"Ideas are the most valuable resource. Humans have been anatomically and behaviorally modern for at least 40,000 years. Take away our accumulated ideas, and we are cavemen." My friend David Jinkins said that and I believe he is absolutely right.
This week I had a number of discussions with older colleagues at work that lead me to think again about how information is perceived, how vast a pool of information we have at our fingertips today. I was trying to explain the difference in information between 16GB and 16 MB (the amount of material I have made or gathered and the amount of files that were left for me by the previous teacher). I got mostly blank stares, but the difference is huge. I think I have witnessed again the idea of being on a generational cusp. Those who are just a bit older are used to seeing bookshelves and file cabinets as stores of information. Those a bit younger than me are used to looking at bytes of information.
The very idea of moving from our caveman ancestors to what we are today is the accumulation of those ideas and the ability to store them outside of our collective memories. Information living outside of the human brain, living over vast spaces of time, must have been a fascinating prospect for Mesopotamians.
I still find it fascinating today. The printing press was the first boom in information, but by 1700 the number of books would only accumulate to about 60 stacks each as high as Mt. Everest. A staggering image, but keep hold your amazement. This was just the beginning though, humans were just to realize the true power of symbols, text was the only information technology people used, but in the 19th century things changed. A symbol of a hole or a blank space led to the creation of what some might call the first software, information to picture and back again. As long as you had enough symbols you could represent anything in the entire universe. By 1950 the amount of information available to us had multiplied 6,000 times, or 360,000 stacks as tall as Everest. Of course those initial expansions in the way information was stored were quite bulky by today’s standards. By now the planet has built a lattice work of wires and non-wire information networks. Human computers, as they were once referred to, were crucial to the modern world, but the invention of the computing machine, the silicon chip, and the internet propelled us to where we are today. This accumulation of information by our collective society has allowed us in some ways to defeat entropy. Just by having information you could create order from disorder. By expending (almost) no extra energy you could defeat entropy, things were not destined to fall apart, but to become more complex. Of course that isn't exactly true, even the accumulation of ideas has to obey the laws of physics, but it would seem that it is only constrained by the eventuality of reaching the limits of storage, something that is becoming ever more expansive.
Every day in my life I carry a 1terabyte external hard drive to and from work. This is my library, literally. I have taken up just over 900MB which would probably be more information than any library I have ever visited contained in it. Next week I am buying a 1.5 terabyte because I am running out of space. This library in my pocket is no bigger than a small novel. To me this is amazing. Probably even more amazing is that the current collective amount of data at my finger tips through the internet is now estimated to be about 1 zetabyte = 90 stacks of books reaching from earth to the sun. The implications of this are staggering.