The Internet Needs A New Pair Of Pants

Thaddeus Howze believes we need to have a plan in place in order to manage the consequences of the rapid growth of the Internet.

Yesterday, I was talking to a group of Twitter users about the use of video blogging on the Internet and how they could use vlogging to improve their online presence. The outcome of that conversation was interesting but it is only half as interesting as the thoughts generated by that conversation. I wondered, as I often do, about the future of technology and in this case, the future of the Internet as we know it. As the group talked about how they would use vlogging, several thoughts went through my mind. I will share them all, but realize we are only going to talk about a couple:

1. Where are we going to be storing all of the information people will be creating in the future?
2. How much estimated data storage does the internet currently use up?
3. What is the carbon footprint of the internet? 
4. How much energy does the internet use?
5. Who is paying for all of this information to be stored and what happens if they were to go out of business?
6. How fast is the data on the internet growing and at what rate is it expanding?
7. Has the internet and consumerism come together in a powerful but dark synergy? 
8. Are there long-term effects from that synergy that we have yet to see the effects of?
9. How will we sustain the energy requirements of the Internet in the future?
10. Since we have become so reliant on the internet and its technology providers i.e. What would happen if one or more of the major providers were to go out of business? What would happen for instance if Google suddenly went bankrupt? Apple? Microsoft? Intel? Motorola? Would we notice? Would we care? Would there be an appreciable vacuum?
11. Will we eventually have to develop a means to backup or purge unusable data and how do we decide what is important enough to keep or how do we back it up? Or do we even try?

As you can see, I got lost in the questions and had forgotten about the conversation for a moment. But I like to chase thoughts like these because they are pertinent questions to be asking whenever one is developing a viewpoint of the future, based on a technology of today. So, as they discussed vlogging and its benefits, I was already thinking about the first of the most important questions to me.

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How much data is on the Internet and what is most of it comprised of? Surprisingly enough, a good portion of the data is surveillance video collected all over the world and digital transactions between machines. These include stock interactions and credit card transactions. The rest are digital photos, websites, content generation by big media, and social media engines like Twitter. The amount of data on the internet is estimated to be 467 billion gigabytes of data.

To help you visualize it would require every human being on Earth to be given two fully tricked out iPods to be able to take all that data offline; if you are a reader of books, this would be the equivalent of a stack of books stretching from Earth to Pluto, (2 billion miles, give or take) ten times! Okay, that was sobering. But the next numbers staggered me even further. 

How fast was the Internet growing? It’s growth is estimated to be doubling in size every eighteen months. There is another number we know that does the same thing, called Moore’s Law. I suspect there is a correlation between the doubling of computer processor power every eighteen to twenty-four months and the doubling of information on the Internet. More powerful processors means more powerful uses to bring to bear on computer-related problems or using computers to interact with more complex ideas as processors grow more powerful and capable of handling them. 

This was troubling. Right now, we are at, let’s round it out to 500 billion gigabytes. In eighteen months, it will be 1000 billion gigabytes. Eighteen months later it will be 2000 billion gigabytes. In three years the Internet’s stored data will be four times as large as it is now. This is staggering because what it really means is: We can never back up the data on the Internet to protect it from loss. There will always be more data being generated than we have effective means of keeping track of, even using computerized means. It also means loss is inevitable, particularly in light of my last revelation. 

What is the carbon footprint of the Internet? Today, that carbon footprint is equal to the carbon output of the entire United Kingdoms at 330 million pounds of CO2 a year. But in eighteen months, that should likely double as well. And then again after that. Okay that might not be a perfect conversion, since, in theory, humanity would be rallying around this idea of escalating energy costs, increasing carbon costs due to the energy requirements to maintain all of these servers which provide us with data storage, database processing, data management across the internet, web interfaces, video and audio streams, surveillance footage and banking transactions. Surely we will be creating lower energy devices, smarter power management systems, putting entire server farms on solar and battery storage systems (like the one Google is making for its search engine server farms). We are all doing that right now, aren’t we? 

To date, our energy requirements to power the Internet and all the technology connected to it, only require 1-2% of our worldwide energy output. But with the growth of the internet doubling every eighteen months, how long before those numbers start their climb as well. 2-4% would be far more noticeable, and 3-6% of our world wide energy consumption would start equaling the energy output of entire nations.

Who will be paying for this enormous energy cost? Likely since 30% of the Internet is paid for by corporate dollars, we can expect the internet of the future will likely begin to cost Internet users more money either in bandwidth costs (which we are already seeing in the costs of packages for mobile devices) or in surcharges by service providers who will be paying ever more to power the grid to keep the beast alive and growing in size.

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Though I didn’t answer all the questions that came up, those three worried me the most. Like a parent watching a favorite child growing up, I asked the same questions about the Internet: How big is it? How fast is it growing? How much is it eating? And how big will it get before it outgrows its current pair of pants? We as a society, might want to start asking those same questions about the Internet, before we start seeing the inevitable march of time taking its toll on this tool we are asking to support all of the world businesses, infrastructure and information systems? 

Like any organism, we might want to ask what happens when it gets old and eventually starts to die: How do we migrate the data? Do we have a plan? Have we begun to implement it? What are the signs of old age? How old would the internet be in dog years? Is it in good health?  What if it has an accident? Can it get dementia? If it does, how do we decide what is so critical we back it up anyway? Does it have a dental plan?

You see the questions are growing faster than I can answer them. I hope someone out there is asking (and answering) them besides me. As awesome as the potential of the cloud may be, you might want to back up your own data, just in case.

If the other questions in this list intrigue you, or you already know the answer to them, please send me a link. We may attempt some more answers in a later article. I know we started this article talking about Vlogging. I promise we’ll get back to that after I have had some time to play with Google+ hangouts a bit more.
Photo of Black exploding computer keyboard with electric sparks courtesy of Shutterstock

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About Thaddeus Howze

Thaddeus Howze was a New York native and found his way to the West Coast as a consequence of his military service. He's a California-based technology executive and author whose non-fiction and online journalism has appeared in publications such as The Enemy, Black Enterprise Online, Urban Times, the Good Men Project, and Astronaut.com. Thaddeus Howze has published two books, Hayward's Reach (2011) and Broken Glass (2013). He maintains a nonfiction blog on science and technology at A Matter of Scale (bit.ly/matterofscale). He writes speculative fiction at hubcityblues.com.

Comments

  1. Was reading SmartPlanet today and noticed I am not the only person who believes our energy requirements to power our connected IP networks are becoming an issue worthy of note. Despite the naysayers who promote the idea we will always find cheaper ways of doing things or our “economies of scale” will reduce the overall cost, the issue isn’t that we will, but when we will, how we will and ultimately how long will it take? Most major metropolises lose water in the same fashion, in a year a city like Los Angeles will lose more water in leaks than some entire nations will have to drink. In a world where energy and water are in easy abundance, it’s easy to say, ‘we’ll get around to it’ but I have noticed often, by the time we get around to it, it has become a crisis that will force use to make decisions that could have been better made with more time and planning. Two things that are always in short supply in a crisis. Read the article at: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/smart-takes/energy-in-the-global-enterprise-a-runaway-freight-train/25059?tag=nl.e660

Trackbacks

  1. […] map was drawn, raising issues like those Thaddeus Howze suggests in his recent article on the GMP, The Internet Needs a New Pair of Pants. Tom has gone on to write a book on management for IT professionals. Justin, who is still in […]

  2. […] managed, controlled, and used world-wide, I renew my belief that we should be planning for the exponential growthof the Internet Commons and its needs for power, security, reliability, redundancy and […]

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