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Exabytes: Documenting the 'digital age' and huge growth in computing capacity

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 11:17 PM

Megabytes are dead.

Gigabytes are passe.

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So much digital data now moves around the globe that those who endeavor to measure it employ a new - or new to non-nerds - term.

Meet the exabyte.

How much data is an exabyte? It's a billion gigabytes - and it signifies just how digital and data-intensive the world has become.

In 2007, the global capacity to store digital information - on computer hard disks, smartphones, CDs and other digital media - totaled 276 exabytes, a new report finds.

How much is that? Imagine a stack of CDs - each holding an album's worth of digital music - shooting from the top of your desk to 50,000 miles beyond the moon.

But not everyone has equal access to those resources. In fact, the digital gap between rich and poor countries appears to be growing, said Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California, who led the audacious effort to tally all of civilization's information and computing power.

In 2002, people in developed countries had access to eight times the bandwidth - or information-carrying capacity - of people in poorer nations, Hilbert said, citing data he will publish soon. By 2007, that gap had almost doubled.

"If we want to understand the vast social changes underway in the world, we have to understand how much information people are handling," Hilbert said.

To address that question, Hilbert and co-author Priscila Lopez spent four years poring over 1,110 sources of information spanning from 1986 to 2007, including sales data from computer and cellphone makers and the music and movie industries.

In 1986, a year after digital CDs widely debuted, vinyl records still accounted for 14 percent of all data on Earth, with audiocassettes holding an additional 12 percent.


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