The numbers prove it: This is a data age

World’s computing capacity has skyrocketed

In case you didn’t get the memo/text/call/e-mail/tweet, this just in: The world is drowning in information.

A new assessment of the world’s technological capacity from 1986 to 2007 confirms that the data deluge has long since washed over us — and presents some astounding data of its own to make the case.

Drawing on more than 1,000 sources including United Nations statistics, historical inventories and information from research firms, scientists from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Chilean researchers affiliated with the Open University of Catalonia, an online institution headquartered in Barcelona, assessed humankind’s ability to communicate, store and transmit information.

Some of the numbers, reported online February 10 in Science, make perfect sense. The fraction of data that is stored digitally, for example, has skyrocketed from about 0.8 percent in 1986 to 94 percent in 2007. (In 1986, vinyl records still contained 14 percent of stored information.)

But surprises also emerge, such as which devices are doing the actual computing.

In 1986 computing was still largely the purview of the calculator, which crunched 41 percent of all computed instructions per second. By the year 2000, personal computers were doing 86 percent of such work. But by 2007, video game consoles — this decade’s answer to the arcade game of yore — were doing 25 percent of the world’s computing. And cell phones are catching up, doing 6 percent of all computing in 2007.

A switch to personal devices may explain in part why the number of mainframes, those megacomputers once essential to bulk data processing, has plummeted (though the number of servers for Internet access continues to climb). And who needs mainframes, when PCs are so powerful? It turns out that over the last few decades the performance of a supercomputer has been matched by  PCs about 14 years later, the researchers note. 

Some other figures that may floor anyone who remembers floppy disks:

In 2007 about 3.4 billion cell phones were in use globally, versus 1.2 billion landline phones and 0.6 billion Internet subscriptions.

In 2007, humankind sent 1.9 zettabytes (1021) of information through broadcast technology such as televisions and GPS. That’s equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day.

General purpose computing capacity, which includes devices such as laptops (but not the dozens of microprocessors in the typical new car, for example) grew at an annual rate of 58 percent.

The capacity for storing information grew from less than one CD-ROM per person in 1986 to almost 61 per person in 2007. The 2007 number equates to a stack 404 billion CDs, which would stretch beyond the moon.

As recently as in 2000, digital storage made up a mere 25 percent of information memory. In 2002, digital surpassed analog storage. By 2007, 52 percent of stored information was on digital media.

Of course, just because there’s more information out there doesn’t mean we are consuming it, says technology-management expert Roger Bohn of the University of California, San Diego.

 “It’s harder and harder to get more bits into the same brains and eyeballs that we’ve always had,” Bohn says. 

And Mother Nature still dwarfs computing power, notes economist Martin Hilbert, coauthor of the work. “We still have many more stars in the universe than we have bits.”

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