said, the lions share of information was stored in analog videotapes, such as VHS cassettes and the like. In 1986, along with VHS tapes, vinyl LP records accounted for 14% of stored data, audio cassette tapes made up 12% and photography accounted for 8%.

It was not until 2000 that digital storage made a significant contribution, contributing 25% to the data storage total in 2000.

Beginning in 1986, the share of paper-based storage mediums began decreasing, from 33% that year to .007% in 2007.

In 2007, hard disk drives held 52% of all stored data, optical storage devices held 28%, and digital tape about 11%.

The majority of our technological memory has been in digital format since the early 2000s, with 94% of data stored in that format in 2007, the report indicated.

“We live in a world where economies, political freedom and cultural growth increasingly depend on our technological capabilities,” said the report’s lead author, Martin Hilbert, a Provost fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. “This is the first study to quantify humankind’s ability to handle information and how it has changed in the last two decades.”

Hilbert co-authored the study with Priscila Lopez of the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona.

Hilbert explained the study’s findings in a short video found here .

The study found that data storage grew 23% annually between 1986 and 2007.

General computing capacity from 1986 through 2007, grew at an annual rate of 58%, the report said.

The world’s capacity for bidirectional telecommunication through devices like cell phones, grew at 28% per year. Overall, the world shared 65 exabytes of information through telecommunication devices.

At the same time, worldwide growth of unidirectional information through broadcast channels and the like, grew at only 6% a year during the period. Even so, in 2007 humankind broadcast 1.9 zettabytes, or 1,900 exabytes, of information through technology such as televisions and GPS devices. “That’s equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day,” the study said.

Diagram of a VHS tape.

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The telecommunications business has been dominated by digital technologies since 1990, with 99.9% of it in digital format in 2007.

Also in 2007, all the general-purpose computers in the world computed 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second, the same general order of magnitude as the number of nerve impulses executed by a single human brain. “Doing these instructions by hand would take 2,200 times the period since the Big Bang,” the study stated.

“These numbers are impressive , but still minuscule compared to the order of magnitude at which nature handles information,” Hilbert said in a statement. “Compared to nature, we are but humble apprentices. However, while the natural world is mind-boggling in its size, it remains fairly constant. In contrast, the world’s technological information-processing capacities are growing at exponential rates.”

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian , or subscribe to Lucas’s RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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