The Reboot 9.0 conference in Copenhagen that ended today had as its theme the word, “human” – that simple and that complicated. Until last week, I planned to attend and to do a talk on what one might call a human information theory of value. The following from my notes for that talk takes a look at three successively-layered epochs of human information dissemination, which I’m labeling “myth,” “media,” and “meta.”
Note: This is the first of four parts. Links to the other three parts come at the end of this post.
In 2000, Michael Lesk, now a professor at Rutgers University, estimated that there were 12 exabytes (12 x 1018 bytes) of recorded information in the world and that it was increasing at 4 exabytes per year. Another study at the University of California at Berkeley found that 5 exabytes of recorded information was produced in 2002 alone. Five exabytes equals 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress’s book collection. That would put the aggregate amount of recorded information in 2007 in the 45-exabyte range – 6.8 gigabytes (6.8 x 109 bytes) of recorded information for each of the 6.6 billion persons on the planet.
Roll back the calendar 2,000 years and the world’s population was the same as that of the U.S. today – 300 million. Information then was largely recorded on scrolls. The largest library of that era was the Royal Library at Alexandria, Egypt, a collection variously given as 400,000-600,000 scrolls at its peak. I don’t know how much information was on each scroll, but let’s assume that each one was the equivalent of 100 typewritten pages – 200 kilobytes of information each – 100 gigabytes total. This was a very comprehensive library, but let’s figure that it missed 90% of the world’s recorded information. So a rough guess, then, that is the aggregate was one terabyte (1 x 1012) – just over 3 kilobytes (300 words) of recorded information for each person on the planet. In 2,000 years, population has grown (mostly in the past century) 22-fold, but recorded information per person has grown some 2 million times!
Of course recorded information is not the only information in the world. The information coded in Earth’s physical and biological structures no doubt dwarfs recorded information. Atoms assemble from atomic subparticles and likewise molecules assemble from atoms through information. Information also determines the development path of each organism and organisms make use of information to survive. But these information systems are stable enough that one can treat them as effectively closed systems.
The late comic Buddy Hackett affected a bumbling on-stage demeanor and was once invited to replace Curly Howard in the Three Stooges, but his humor sometimes had an intellectual foundation. My favorite was a classic explanation of entropy – a measure of disorder in a closed system. While staring intensely at a glass of water, Hackett was asked what he was doing. Hackett replied, “Someone told me that I could bring a glass of ice water to a boil just by staring at it. I’ve already got it up to room temperature.” The Second Law of Thermodynamics describes how the temperature of both ice water and boiling water tend to reach an equilibrium over time – in this case to room temperature – through increasing entropy.
Two thousand years back, an individual could get the equivalent of his or her share of aggregate recorded information – 300 words – in conversation at breakfast. Today, an individual’s exposure to his or her 6.8-gigabyte share takes considerably longer, even with the New York Times next to the plate and the Today show playing in high definition in the background. Entropy is still inexorable, but for humans, the “information room temperature” is increasing as we invent ever-more sophisticated ways of extracting information value from the disorder around them.
Part two takes a look at the first of these inventions – the role of myth in human extraction of value from information. Part three will look at the role of media and part four will look at what I’m labeling “meta” – information about information in a networked world. --Dennis
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