Bandwidth, storage make advances over medieval technologies!

Anyone who uses the internet (Wired magazine now advocates that we use a lower-case 'i') and has any sense of history feels awed by the advance in human communication it represents.

Here's where it fits in an exponentially accelerating rate of key milestones:
  • 50,000 years ago: origins of human language
  • 5,000 years ago: emergence of written language
  • 500 years ago: movable type enables the printing press in Europe
  • 50 years ago: ARPA initiates projects that evolve into the internet
  • 5 years ago (-ish): the W3C issues the XML specification as a recommendation

OK, that last milestone reflects my personal prejudice that XML is as significant an enabling technology for electronic written communication as movable type was for the printing press. More on that another day.

Another perspective on how far we've come is the increase of bandwidth of communication in the last 100 years or so. By 1928, telegraph transmission rates reached 2,800 characters per minute or 0.4 kbps. It was still faster to fly a copy of the New York Times across the Atlantic, a transmission rate that I estimate to be about 1.4 kpbs. Today of course electronic transmission of information is faster than any alternative by orders of magnitude.

In his fascinating survey of the history of letters, Alpha Beta, John Man presents the following data: In AD 500 the world was using perhaps 500 tons of paper for books. At the turn of the millenium that number had risen to 130 million tons. "Per person, we consume almost 20,000 times as much reading material as our medieval ancestors." Most of this material disappears within a day or a year.

But in electronic form, much more information can be stored indefinitely. This is only of value if you can find the information again, otherwise you have the proverbial "write-only database". Google seems pretty much on track to solve that problem and become the portal to all human knowledge. At least if full-text search and page rank are sufficient to find what we are looking for.

The next great challenge is to get information out of people's desktops and into the public realm. Did I mention XML above? More on this later...

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