Finding new numbers to describe the accumulation of knowledge

Spread the love


By Dr. Jay Lehr

This article is sourced from Mark Mills new book The Cloud Revolution: How the convergence of new technologies will unleash the next economic boom and a roaring 2020s.

Physical libraries have been the principal repositories of information since at least the great library of Alexandria about 250 BC. It was thought to house at least half a million volumes.

This concentration of information and knowledge gave the city both political and economic power. It attracted the geniuses of the world including Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes.

Before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, it took scribes up to 4 months to reproduce a book, that could only travel at the speed of a horse. Knowledge took a Great Leap Forward when books could be produced 200 times faster, but it would be nearly 500 years before the next revolution combined the rotary steam powered printing press with the chemistry revolution that created the pulp paper that oenabling the rate of physical information production to soar 1000 fold.

Historians think formal numbering began around 4000 BC but previously the Egyptians actually had a word which stood for a million, a million of what is very surprising. The expanding scales of consumption and services in societies have required the use of a familiarity with big numbers.

Creating names for big numbers roughly tracks history’s expansion in what we can measure and count.. If you are not familiar with the system we use, it is simply that we generate a new prefix to a number when it increases 1000 times.

The “kilo was first assigned to 1000 things late in the 18th century, followed by 1000 kilos which is a “mega” number developed late in the 19th century. In 1960 we adopted “giga” for billions of things and “tera” for a trillion things. In 1975 1000 giga was named to be a “peta” then 1000 peta was coined as an “exa” and the zetta is a 1000 exa.

Don’t even bother to remember all this; even Mark Mills in his wonderful book had trouble keeping it straight. At best use a cheat sheet like the folks at the check out counter of your grocery store to calculate the tax on your food bill.

Annual food and mineral production is now counted in millions of tons, people and their devices capacity is counted in billions of units, airway and highway usage of trillions of collective miles.

Electricity and natural gas in trillions of kilowatt hours or cubic feet; economies in trillions of dollars, but at a rate of a trillion of anything per year it takes a billion years to total a “zetta”. Get the picture.

We now live in a time where astronomically greater scale in information acquisition is obvious. But the sheer magnitude of information accessible today and in our near future is one of the key triggers for this consequential phase change in information.

Our older generation was educated primarily by books and the printed page while the young learn from their many devices. But surprisingly to some the digital library has not eliminated the desire for books.

More books are being sold than ever, tens of billions Mark Mills tells us with 3 billion sold in the US. Hardcover books have now even outdistanced e-books.

MIT computer scientist J.C. Licklider was hired by the Library Council in 1962 to write a report on the Future of Libraries.

They correctly anticipated that the future was more in computer storage in the cloud than on book shelves. Organizations of every kind are shifting to the cloud for most applications because it is a lower cost means not just to store data, but to process and secure it in addition to eliminating on-site physical and maintenance tasks.

In 2006, Clive Humby, a British mathematician, coined the phrase that “data is the new oil” and indeed his analogy was prescient.

Petroleum fueled the combustion engines that created so many new kinds of services and products and drove the economic rise of the 20th century. Now we find that raw data is the fuel for silicon engines that are creating an even greater array of new products and services during the growth of our 21st century.

We create data by simply imagining what things we want to measure which turns out to be anything and everything. While all trends face eventual saturation, humanity is a very long way from any prospect of peak information supply. It is perhaps a limitless resource.

Note: Portions of this essay are excerpted from the outstanding book Cloud Revolution with Permission of the author Mark Mills and publisher Endeavor Books.


  • Dr. Jay LehrDr. Jay Lehr
  • CFACT Senior Science Analyst Jay Lehr has authored more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 36 books. Jay’s new book A Hitchhikers Journey Through Climate Change written with Teri Ciccone is now available on Kindle and Amazon.