“It’s quite scary,” physicist and information theorist, Melvin Vopson, replied to me when I asked him what he thought about the current growth of data. Data growth is out of control and leaping ahead at an annual rate of more than 25%. Based on my calculations, if we continue this growth rate, by 2053 we will be mining a Mount Everest worth of materials (175 billion tons) every year just to build the servers to store all this data on.
“We stored information for millennia essentially on paper,” Melvin explains. “We physically wrote information onto something. This changed in 1996. This year is a very pivotal transition year, when storing information on digital devices became cheaper than paper. So, writing a letter by hand and giving it to somebody by hand, it became more expensive than writing an email. From that moment on, we transitioned our entire society into a digital world. What does it mean? We bank online, we socialize online. We produce all the documents digitally. We have all the video, the media, the audio, the music, everything is online. I have some numbers. We generate, every day, 500 million tweets, 294 billion emails, 4 million gigabytes of Facebook data, 65 billion WhatsApp messages, and 720,000 hours of new content are added on YouTube every day. And there is no end to this. There is no limit because nobody wants to delete any data. And I said to you that in 1996, paper became more expensive to store information than digital data. That is one—one—aspect only. To copy something from the paper it needs a printing machine. The digital information, once it’s created, is copied in an instant and you can copy it without any limit. The information creation and storage has accelerated to levels that… Nobody is seriously looking at this. Where do we put all this stuff? And how much does it cost? And how long can we do this for? If you look at the business model of Big Tech, they are the leading corporations on the planet today. They are not factories making cars or planes. They are not energy-producing giants. All they do is they use information from the public to store it, to manipulate it, to trade it, to sell it essentially. Most often this is done through advertising. And it all appears to be unlimited.
“With this growth rate of information, we’re going to create more bits of information than all the atoms on the planet in about 200 years,” Melvin continues. “At the moment we are storing this information on physical systems like data storage devices, servers, magnetic data storage, flash drives, optical data storage. If we create information that equals the number of atoms on the planet… We don’t know how to store information on a single atom. We can’t do that. At the moment we use thousands of atoms per bit, tens of thousands. Where is that information going to go? How are we going to sustain this? I call this the Information Catastrophe. I assumed that if we are storing this information at the maximum efficiency, we’re going to run out of power in about 100 years. All the power that we use on the planet right now is about 18–19 terawatts. To run the planet: transportation, heating, cooling, everything we do on the planet. In about 100 years, the digital information itself will overtake all these power requirements.”
Dr. Melvin Vopson podcast: The environmental weight of data
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