Why You Can’t Keep Up

23,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information were created last year.

The publication of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, has sent Chatterbox into a quantifying frenzy. According to Murray, there have been 14 cognitive breakthroughs since 800 B.C. Murray calls them “meta-inventions,” but a simpler term for them would be “Great Ideas.” They are:

Artistic realism; Linear perspective; Artistic abstraction; Polyphony; Drama; the Novel; Meditation; Logic; Ethics; Arabic numerals; the Mathematical proof; the Calibration of uncertainty; the Secular observation of nature; and the Scientific method.

Mortimer Adler, who half a century ago oversaw Encyclopedia Britannica’s publication of the “Great Books,” added a supplement, titled the Syntopicon (“collection of topics”), that listed civilization’s Great Ideas. Adler’s hit parade had 89 more Great Ideas than Murray’s:

Angel; Animal; Aristocracy; Art; Astronomy; Beauty; Being; Cause; Chance; Change; Citizen; Constitution; Courage; Custom and Convention; Definition; Democracy; Desire; Dialectic; Duty; Education; Element; Emotion; Eternity; Evolution; Experience; Family; Fate; Form; God; Good and Evil; Government; Habit; Happiness; History; Honor; Hypothesis; Idea; Immortality; Induction; Infinity; Judgment; Justice; Knowledge; Labor; Language; Law; Liberty; Life and Death; Logic; Love; Man; Mathematics; Matter; Mechanics; Medicine; Memory and Imagination; Metaphysics; Mind; Monarchy; Nature; Necessity and Contingency; Oligarchy; One and Many; Opinion; Opposition; Philosophy; Physics; Pleasure and Pain; Poetry; Principle; Progress; Prophecy; Prudence; Punishment; Quality; Quantity; Reasoning; Relation; Religion; Revolution; Rhetoric; Same and Other; Science; Sense; Sign and Symbol; Sin; Slavery; Soul; Space; State; Temperance; Theology; Time; Truth; Tyranny; Universal and Particular; Virtue and Vice; War and Peace; Wealth; Will; Wisdom; World.

Even though Adler’s list is much longer than Murray’s, Adler managed to miss most of Murray’s topics. For example, Adler didn’t bother to separate “Arabic numerals” from “the Mathematical proof.” To Adler, they were both just “Mathematics.” Adler also skipped “Drama” and “the Novel,” presumably because he thought they fell under “Poetry” or “Memory and Imagination.” (Having just edited the Great Books, you’d think Adler would have remembered to create a Great Idea category called “Literature.”) The arbitrary nature of this selection process drove Adler’s most withering critic, Dwight Macdonald, absolutely batty, so you can just imagine what he would have said about Murray’s much shorter list. Indeed, the further you allow yourself to be drawn into any exercise of this type, the more inadequate any given list of Great Ideas seems. Eventually, the quest for completeness descends into madness. Where’s Contraception? Where’s Revolving Credit? Where’s Valet Parking?

In the interest of preserving his sanity—Murray would no doubt call it cowardice—Chatterbox resolved to forego all standards. Forget Great Ideas. Forget Ideas, period. How much information is out there?

Quantifying all the information ever created is probably an impossible task, but Peter Lyman and Hal Varian of Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems have thoughtfully compiled estimates of the amount of information stored on paper, on film, and on magnetic and optical media for the past three years. To this, they’ve added estimates of the amount of information that’s flowed through electronic channels—telephone, radio, television, and the Internet—during the same period. In essence, they have calculated the amount of information communicated every possible way except orally, from one person to one or many other people, without the aid of technology (except, perhaps, a megaphone or amplifier).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on 2002, the most recent year for which Lyman and Varian have data. (Before doing so, full disclosure: Lyman and Varian’s work was partially funded by Microsoft, which has an obvious commercial interest in quantifying information, particularly the kind stored on computers. Microsoft is Slate’s corporate parent. Chatterbox was entirely unaware of the Microsoft link until he was well into researching this column, which grew out of an e-mail discussion Chatterbox had with a reader who has no ties to Microsoft.)

Lyman and Varian measured information in bytes, i.e., the amount of space the information would take up on a computer. A single typewritten page would take up 2 kilobytes (i.e., 2,000 bytes). A novella would take up 1 megabyte (i.e., 1 million bytes). The collected works of William Shakespeare would take up 5 megabytes. All the Chatterbox columns posted on Slate in 2002 occupy 9.9 megabytes. (As you can see, quantity isn’t everything.) All the editorial copy posted on Slate in 2002 occupies 328 megabytes. The number of books needed to fill a pickup truck would occupy one gigabyte (i.e., 1 billion bytes). The number of books in the Library of Congress’ print collections would occupy 10 terabytes (i.e., 10 trillion bytes).

OK, ready? The total volume of information saved in 2002—most of it on hard disks—is 5 exabytes (i.e., 5,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes). Per capita, that’s 800 megabytes saved—imagine a stack of books 30 feet high—for every person in the world.

But that’s peanuts compared to the 18 exabytes of information communicated electronically—most of it by telephone—during the same period. All told, then, we can account for at least 23 exabytes of information communicated one way or another in 2003.

Of course, nearly all of it was worthless. But it’s comforting to imagine that somewhere in those 23 exabytes lies a Great Idea.

[Clarification, Nov. 6: Many readers have written in to say that it just isn’t possible that Chatterbox produced more copy in 2002 than William Shakespeare produced in his entire lifetime. It turns out they’re right. Chatterbox’s 9.9 megabytes include html and xml coding, which, Chatterbox has learned, eat up around three-quarters of the total. If you just count text, Chatterbox’s megabyte count is probably somewhere between 2 and 3 megabytes as compared to Shakespeare’s 5. Chatterbox’s 9.9 megabytes do not include whatever advertising accompanies the columns.]