An Article in the journal Science recently estimated the total information storage of human existence at about 295 exabytes, give or take a terabyte. For this information to of any meaningful value we have to put an exabyte into perspective. Most of us have become comfortable with the concept of a gigabyte, typically home computer hard drives are sold in gigabytes with 500GB, or 500 gigabytes, being a fairly common designation.
The “byte” hierarchy goes like this:
1 byte = 1 character
1024 bytes = 1 kilobyte
1024 kilobytes = 1 megabyte
1024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte
1024 gigabytes = 1 terabyte
1024 terabytes = 1 petabyte
1024 petabytes = 1 exabyte
1024 exabytes = 1 zettabyte
1024 zettabytes = 1 yottabytes
These are terms that many of us are not that familiar with so let me try and put this into the perspective of something we are familiar with. Roughly ten years ago we were buying hard drives in the hundreds of megabytes, today we are buying hard drives in the hundreds of gigabytes and at this rate within a single generation we will be dealing with information in the hundreds of exabytes. The rate of growth here is phenomenal. If a byte was an equivalent to an inch then this is what the progression above would look like:
1 byte = 1 character = 1 inch
1024 bytes = 1 kilobyte = 85 feet
1024 kilobytes = 1 megabyte = 28 yards
1024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte = 0.94 kilometers
1024 gigabytes = 1 terabyte = 636 miles
1024 terabytes = 1 petabyte = 651,000 miles
1024 petabytes = 1 exabyte = 666,894,336 miles = 1 light hours
1024 exabytes = 1 zettabyte = 682,899,800,064 miles = 0.6 light years
1024 zettabytes = 1 yottabytes = 699,289,395,265,536 = 700 light years
The point here is that the geometric progression is staggering, we have moved from being comfortable talking about megabytes into gigabytes with terabyte vernacular now becoming commonplace. Once we graduate from terabytes to petabytes, and we will, the enormity of the vast storage starts to move beyond our comprehension.
So what does the digital media explosion have to do with genealogy? It has everything to do with the genealogists innate desire to be a hoarder and to retain all things. As we move into the digital millenium this will become an increasingly daunting challenge for the genealogy researcher. The hardware manufacturers will still run ahead of us but who among us is prepared to manage this much stuff? As we migrate to fully digital it has been noted that we are far more prone to capture everything; to keep the videocam wideopen for the entire soccer game, to shoot 100+ photos at 10MB+ each so that we get just the right one, etc… The result of this digital excess is that we are consuming bandwidth at an alarming rate. I purchase an HD videocam last year and found that a 3 minute video at the highest resolution clip clocked in at about 1GB!
The point of all this is that as genealogists we need to get in front of this curve, while the majority of our collection today may be shoeboxes full of black and white photos, we should fully expect that our hobby will morph into something much more digitally storage intensive. Thousands of digital images and video clips of todays generation will be lost in the coming years due to improper handling of these artifacts and misunderstanding about the relative fragile nature of a digital artifact. We have all become accustom to acid-free paper and polyethlyene bags for archival storage of paper artifacts and it is time for each of us to get smart about long-term digital storage.
I will spend more time on this topic as it is a critically important one for each of us. In the meantime, take a look at your collection and ask yourself what contingencies is your digital archive prepared for.