“Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or
city street; every tsunami on the remotest shore.”
on a single circuit board, for ;;;,;;;. When the publishers of the
Oxford English Dictionary began digitizing its contents in ;;;; (;;;
typists; an IBM mainframe), they estimated its size at a gigabyte.
A gigabyte also encompasses the entire human genome. A thousand of those would ;ll a terabyte. A terabyte was the amount of
disk storage Larry Page and Sergey Brin managed to patch together
with the help of ;;;,;;; spread across their personal credit cards
in ;;;;, when they were Stanford graduate students building a
search-engine prototype, which they ;rst called BackRub and then
renamed Google. A terabyte is how much data a typical analog television station broadcasts daily, and it was the size of the United
States government’s database of patent and trademark records
when it went online in ;;;;. By ;;;; one could buy a terabyte disk
drive for a hundred dollars and hold it in the palm of one hand.
;e books in the Library of Congress represent about ;; terabytes
(as Shannon guessed), and the number is many times greater when
images and recorded music are counted. ;e library now archives
Web sites; by February ;;;; it had collected ;;; terabytes’ worth.
;; ;;; ;;;;; ;;;;;;; ;;;;;;, ;;; ;;;;;;;;;; ;;;;;;;;; ;;;;
the pace foreshortening their sense of their own history. ;e computer scientist Jaron Lanier describes the feeling this way: “It’s as
if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it
swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”
A more familiar metaphor is the cloud. All that information—
all that information capacity—looms over us, not quite visible,
not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral; hovering
nearby, yet not situated in any one place. Heaven must once have
felt this way to the faithful. People talk about shifting their lives to
the cloud—their informational lives, at least. You may store photographs in the cloud; Google will manage your business in the
cloud; Google is putting all the world’s books into the cloud; email
passes to and from the cloud and never really leaves the cloud.
All traditional ideas of privacy, based on doors and locks, physical
remoteness and invisibility, are upended in the cloud.
Money lives in the cloud; the old forms are vestigial tokens of
knowledge about who owns what, who owes what. To the ;;st century these will be seen as anachronisms, quaint or even absurd: bullion carried from shore to shore in fragile ships, subject to the tari;s
of pirates and the god Poseidon; metal coins tossed from moving
cars into baskets at highway tollbooths and thereafter trucked about
(now the history of your automobile is in the cloud); paper checks
torn from pads and signed in ink; tickets for trains, performances, air
travel, or anything at all, printed on weighty perforated paper with
watermarks, holograms, or ;uorescent ;bers; and, soon enough, all
forms of cash. ;e economy of the world is transacted in the cloud.
Its physical aspect could not be less cloudlike. Server farms
proliferate in unmarked brick buildings and steel complexes, with
smoked windows or no windows, miles of hollow ;oors, diesel
generators, cooling towers, seven-foot intake fans, and aluminum
chimney stacks. This hidden infrastructure grows in a symbiotic relationship with the electrical infrastructure it increasingly
resembles. ;ere are information switchers, control centers, and
substations. ;ey are clustered and distributed.
;ese are the wheelworks; the cloud is their avatar. ;e information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish—that
was the norm, the default. ;e sights, the sounds, the songs, the
spoken word just melted away. Marks on stone, parchment, and
paper were the special case. It did not occur to Sophocles’ audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the
show. Now expectations have inverted. Everything may be recorded
and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance;
every crime in a shop, elevator, or city street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an
online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.
Having a camera at hand is normal, not exceptional; something
like ;;; billion images were captured in ;;;;. You Tube was streaming more than a billion videos a day. Most of this is haphazard and
unorganized, but there are extreme cases. ;e computer pioneer
Gordon Bell, at Microsoft Research in his seventies, began recording
every moment of his day, every conversation, message, document,
a megabyte per hour or a gigabyte per month, wearing around his
neck what he called a “SenseCam” to create what he called a “
Life-Log.” Where does it end? Not with the Library of Congress.
It is ;nally natural—even inevitable—to ask how much information is in the universe. It is the consequence of Charles Babbage and Edgar Allan Poe saying, “No thought can perish.” Seth
Lloyd does the math. He is a moonfaced, bespectacled quantum
engineer at ;;;, a theorist and designer of quantum computers.
;e universe, by existing, registers information, he says. By evolving in time, it processes information. How much? To ;gure that
out, Lloyd takes into account how fast this “computer” works and
how long it has been working. Considering the fundamental limit on speed and on memory space, along with the speed of light
and the age of the universe since the Big Bang, Lloyd calculates
that the universe can have performed something on the order of
;;;;; “ops” in its entire history. Considering “every degree of freedom of every particle in the universe,” it could now hold something like ;;;; bits. And counting.
From THE INFORMATION by James Gleick. Copyright © 2011 by James Gleick. Excerpted
by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved.