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Hey Big Companies, Data Are Actual Things That Take Up Space

“Digital sprawl” is guaranteed to lead to our doom.

Sprawl blows. I've driven around this country long enough (with another one of those, you know, doomed indie rock bands) to know how it feels driving through endless miles of gas stations, malls, and poison-filled Chinese buffets. It feels bad. (It feels worse when your friend finds an intact chicken brain in his KFC during a routine pit stop. True story.)

Anyway, an article yesterday in Businessweek, entitled The Case Against Digital Sprawl by IBM developer Dave Turek, caught our attention because, well, it's interesting and packed full of some absolutely INSANE facts about just how out-of-control our data appetite is. Corporate people, pay attention: your IT infrastructure sucks. "Digital sprawl" is a new, scary phenomenon. The amount of data humans produce has multiplied by a profound fuckload over the past decade, as Turek specifies:


From the beginning of recorded time until 2003, humans created five billion gigabytes of information (five exabytes). Last year, the same amount of information was created every two days. By next year, IBM and others expect that interval to shrink to every 10 minutes. It is clear that to deal with all that data, we need new computing designs that solve the density dilemma.

These are astronomical amounts of data. He continues:

…Corporate data piles [are] now measured in exabytes (five exabytes is the equivalent of all the words ever spoken by human beings).

"Piles!?" And here's this little gem:

IBM estimates that the fixed costs of shuttling an exabyte of medical data for processing can easily approach $10 million.

Contrary to what some might assume are imaginary little 1s and 0s, data are actual things that take up space. Microchip technology, according to Turek, is getting heartily outpaced by the amount of data that consumers and corporations are creating and storing. The data have to go somewhere – and those "somewheres" are massive "data centers," which are actual brick and mortar things.

Data centers are expensive and inefficient, and their expensive inefficiency is compounded by the fact that, as Turek notes, smaller and more powerful chips mean hotter servers, and hotter servers mean more energy costs in order to cool them (this is why some firms want to move their data to Iceland…because it's colder there). That means data are also bad for the planet.


To avoid the dystopian future of sprawling, steaming piles of data centers (there's no incentive to make these places nice to look at), we need better storage technology. One potential data storage hero is graphene, which is an atomically razor-thin sheet of bonded carbon atoms. Graphene has been shown to have exceptional qualities of electrical conduction and resistance to heat, and could potentially have a role in data memory devices. (There are stirrings that it could replace silicon, but the jury's definitely still out on that.) Turek also mentions cloud computing and "new nano materials," that aid with chip-cooling, as new technologies that can reinvent dated IT methods.

So the next time I go on tour with my doomed band, I'd at least like to think that the sprawl I drive through can serve me up some greasy, noxious cheeseburgers, fill my gas tank, and provide me with some light reading about celebrities and their baby bumps or whatever. That's way better than driving by brick buildings that are there to house Ted Nugent's tweets. Finally, I ask you with sincere concern, please, for the good of the world economy and the health of the planet itself, do not add to the massive stinking data shit pile by commenting on this post.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @smickdougle

Lead image: Facebook’s main data center