Emails, photos, e-books, business presentations, movies, music; human beings on the Internet are constantly creating digital content. Even when we are just consuming, our online behavior is registered somewhere, leaving a digital trace. And all this information is stored somewhere for an indefinite time.
By some estimates, humanity is creating in the order of 1018 bytes per day, or the equivalent of 33 million 4k movies. And that number doubles approximately every two years. This means that it will quadruple in four years, increase eight-fold in six years, sixteen-fold in eight years, and so on and so forth. That’s many millions of movies.
|2 x 1018
|2 x 2 x 1018
Can this number increase forever? All information resides somewhere in the physical world, and we cannot break the laws of physics. Let’s imagine a storage device capable of storing one byte per atom. If the current growth trend holds, by the year 2216 we will produce around 1050 bytes per day. That corresponds approximately to the number of atoms in our planet. We clearly cannot turn the entire planet into a storage device!
Maybe we can avoid that limit by creating a storage device in outer space, using materials from other planets. But even ignoring the practical difficulties, like the fact that an object with that mass would affect our orbit around the sun, we only need to wait two more centuries until our hunger for information reaches the astrological number of 1080 bytes per day. Why is that number relevant? Because it is the number of atoms in the observable universe.
But what about compression? Quantum computers? Holographic storage? Some disruptive tech created by two guys in a Silicon Valley garage? All that such technology could potentially do is to increase the capacity per atom by a constant factor, while the growth is exponential. Let’s see what that means with an example. If we could compress our information 1000 times, then we would need only produce 1018/1000, or 1015 daily bytes. As we double the number of daily bytes every two years, after 20 years (doubling 10 times) we would have: 1015 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 bytes, which is 1015 x 1024, or roughly 1018 again! It clearly doesn’t matter how much we compress the information, it will only delay reaching this limit by a fixed number of years.
These calculations are not very precise, and some numbers are probably wrong. It might be the amount of daily information, or the rate at which this number increases. Maybe we manage to store more than one byte per atom. We might have 500 years left before reaching any practical limit, or it might be much less. It doesn’t matter, because save for an unforeseen event or catastrophe, sooner or later we will reach it.
There will come a time, when no new information can be stored, at least not without deleting something else. Our hard drives will be full. We will have reached peak storage.
Image generated with DreamStudio using the prompt: “A planet made of integrated circuits, as seen from outer space, in the style of NASA propaganda, space program, sci-fi, retro-futuristic”