Peak storage is unavoidable, but humanity doesn’t seem interested in curing its addiction to growth. What can be done about it?
In the year 2035, a group of scientists and engineers, concerned about the economic and political consequences of peak storage, founded the Human Data Corporation. Maybe it’s not possible to avert peak storage, they thought, but we might be able to minimize its impact on our society. By increasing the efficiency of storage, it might be possible to delay the peak. This could buy us some time to prepare for the moment when we will have to accept the inevitable loss of information. Of course, they focused at first on the technical aspects, seeing the social preparations as something of lesser importance, that could be tackled at a later time.
Instead of creating new compression algorithms or storage technology, they analyzed what types of information people were creating. The bulk of it came from videos, photographs or other recordings of the real world, they noticed, and this type of information has lots of redundancies, or repeated parts. As an example, imagine a group of tourist visiting a city, cameras and phones in hand: their photographs and videos will have lots of similarities, because they are targeting almost the same things, at almost the same time, in almost the same place.
This presented an opportunity for optimization: if we knew how the photographed objects should look, and we knew exactly when, and from where the pictures were taken, we could reconstruct the photos from that information. It’s like asking for “a photograph of Machu Picchu, as seen from exactly this place, at this time of the year, with this light“, and obtaining a pixel-perfect image of the world heritage, including the llamas.
By the early 2010s and 2020s, technologies that allowed exactly that started to emerge. They were based on Machine Learning algorithms, fed with images found on the Internet, and could answer requests such as “create a picture of a cat with an astronaut helmet”. But they didn’t know whether a particular cat had been in a certain place, at a certain time, nor whether it had an astronaut helmet or not. They just made things up, based on the pictures it was fed. “Show me the cat in my balcony, yesterday at 7 pm” meant nothing to these algorithms, they would just produce a picture of a random cat, at a random balcony, because they lacked a proper model of the world.
Their big insight that these scientists and engineers had, was to build a model of the world using exactly all those photos, videos, audio recordings that people were making all the time. Instead of just storing them, both their data (colors, sound) and metadata (things like the time and place of creation, or who created them) could be used to build and keep updated a model of the real world. After all, vast regions were being recorded continuously by all sorts of devices, from the microphones in mobile phones, to self-driving cars’ LiDAR scanners and cameras in “smart” doorbells and TV sets. After updating the model with this data, they could then use the metadata to reconstruct the original content. For example, if I take a hundred pictures of my cat in my balcony, asking the model to “show me the cat in my balcony, yesterday at 7 pm” had a much more precise meaning.
They started with the most densely populated areas of the world, where most information was available, and expanded to less populated areas thanks to satellite images and autonomous drones. The initial precision left much to be desired, but it improved fast. And the bigger the model became, the more useful and valuable it was, which fueled its expansion even more. After some decades, it covered more than 99% of the surface of the earth.
Soon it was possible to use this virtual model to find out about anything happening anywhere. It became so complete, that nobody found it necessary to use any other source of information. The people started calling this virtual model simply History, and anything recorded before, or outside of it, became protohistoric.
Even before History, people had gotten used to storing all their information “in the cloud”, and being able to access it at all times. Asking them to erase their childhood memories because they ran out of space, or, even worse, deleting them without their permission, was seen as borderline heretic. But there was no way around it, the world had to prepare for a future with scarce storage.
What if people didn’t engage voluntarily in such digital declutter? Who gets to decide, then, what is deleted, and how is that decided? This wasn’t seen as an issue for some time, but after some decades, when it became clear that peak storage was arriving sooner than expected, governments were forced to react. International committees were created to decide on these issues, and several countries imposed a “citizen storage-quota”, regulating how much storage a person was entitled to. Storage poverty became an issue, and storage bytes, the new currency.
Image generated with DreamStudio using the prompt: “A hard drive made of people, HQ award-winning photograph 4k, realistic”