Information Overload

Last week, I mentioned that the world produced an estimated 1.5 exabytes of information last year. This statistic came from Karl Fisch’s Did You Know? presentation. He got this number from an Ian Jukes presentation, and Ian’s source is a Berkeley study from 2003. As it turns out, the Berkeley study later revised its numbers to 5 exabytes of new information, and these numbers were for 2002. In the five years since then, the rate of growth has increased exponentially.

Just for context, it’s important to know that one exabyte is about 1,024 petabytes. One petabyte is 1,024 terabytes, and one terabyte is about 1,024 gigabytes. So an exabyte is 1,073,741,824 gigabytes. We’ll call that “about a billion.”

This week, CNN reported on an IDC study that claims a growth of digital information in 2006 of 161 exabytes. This number is inflated, because they’re counting multiple copies of the same information in order to get an handle on how much storage space is being used. Still, they estimate that 40 exabytes of unique new data was created in 2006. That’s eight times as much as in 2002. Without a Paddle

Let’s put this in perspective. The world’s population in 2006 was about 6.5 billion people. On average, each of these people generated 6.5 gigabytes of new information. That’s almost 10 CDs’ worth of data per person. I’m pretty sure I didn’t contribute my fair share. Some people like to compare this stuff to the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with 530 miles of shelves. If everything in the LOC were digitized, it would take about 20 terabytes of space to store it. One exabyte is one million terabytes. That means the world produced 2 million Libraries of Congress (LOCs) worth of new information in 2006, and that this data, if printed, would take more than 1 billion miles of shelf space. Of course, there are no plans to either digitize the LOC or to print out the Internet.

But here’s the scary part: we only produced 250,000 LOCs in 2002. In 2010, it’s estimated that we’ll produce 12 million LOCs. That in 2010, not by 2010. With an estimated world population of 6.8 billion people in 2010, that’s almost 50 CDs per person. The growth of information is so staggering that I can’t even really comprehend it.

Every year, we produce more new information than all of humankind has collectively produced over the entire history of human existence. When we talk about 21st century skills, one of the biggest is the need for kids to be able to filter information. They have to quickly determine what is relevent, what is reliable, and what is useful. They have to be able to combine information from multiple sources and draw conclusions about it. They have to be able to use this information in innovative ways to solve new problems and meet new challenges.

And they have to figure out how to make a backup of 65 billion CDs before next year’s 90 billion CDs’ worth of information shows up.