Vannevar Bush raised the alarm in The Atlantic Monthly way back in 1945: "Thus far we seem to be worse off than ever before - for we can enormously extend the record, yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it."
The problem is that we are living in an increasingly complex world - there is more information we have to deal with - and it is getting worse - the rate of the increase of information we have to deal with is increasing rapidly.
The systems which makes this vast amount of information production and flow possible are themselves increasing in power, but we are seeing very little of that power helping us cope.
the information explosion
"More information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day, and the total of all printed knowledge doubles every eight years," according to Peter Large in Information Anxiety.
Internet search engines have barely even cataloged 1/6th of the total information available and Internet traffic is doubling every 100 days (Interactive Week). Richard Saul Wurman, puts it aptly; "everyone spoke of an information overload, but what there was in fact was a non-information overload".
"The world produces between 1 and 2 exabytes of unique information per year, which is roughly 250 megabytes for every man, woman, and child on earth. An exabyte is a billion gigabytes. Printed documents of all kinds comprise only .003% of the total. Magnetic storage is by far the largest medium for storing information and is the most rapidly growing, with shipped hard drive capacity doubling every year. Magnetic storage is rapidly becoming the universal medium for information storage" (Berkeley).
the computation explosion
A 2001 edition laptop computer (such as the Apple Macintosh PowerBook Titanium G4) is capable of completing a calculation faster than the light takes to travel from its monitor to your eyeballs. An average home hard drive holds 10 Gigabytes of information (1 billion bits of information). Remember when digital desk calculators seemed impressive? We are seeing the beginning of a snowball effect based on technology which becomes 274,432,000,000 (274 billion!) times more powerful in a single human lifetime (which is 77.5 years in the US as of 2002) - the microchip. And then double that again, only a year and a half later, according to Moore's law.
Although Moore's Law was originally conceived of only as a way of measuring the increasing density of transistors on a microchip, it holds true for the general increase in processing power. If plotted against time to carry out instructions, Moore's Law has been going at least since the beginning of the last century- it did not start with computers or microprocessors.
"People have been claiming the law is about to break down every decade since it was formulated. But they've all been wrong" says Seth Lloyd, a physicist based at MIT who has studied how far Moore's Law has left to go within the limits of our current understanding of science. (New Scientist magazine "The Last Computer." 2 Sep 00). His findings: Moore's Law has about 200 years left according to our current understanding of science.
But that's the speed of the machine. Are we getting more power out of the machine at anywhere near that rate? Considering that the mouse, windows, hypertext, teleconferencing and most of the other ways we interact with information through computers were invented and presented to the general public 32 years ago, do you feel that you're getting 65,536 (32 years of doubling every year and a half) times more power from your computer than was available back then? The machine has increased in power. Have you? Software can certainly do more thanks to the tremendously more powerful hardware, but can you?
At least computer games are taking advantage of the increased processing power, as discussed in PC Games vs. Word Processing 1984-2002 and shown below.
the internet explosion
A year after the appearance of the modern means of interfacing through computers, the Internet's precursor, the ARPANET, was born, in 1969, with the second machine connected being housed in the same facility where the interfaces were developed. Whereas the computers have exploded in information processing capacity, the Internet has exploded in information distribution capacity. The Internet is due to become more extensive than the telephone network in 2002 if not earlier, doubling in user population every 100 days (Interactive Week) adding users quicker than the worlds population is growing (7 new users a second whereas the worlds population increases by 3 people a second according to The International Herald Tribune). Takes your breath away.
It's not just more people coming online. It's more devices and more kinds of devices: Cars, PDAs, health bracelets, your fridge and your wallet. This means they are all connected. All the time. Imagine that. Your wallet talking to your fridge. Not so exciting. But your car talking to your engineer while you are driving before you have a breakdown. That's useful. How about your mobile phone telling your spouse where you are? Imagine your laptop's data synchronized with your server. Constantly. No worries if it's broken or stolen.
But with all these connections, what happens to security, privacy and reliability?
the communications explosion
The average US office worker is bombarded by 52 phone calls, 36 email messages, 23 voice mails, 18 letters, 18 interoffice letters, 14 faxes, 13 Post-Its, 8 pager messages, 4 mobile phone calls and 3 express mail deliveries every day according to Intertec Publishing. That's a lot of communication and it's no surprise that's it becoming more and more digital. By the end of 1999, there were 569 million email accounts worldwide (Messaging Online). At least 40 percent of Americans use email as of 2000.
Dealing is taking its toll: Stress costs US industry $200-300 billion annually (Aaron Fischer "Is your career killing you?" Data Communications February 1998). The National Mental Health Association (US) reports that 75%-90% of all visits to physicians are stress related. Will the solution simply be a great new technology? The workers don't seem to think so. 40% want training to deal with the messages, but only 35% receive training in the UK (Mitel). Tools alone are proving not to be enough.
In short, the promise of computers augmenting our capability to deal with the worlds problems has simply not been realized. Instead of a new world of dynamic assistance and powerful tools, we are being overwhelmed more than helped by the very systems which promise to free us.
THE NANOTECHNOLOGY EXPLOSION
Add to this the coming age of nanotechnology. Take Moore's Law and embody it. Make is physical and imagine the consequences if we are to deal with the issues using current tools and organizations.
On less serious note, think of the great piano pieces written when they actually had to be played by a human. Years of study, endurance and skill matched with artistic flair was required to breathe the music out of the score. Today there are no such limitations, though live performances are valued for their immediacy and atmosphere. Yet computers can play any music which can be written, even adding some random faults and characteristics of a specific human pianist. More mundanely, the sounds born from the piano can be captured and replayed at will at fidelity so good that we cannot hear the difference.
What, do you suppose, this does for the creation of music? What does such freedom bring? How does it change how we create and how we perceive music? What has the computer revolution done for the creation of both still and moving images? For game-play? All the advances in human history which brings our mechanical capacity to process information doubles every year and a half. That is an exponential increase which is hard to see the next few steps of. But can we doubt they will come? Can we afford to be complacent, at a time when we have mapped the entire human genome (though it is 3 billion bits of information it fits comfortably on a laptop) and are about to embark on perpetual construction of independent machines built one atom at a time?
and what are we doing?
Are the promises of the computer revolution being realized? Is the power of networked computers being harnessed? Just compare Microsoft Word from the mid eighties with the Word of today. Remember the simple formatting and spell check functions? Hang on, what's better with the current Word? More buttons, more clutter. More efficient? Not much.
Then compare the simple computer games of the eighties with the near photorealistic games of today. And worry.
A word processor from 1984, Apple's MacWrite:
(please click to see full size)
And from 2004, Microsoft Word:
(please click to see full size)
Compare the tiny change in word processors to a game from 1984:
(sorry, this is full size)
with a game from 2004, Halo:
(please click to see the video clip play)