The environmental weight of data

“Information is physical,” Melvin Vopson tells me. “The fact that information is physical goes back to much older studies. What I did in 2019, I asked myself a question: If a bit of information is physical, and you can detect that energy associated with the bit of information when you erase it, what happens to that energy when the information is at rest, at equilibrium, stored? Where is that energy going? And the only conclusion I could come up with is that that energy condenses into a small mass.”

Dr Melvin Vopson is a fascinating character and deep thinker. A physicist, he is the proposer of the mass-energy-information equivalence principle, has identified a technological singularity called the Information Catastrophe, and has discovered the second law of information dynamics. Melvin’s research indicates that information has it own weight and that the more information we create, the heavier and more impactful on the planet it becomes.

“Let’s take magnetic data storage,” Melvin explains. “A bit of information in magnetic data storage is a tiny magnetic space or region on the surface of a magnetic nano field, which is magnetized one way or another, up or down. So, physicists who are confined to this materialistic thinking, if you want, they associate the bit of information with that tiny region of space, which is a magnetized volume of material. And they say, that’s the mass of the bit. And of course it has a mass. But the information itself also has a mass. It kind of says the mathematics that make up information is physical. If you could create a medium for storing digital information that is non-material, you would remove completely the necessity of a magnetic field, flash drive, solid state drive, optical drive, or any kind of medium. If you could store information in space-time fabric, then you would have created a medium of information that has mass itself in a non-material medium. So this is what I mean by the mass of a bit, completely detached from the physical nature of the medium itself.”

Information / data growth is explosive and out of control. This growth is already creating stress in relation to using precious raw materials, consuming vast quantities of energy and water to store and process, and creating mountains of toxic e-waste. We have seen nothing yet. If Melvin Vopson is right, then information will not just impact our environment in relation to all the physical equipment and energy it requires, it will also literally begin to weigh down the Earth as it exponentially grows.

Data is not being managed in the vast majority of organizations. At best, it is being collected and stored. Occasionally, it is being fed to AI systems, yet many who feed the data to these systems have no real idea of the types of data they are feeding. I talked to the CIO of a large organization recently who told me that internally they couldn’t even agree was a record was—the most basic unit of information management. As a result, they were keeping everything they produced just in case.

Data management is chaotic and getting worse, and the tech industry is feeding this chaos, as it constantly launches new magical solutions that will solve the chaos. There is a strong sense that, as the data tsunami gathers force, organizations are giving up on the idea of quality metadata, information architecture or proper archiving, and hoping that the magical technology will solve everything for them. It won’t. It will make the problems much worse. A global data crisis is fast approaching.

Dr. Melvin Vopson podcast: 'The environmental weight of data'

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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