My now old second generation Kindle, the electronic book reader made by Amazon.com, has a about 1.5 gigabytes of space that is available for storing the books that I purchase for it. How many books can I fit into this device that is only about five and a half inches wide, by eight inches tall, by less than half an inch thick—and which weighs about the same as a single paperback book? It can hold the contents of 1500 books averaging about 300 pages each.
I have an office in my home which is lined on all the walls, floor to ceiling, with bookcases. The room is about ten feet by ten feet. Those shelves hold about that many books on them. Moving those books would be very unpleasant: I would have to fill dozens of cardboard boxes and would work up quite the sweat hauling them around. Each fifty pound box, perhaps two by two feet in size, would hold at best fifty or so books. I obviously would not carry even one such a box around with me when I went to the doctor’s office. But I can easily carry my Kindle, with the contents of my whole office, anywhere I go.
And if I finish all the books I currently have on my electronic book reader? Kindle allows me to find and purchase any of more than three hundred thousand books wirelessly. They range in price from free to less than twenty dollars; most are cheaper than a paperback. I can purchase a book and download it to my device any time night or day, wherever I happen to be: in my house, at the park, on the beach, riding in a car or sitting in my doctor’s office. Within sixty seconds after pushing the button that says “purchase” I can start reading.
Thanks to digital technology, we can cram an incredible amount of information into remarkably small spaces. I have in my pocket what’s sometimes called a thumb drive; it is smaller than a tube of lipstick. It has twice the storage capacity of my Kindle. I have a small netbook computer about the size and weight of a hard back book. It has a hard drive with a 160 gigabyte capacity—more than eighty times the capacity of my Kindle: it could store at least 120,000 books—more than the number of books you’ll find in most public libraries.
The Library of Congress is currently the largest library in the world, with about 530 miles of shelving. It holds about 130 million items, of which 29 million are books. It has been estimated that if all those books were put into digital format, they would fit in on about 20 terabytes worth of hard drive space. A terabyte is about 1000 gigabytes. Today, many desktop computers that can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars come with a 1 terabyte hard drive. However, it is now possible to find some with 2 terabyte hard drives for not much more. Thus, all the books in the Library of Congress currently sitting on 530 miles of shelves would fit on on ten desktop computers that would easily fit in my office at home. Doubtless within the next five years or so it will be possible to buy a single desktop computer that has a big enough hard drive in it to contain all the books in the Library of Congress, with room to spare.
The amount of information available on the internet is literally astronomical by comparison to the contents of the Library of Congress, however. Just now, there are over 500 billion gigabytes worth of information on the internet. If all that digital content were printed and made into books, it would form a stack that would stretch from the Earth to Pluto ten times—that is, about thirty billion miles. In fact, the world’s digital output is increasing so rapidly every day that if it were instantly being converted into books, that stack would grow faster than a space shuttle could zoom.
Of course, not all that digital content is particularly interesting. Much of it would be email, twitter feeds, Facebook pages, cat videos, and porn. Still, the amount of information available on the internet is remarkable. Google is currently digitizing all the books it can get its hands on—thousands of them a year—and putting them on the internet where they can be easily accessed.
Thanks to high speed connections, both wired and wireless, you don’t even need to have gigabytes or terabytes worth of storage in your computer. On a small handheld device like a cell phone, one can access all that astronomically massive amount of data anywhere and anytime you happen to be. In our pockets, we now have at our disposal the knowledge of the human race: we can read any book, find any answer to any question we might have, any time that we might take a notion to find out. I can stream music from the cloud and listen to anything that has ever been recorded. With Netflix or Amazon Prime, or Hulu, I can select from thousands upon thousands of television shows and movies any time I take a notion to watch them.
Though most of the time, all people do with that wonderful opportunity in their pockets is to play solitaire, text emoticons, or look at cat videos.