Information Overload: 600 Exabytes Served with a Dash of Ingenuity


60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information fill the world! What does that really mean?  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry - there’s an app for that.

A recent study published in Science has attempted to calculate the total amount of information being stored, including information stored in books, computers, the Internet, your credit card, your refrigerator...ok, maybe not your fridge...

One of the authors of the study, Martin Hilbert, discussed how these calculations were made on NPR’s Science Friday.  He took the number of devices that exist, multiplied by the informational performance of each device, and then he normalized it to the “uttermost compression rate.”  I certainly did not understand what that meant, but Hilbert explained it in layman’s terms: it's basically the equivalent of zipping a file multiple times, so that all you have left is the pure information, and nothing redundant. He did these calculations in 2007 and arrived at 295 exabytes. That’s 295 followed by 20 zeros!

Based on the rate of information growth, we should currently be at about 600 exabytes.  I couldn’t really put this number into perspective until Hilbert explained that 295 exabytes is enough to cover the entire area of the United States with 13 layers of books. Or, if you burned all the data onto CDs, they could stack from here to the moon and beyond!

So that seems pretty incredible, but not nearly as amazing as what Hilbert said next. “What one of our numbers show is that if you combine all the computational power of general purpose computers, and how many instructions they can make per second, that’s the same number [on the same order of magnitude] as the number of nerve impulses the human brain can make in one second.”

Wow. So while we might think our personal computers are pretty incredible, they’re nothing compared to the computing power of our own brains. I think Hilbert said it best: “Compared to Mother Nature, we are but humble apprentices.”

And so Mother Nature evolved our powerful brains, and our brains are developing creative ways to save us from information overload.  The data generated in the study show that we are bombarded with 174 newspapers worth of information every day! But never fear, new programs exist, such as the My6Sense App and, which learn your information preferences by monitoring what you choose to view when surfing the web. (Read more here.)  These programs then select items and stories you are more likely to be interested in and move them to the top of your stream.  While there may be 600 exabytes of information floating around the world, applications like these help narrow the field, allowing us to view only the bytes we really want to see.

Some view these monitoring programs as scary or threatening, but I think these applications are just another example of human ingenuity solving a real-world problem.  I suppose we owe Mother Nature at least a high-five for ensuring that we evolved the creativity to keep us one step ahead of the game.




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