How Much Information Is There and What Does It Mean?

A recent article by Martin Hilbert was published in the Big Data Special Issue of the publication Significance: statistics making sense titled “How Much Information Is There in the Information Society”? Hilbert together with his collaborator Priscila Lopez tackled the task of estimating the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information over the period from 1986 to 2007/2012. The complete collection of these studies can be accessed free of charge at

In 1949 the father of information theory, Claude E. Shannon, estimated that the largest information stockpile he could think of was the Library of Congress with about 12,500 megabytes (106). The current estimate for the amount of storage for the Library of Congress has grown to a terabyte 1012. During the two decades of their study the amount of information quadrupled from 432 exabytes (1018) to 1.9 zetabytes (1021). For our personal and business computation we are familiar with gigabytes (109). Next are terabytes (1012), then petabytes (1015), the aforementioned exabytes, and zetabytes. Yottabytes (1024) await us in the future.

Although these are measures of information in the technical sense, I prefer to think of them as data. I think of information in technical transactive memory as data. When it is perceived by a human it becomes information. When it is further processed into the human information processing system, it becomes knowledge. Suppose we all disappeared and the machines kept remembering and processing. What would that be? Perhaps sometime in the future machines will become intelligent enough to function on their own. There is a movie, Colossus: the Forbin Project in which intelligent machines take over the world because they have concluded that humans are not intelligent enough to govern. Then there is Ray Kurzwiel‘s concept of the Singularity, when humans and technology become one. However, coming back to reality, I think there would just be machines storing and processing information absent true knowledge. We need to use technology to help us cope with all these data and fortunately according to Hilbert computation is grown at a faster rate than storage.

Hilbert makes some interesting comparisons between technical processing and storage of information and biological processing and storage of information. In 2007, the DNA of the 60 trillion cells of one single human body would have stored more information than all of our technological devices together. He notes that in both cases information is highly redundant. One hundred human brains can roughly execute as many nerve pulses as our general purpose computers can execute instructions per second. Hilbert asks the question why we currently spend 3.5 trillion dollars per year on our information and communication technology but less than $50 dollars per year on the education of many children in Africa? I think what he is proposing is that we not lose sight of human potential. Although our brains and DNA have phenomenal processing and storage capacities, we only have access to a very small percentage of this information in our conscious awareness. The healthymemory blog makes a distinction among potential transactive memory, available transactive memory, and accessible transactive memory. Potential transactive memory is all the information about which Hilbert writes as well as information held by our fellow humans. Available transactive memory is that information we are able to find. And accessible transactive memory is that information we are able to access readily. The goal is that this accessible transactive memory grows into knowledge, understanding, and insight, as it is in these final stages where its true value is realized.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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