Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Physicality of Data

Computing is a physical process even though the content itself cannot be directly touched or manipulated save by a quantum driven device able to handle electrons and photons with consummate ease. BRT covered the physical aspect of data, in part, years ago in a piece titled A Dangerous Thing using various sources to determine how much would the web's data-set weigh in 2010. The guesstimate back in the 2007 article was that the net's 14.6 Exabytes (10% of the world's data output) would be equivalent to the weight of a small pebble. Seems the forecasters I quoted this information from underestimated our ability to babble on by a factor of 8.2, or the weight of a small stone.

"According to the annual survey of the global digital output by International Data Corporation, the total amount of global data was expected to pass 1.2 zettabytes sometime during 2010. This is equivalent to the amount of data that would be generated by everyone in the world posting messages on the microblogging site Twitter continuously for a century.[5]"

With this information in mind, an excellent article from the NY Times titled The Digital Pileup, reinforces the physicality of data in spades.

"Because electronic information seems invisible, we underestimate the resources it takes to keep it all alive. The data centers dotting the globe, colloquially known as “server farms,” are major power users with considerable carbon footprints. Such huge clusters of servers not only require power to run but must also be cooled. In the United States, it’s estimated that server farms, which house Internet, business and telecommunications systems and store the bulk of our data, consume close to 3 percent of our national power supply. Worldwide, they use more power annually than Sweden."

What's even more interesting is the fact data overload is really just beginning...

"The current volume estimate of all electronic information is roughly 1.2 zettabytes, the amount of data that would be generated by everyone in the world posting messages on Twitter continuously for a century. That includes everything from e-mail to YouTube. More stunning: 75 percent of the information is duplicative. By 2020, experts estimate that the volume will be 44 times greater than it was in 2009. There finally may be, in fact, T.M.I."

T.M.I, I am guessing, either refers to the Duran Duran Too Much Information tune or to The Police's 

Managing the ravenous data beast in a society dependent on non renewable energy creation is a non starter, a situation that must be changed if we are to remain a viable civilization in the 21st century. (Viable sustainable energy tech, as stated many times before in BRT, is in the lab but getting it into the real world able to replace the nuclear and fossil methodologies in cost-effective manner is another matter all together.)

The 2nd law of Thermodynamics strikes again.
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