How Much Data Can Humankind Generate?

University of Southern California researchers have put a number on how much information humans can store, communicate and compute: 295 exabytes, give or a take a zettabyte.

The research, published in an online version of the journal Science, puts that amount of data in some perspective, figuring that storage capacity would amount to a stack of CDs from here to the moon and a quarter of that distance beyond. Yes, that would be a lot of USB flash drives.

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The study covered the period between 1986 and 2007, which includes what the researchers say was the start of the digital age, the year 2002. That's when the amount of digital storage capacity overtook analog storage capacity.

Now, the study says, 94% of our memory is in digital form. And over that period of 1986 to 2007, worldwide computing capacity grew 58% a year.

Communications technology has naturally led to an explosion in data. Cisco recently showed in a study that global mobile data traffic increased over 159% during the past year. USC's numbers are even more daunting, showing that humans shared 65 exabytes (20 zeroes) of information in 2007 via telecommunications devices such as cell phones. Yeah, that's before cell phones even took over the world.

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Interesting from a journalist's perspective, USC puts a lot of its numbers into context by boiling down exabytes into the number of newspapers that would add up to a person reading per day. The 1.9 zettabytes of information exchanged through broadcast technologies like television and GPS equals every person in the world reading 174 newspapers a day (we in the news business wish!). The lead researcher, Martin Hilbert (seen in attached video), is a Provost's Fellow at USC's Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.

Just so that we humans don't get too impressed with its storage capacities, Hilbert notes that "compared to the information processing capacity of nature they are still very small." If we wanted to give a name to every star, we'd only be able to do it for every 1000th one using all of our storage capacity.

How much information can the world store, communicate, and compute? from SCVideos on Vimeo.

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