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October 13, 2009

The Energy of Information

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Is the energy content of information increasing? As a Technologist it is very interesting to me that in the twenty first century our world still prints newspapers and books on paper.  More amazingly, the computer printer market is booming especially in areas such as photo-printers.  In the late twentieth century it was predicted that by the next millennium, paper would be obsolete as a medium for sharing information... I'm pretty sure not everyone got that memo...

So what happened? We are now in a world where the internet almost completely permeates our environment including locations so remote, only a satellite link and solar-recharged batteries will work to power the nodes (think "Antarctica").  We have advanced social networking, file storage and even complete applications that exist solely in a nebulous cloud of computers spread across a vast infrastructure... and we still print out the map to a local restaurant on plain old paper.

My theory is that everything migrates to the lowest possible energy level and paper requires very little energy to provide information - it only requires a small amount of light to shine on it so a human can observe what is stored there. In fact it requires zero energy to store the information (or read it if it's in Braille) and potentially has a long retention life of several hundred years (not so for a DVD).

So paper is not such a bad medium for sharing information - mankind has been doing that for thousands of years.  But it has one major flaw... it is hard to update.  If you manufacture encyclopedias on paper, then the second you set the type for the printing, they are obsolete.  Information does not stand still.  It is fluid as our understanding of the universe expands and history moves behind us in time. And worse, information can be useless.  Think about a billion books randomly arranged in a gigantic library without a card catalog.  Even with an index, searching millions of pages of information for knowledge may never yield fruit. 

So is the energy content of information increasing? I would suggest it is.  As we accumulate more information, the energy required to store, search and display it increases - possibly exponentially with the quantity of information.  The amount of new information being created daily is unfathomable since people are sharing what they know more freely and indexing of that information has greatly improved.  Additionally, information that was previously in print is now being converted to share electronically increasing the energy that information requires.  Google did some math several years ago and predicted that even with the advance of computing power as it is, it would still take roughly 300 years to index all the information on the world-wide-web... Wow!  Guess how much energy that will take!  Till next time...