06 August 2006

Who's Afraid of a Terabyte?

So Google Research is offering to send anyone a trillion words - for free. But what does the ready availability of this kind of data deluge mean for the world? Here's what I wrote in an essay called "Digital reality", which appeared in a strange little book entitled Glanglish, back in 1989:

A few hundred years from now the world currency will be the Tera. Short for Terabyte, it represents a million million bytes of digital information. Roughly speaking this corresponds to half a million printed books. The data contained in a Tera will be arbitrary but meaningful: it will be the equivalent of a random selection of a twentieth of the British Library's present holdings. Within such a deluge there will be countless useful facts as well as countless useless ones. The sheer volume will ensure that there are enough of the former in every Tera to provide near parity in value with all other Teras of random structured information.

Surprisingly, a Tera is a small unit. A human being processes about two Teras every hour; multiply that by a world population of tens or hundreds of billions and you have millions of billions of new Teras every year. Add in the billions of computers and their information, as well as the countless billions of Teras from the past, and the quantity becomes unimaginable.

Billions of computers because by this time they will be ubiquitous. The basic models will be as small, cheap, and easy to use as a pen or pencil. Like pencils, they will be thrown away after a couple of uses. But where writing implements can be said only in a metaphorical sense to offer half a million English words or the ability to perform operations in calculus, the pen-sized computers will possess these skills literally, as well as providing myriad other functions.

But nobody will bother using them, any more than people use slide rules or log tables today. The real, state-of-the-art computers will be invisible. They will be the chair you sit in, the wall you lean against, the ground you walk on. The chair will not have a computer as such: it will be one. Or rather, every aspect of it - its shape, its colour, its position - will be the output from one.

Such environmental computers will no longer model reality through simulations: instead, they will offer an infinitely detailed alternative version that merges seamlessly into the old, physical variety. Potentially, every aspect of our world will be formed by computers capable of creating every experience.

Most people will be hooked on this drug of artificial, digital reality. Unlike the already addictive arcade games and television serials of today - which are flint tools in comparison to this future technology - digital reality will not just be a temporary substitute for real life, it will replace it totally, until the latter has no independent meaning. Like all junkies, digital addicts will habituate and constantly demand fresh stimulation in the form of new, manufactured experiences. To provide them, the billions of environmental computers must feed ravenously and unceasingly off the only source of experience's raw material, the Teras of structured data held around the planet. Their competing demands for a limited resource will valorise it; information will become society's most sought-after commodity, its invisible gold, its weightless coinage. Those that control that information, the data lords, will rule the world.

Looks like I was out by several orders of magnitude for both size and time-scale. But then they do say that making predictions is hard, especially about the future.

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