I think it was reading someone else’s lament about people writing papers or giving presentations about the ‘future of X’, where X is something I can’t remember but it was something that annoyed the hell out my friend. It got me to thinking about the present and looking at what is going on now and not what people think will happen. It is not a matter of whether they are right or wrong (being irritating is another measurement) nor is it one that rejects any sort of prognostication (Lord knows we need it), but just glancing around at the world as it exists at this very moment. It is the mindfulness of the present for tomorrow never comes, as they say.
I am a science geek at heart and perhaps it was hearing the theme to the TV series Big Bang Theory over and over again as my girlfriend and I work our way through the series that I began to think about the information explosion of the last fifteen to twenty years. As I kept thinking about it, parallels began to emerge in my reckoning.
Prior to the Big Bang expansion, the universe existed in an incredibility tiny mass where even photons (light) couldn’t move. This would be akin to the scarcity of books and other printed materials that rarely (if ever) moved beyond the hands of their owners. Knowledge was locked up in formats that were centralized within the hands of nobility or religious orders. Even as the centuries progressed into the 20th, the medium was still limited albeit a bit more agile in its movements. Illiteracy combined with communication and transportation limitations still kept information relatively locked down to its place of origin, a higher education institution, or a centralized location (like a library).
The implementation of the commercial internet (not the previous military incarnation) is the moment of the information universe expansion; call it an information Big Bang, if you will.. With the addition of faster communication mediums (phone modems, cable modems, fiber optics), the acceleration of the expansion increased exponentially. Like the atomic components that would come to exist in the hearts of stars, the explosion of mediums and platforms followed in this expansion. Digital mobile devices along with handheld computers combined with online platforms that encompassed the many varieties of social interactions that humans have come to adapt.
I was curious to see if I could find some data to back this kind of idea. While my search is by no means exhaustive, it felt that it was illuminative. While the trend is upwards, the measure of the data is not always consistent.
- 1999 – An estimate that the world produces 1-2 exabytes of information per year, roughly 250MB for every person on Earth.
- 2002 – The number is raised to 800MB per person.
- 2006-2011 – The estimated amount of exabytes created goes from less than 200 to over 1,800. That roughly equates to 23GB per person to 264GB per person.
Granted, there could be some quibbles about estimating the amount of information in the world in terms of bytes. I tried to find data sets that are roughly parallel in their measurements and didn’t really dig to find older estimates. But I don’t think it refutes the idea that the librarian profession has front row seats at the information Big Bang.
Unlike cosmologists, we have the luxury of being at the beginning of the expansion of the information universe. I’m not entirely sure what that means. At the moment, I’d say it means being mindful of the current state of expansion and examining the directions it is taking, whether it is computing, mobile, or personal device.
Moreover, we stand at the beginning of an even greater information universe that is only going to grow faster. It’s up to us to work with it, to shape it where we can, and to try to understand it for others. Now is the time for such things.