The Internet is becoming our memory

  • By Jonathan Good
  • December 14, 2011
Part 4: The Internet is becoming our memory

When the three letters "L," "O," and "G" blinked across the screen at the Stanford Research Lab in 1969 it didn't seem like an event to rival the moon-landing a few months earlier. But this was the event that probably had the larger impact on human history. "LOG," the first message sent on APRAnet (before the connection crashed [1]), was what the Internet would become. A "log" of more and more events, more and more information, more and more history.

The new digital generation

The Internet has come a long way since. So far that E. M. Forster might be eerily surprised by his predictions in the 1909 sci-fi classic, "The Machine Stops" [2]. To understand just how much has changed, consider someone born after 2000 (this group accounts for over 15% of people alive today) [3]. They have possibly never owned a physical photo of themselves. If they grew up with an iPad, they might expect the world to operate like a touch screen. Content is something that streams into devices, rather than a physical thing to be owned and collected. They have no "shoebox" filled with old photos but there is a digital treasure trove of content about them online.

We have moved from a world in which knowledge exists in documents, physical photos and people’s heads to a world in which information is stored digitally and accessible to anyone, anywhere. To highlight this change, we examined how much information different generations have online versus offline. As a proxy, we commissioned a survey to see how many physical and digital photos individuals have. Taking the median response in each age group, we calculated the "percentage of our history which is digital." The results are striking—a teenager today is 86% digital, whereas a 65-year-old is only 12% digital.

Percentage of our lives that is digital

The incredible growth of the Internet

In 1997 (before the first mobile phone photo), the Internet was tiny (total ASCII files in 1997 were just 2TB)[4]. In 2011 it’s estimated the Internet grew 1.8ZB (that’s ZB for zetabytes, 1,800,000,000,000GB!)[5]. As a comparison, the human brain is estimated to be able to store 2.5PB of information (2,500,000GB, and we use only a faction of that)[6], so the Internet added the capacity of a million human brains this year. If the Internet keeps doubling in size every year, then in 13 years it will exceed the capacity of 8 billion human brains, the whole of humanity.

Growth of the Internet

The other 99% of history

If human memory is going through a wrenching transformation of being "digitized," the current period is crucial in whether or not the future will remember the modern B.C.—"before computers." Will future generations look back as E. M. Forster predicts and not know what life was like before the Internet? No, we have reason to believe not. In particular, 2011 showed that we are starting to digitize more than we print, and that old content can be more viral than new content...

Next: Old photos are viral

Or click here to see the whole series.

Footnotes and sources

1. It is unclear whether the "G" made it to the Stanford Research Lab before the connection crashed. You can read the dialog here.
2. "The Machine Stops" tells the story of a human population whose predominant activity is the sharing of knowledge and ideas through an omnipotent machine.
3. About 1.25 billion children have been born since January 1st, 2000 and we assume the 11 year mortality rate is below 10%
4. Research on the size of the Internet in 1997 is available here.
5. IDC research reported on the amount of data created in 2011 here.
6. The Scientific American article on the capacity of a human brain is here.

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