Periscope Depth

obsolete, absolutely

Here’s a terrifying bit of trivia:

Today at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA, the first panel featured Google CEO Eric Schmidt. As moderator David Kirkpatrick was introducing him, he rattled off a massive stat.

Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003, according to Schmidt. That’s something like five exabytes of data, he says.

Let me repeat that: we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.

“The real issue is user-generated content,” Schmidt said. He noted that pictures, instant messages, and tweets all add to this.

Let’s ponder that for a second. I remember 2003. I had been blogging for two years in 2003. I used AIM, I had a cell phone, and I was on quite a few mailing lists. Also, a few things happened before all that, like modern journalism, the Encyclopedia Britannia, the launching of telecommunications satellites, the creation of DARPANet, the Gutenberg press, the Abrahamic traditions and the propagation of the Roman alphabet.

All of that? Prologue to the day before yesterday.

A few comments:

  1. Yes, this is one unsourced assertion. But it’s an assertion by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, the world repository of information. If he doesn’t have an accurate sense for how much data the world produces in a day, no one does.

  2. Also, wow, Google has all that information? Yes. We’re past the point where being scared of that is useful. Google paranoia has this quaint 2004 flavor to it. Being afraid of what Google might do with your shopping habits, personal interests, medical concerns, workplace behavior or home address is like being afraid of earthquakes in Los Angeles. By the time you live in that world, it’s too late.

    (I’m not saying Google couldn’t use that information for evil. I’m saying we, as non-Google shareholders, have lost the opportunity to do anything about it. That being said, this too shall pass)

  3. It’s tempting to be cynical and say, “Well, sure, but most of that information is Twitter updates and lolcats. Y’know, garbage.” Two responses there:

    • First, most of the information produced prior to 2003 was garbage. It’s not all Doctor Faustus and polio vaccines. Go check out the op-eds page of the Baltimore Sun in 1914.* Leaf through a journal of student poetry produced by any liberal arts college in the 20th century. Read the internal memoranda that were posted on the bulletin board in a Hardee’s break room. It’s junk. But it’s information.

    • Second, preserving information that we thought would be ephemeral has substantial social impact. Thirty years ago, it’d be much easier to scream explicit threats at your girlfriend over the phone without the fear she was recording you. Or, if she were, that she could only send it to the local news – not to twenty million readers. Today? Ask Mel Gibson how easy it is. Anything that we say online can be instantly copied, globally distributed and preserved forever. We can’t even really say that we’re “saying” it so much as “inscribing” it. What used to be dialog is now document.

      (The effects of this won’t always be good, as in the case of exposing Mel Gibson as a violent asshole. But the effects will be drastic)

  4. That being said, this can’t last forever. On a long enough timeline, a solar flare that will disrupt all digital technology is inevitable. So the human race needs to pull off a Kurzweil-level shift before that and migrate to some new impervious medium of information, or look forward to a die-off. The vast Empire of Information will collapse faster than Rome’s did. 99% of the information generated in human history – the information generated between Monday and Friday – will be lost forever.

    These days, historians don’t call it the “Dark Ages” because Europe was more barbaric than it had been. They call it the “Dark Ages” because nobody knows what went on then.

* Whatever It Is, I’m Against It does this neat feature called “Today -100,” in which the author recaps the New York Times stories from a century ago. We sure worried a lot about miscegenation back then!

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