2 min read

The growth of information

IDC says nearly 1,800 exabytes of information will have been created rnby 2011, but how much of it do we really need?

For the first time, says a recent report from International Data Corp., the amount of information created worldwide has exceeded the available storage.

Don’t panic. We aren’t going to have to start shooting spreadsheets and databases into outer space to lighten the load. The IDC study is talking about total information created, much of which isn’t kept and doesn’t need to be.

We still have lots of storage for what we actually need to keep.

In fact, we probably have a couple of orders of magnitude more storage than it would take to keep what we really need to keep. I don’t know about your hard disk, but mine contains a lot of stuff that doesn’t really qualify as essential. Archived to-do list notes about phone calls two years ago. Pictures of dogs. Six-month-old e-mails from my spouse about what to have for dinner. Pictures of cats. Columns I wrote 15 years ago.

Not only does a lot of our information not need to be kept, there’s a significant chunk of it that probably doesn’t need to be created in the first place. You can think of an example. That report you had to write a few months ago on how many reports you’d written the previous year. The mass e-mail to everyone in the office about somebody having a used snowblower for sale.

In 2011, the IDC study says, nearly 1,800 exabytes of information will be created. The study doesn’t say how many exabytes of that will be spam. My guess is, a fair bit.

Speaking of which, it’s really heartening to read that Robert Soloway, known as the King of Spam, may be going to prison. Soloway has been sued a number of times in his decade or more of bombarding people with junk e-mail, but boasts of never paying a cent in fines “regardless to the outcome of any lawsuits.”

His luck may have run out. Let’s hope so. Spam wastes a huge amount of network capacity and people’s time, but what’s really infuriating about it is the contempt spammers show for their victims. Why, in a society so ready to throw people in jail for minor drug offences and even participating in protests, have we not cracked down on this?

Of course neither spam nor the endless creation of unnecessary “information” is the whole cause of this growing pile of bits.

The other factor is that the way we store information has become so bloated. Back in the 1980s, when I first started writing on computers, it might have taken about two kilobytes or so to store this column. Does anyone remember what kilobyte means? It’s a thousandth of a megabyte. Which is a thousandth of a gigabyte. Okay, now all you youngsters understand me.

Anyway, now it takes 22 to 24 kilobytes to store one of these columns. And some kinds of files have grown even more, not to mention the video that didn’t even exist a decade ago.

So if you think your hard disk is like an attic that hasn’t been cleaned out for 10 or 20 years, you’re right, but with one difference. It’s as if every one of those old chairs you threw up there back in 1997 has transformed itself into a sectional sofa.

Maybe we should shoot some of those files into outer space after all.