Thinking Tech

What is the world's data storage capacity?

What is the world's data storage capacity?

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A stack of CDs containing all the world's data would stretch all the way past the moon.

For anyone that's ever wondered about the world's data storage capacity, scientists have come up with a nice little number: 295 exabytes.

That's 295 billion gigabytes. Doesn't sound like a lot? For some perspective, a stack of CDs containing all the world's data would stretch all the way past the moon.

Here's another way to look at that total. "If we were to take all that information and store it in books, we could cover the entire area of the US or China in 3 layers of books," University of Southern California researcher Martin Hilbert told BBC's Science in Action.

The researchers at USC came up with that figure by adding up the vast quantity of data stored on 60 technologies, everything from personal computers and floppy disks to books and newspapers. The study, published in the journal Science, also reported a few more revealing tidbits on how data driven human civilization has become in the year 2007.

  • Much of the world's conversion of analog to digital took place over the previous two decades. Digital storage capacity overtook total analog capacity in 2002. And as of 2007, almost 94 percent of our memory is in digital form.
  • People shared 65 exabytes of information through two-way communications technology such as cell phones. In non-digital terms, every person in the world would need to read six newspapers every day to match amount.
  • The world's computers computed 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second, the same general order of magnitude as the number of nerve impulses executed by a single human brain. Performing these by hand would take 2,200 times the period since the Big Bang.
  • Between 1986 and 2007, worldwide computing capacity grew at a rate of 58 percent a year.

Although we've been pretty impressive at creating, compressing and storing information, our achievements are quite primitive compared to mother nature's methods. Humanity's total storage capacity amounts to less than one percent of the information that's stored in a person's DNA.

"Compared to nature, we are but humble apprentices," Hilbert said. "However, while the natural world is mind-boggling in its size, it remains fairly constant. In contrast, the world's technological information processing capacities are growing at exponential rates."

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure