More bytes than we can chew

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am


People of earth, behold the zettabyte! Not sure what a zettabyte is? Well, it isn't another ill-conceived attempt at an MP3 player by Microsoft and it isn't the name of an electro band from Berlin. (Not yet, anyway.)

A zettabyte, or ZB, is a unit of computer storage that equates to one trillion gigabytes. Put another way, that's one sextillion bytes.

Yes, these are mind bogglingly large numbers. They are so large it's almost impossible to conceive of them. But, like the numbers bandied about by economists - a billion dollars in cuts here, a trillion there - whether we like it or not the zettabyte could be the defining number in our digital lives.

This is an era of high-speed communication convenience helped by our smartphones and other devices. In the time it will take you to read this article you may have received an e-mail, a couple of SMS texts, a tweet or a Facebook update.

Last year alone there were 25 billion tweets sent, 730 billion YouTube videos watched, 36 billion Facebook pictures uploaded and more than 107 trillion e-mails sent. As a result, data is being created constantly. So much so that it becomes hard to digest.

According to research firm IDC, the zettabyte threshold was reached in 2010. In its annual Digital Universe study, IDC found that all the data in the world will surpass 1.8 zettabytes this year: that's every single digital file ever created, replicated and stored.

The IDC report also said the digital universe doubles in size every two years, and since 2005 it has grown by a factor of nine.

Consider your own data storage habits, and, in particular, the hard drive pile-up hidden away in some drawer. Where once a plug-in 100GB hard drive the size of a pizza box would make you weak at the knees, today we aren't satisfied if the hard drive isn't small, wireless, designed by Philippe Starck and able to hold at least one terabyte of information. We've become digital hoarders.

The constant creation of all this information is only half the issue. The removal of the need to delete obsolete or unnecessary bits of data is as fundamental to the rapid growth of the digital universe and perhaps more troubling.

In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Professor Viktor Mayer-Sch?nberger posits that as a result of the phenomenon of growing digital storage, the natural process of forgetting is being lost. In the long run, this affects our personal privacy.

Professor Mayer-Schonberger points, in particular, to the potentially harmful nature of Facebook and other social media networks, where the Byzantine complexity of privacy settings has allowed employers to run 'personal' background searches on potential and present employees - and there isn't much we can do about it.

That's not to say that we don't delete at all. In fact, sometimes the data we do delete is against our interests. E-mail is riddled with so much spam that we often give a cursory glance to some e-mails before heading for the 'delete' button - or having our spam filters turned all the way up to 11. The problem with this approach is that we often miss out on e-mails that are genuine. Swedish e-mail marketing company Apsis believes that up to 30 per cent of legitimate e-mail is incorrectly filtered out by spam filters. That means that we're missing out on either personal or commercial e-mails we may genuinely be interested in.

The enormity of digital storage is worrying because 75 per cent of the data created in the digital universe is about individuals.

IDC says the 'amount of information individuals create themselves is far less than the amount of information being created about them'.

Companies like Facebook and Google have benefited greatly from the explosion in data. Our personal data has been particularly useful. These companies have been able to surreptitiously mine this huge tranche of information to sell advertising.

In the business world, the data explosion is known as the 'big data opportunity' and is worth trillions of dollars.

No wonder Google and other companies are giving us more and more virtual memory for free or at minimal charge.

IDC expects that in 10 years' time there will be as many bits in the digital universe as there are stars in the physical one.

That's an awful lot of photos, MP3s, texts and tweets. A better understanding of how much information is out there and how it is being used should help us decide how much information we should keep about ourselves and what we are willing to put out there.

At the very least, we should be better prepared for the dawning of the age of the yottabyte.


- 25 billion tweets sent in 2010

- 730 billion YouTube videos watched

- 36 billion Facebook pictures uploaded