Computers

Paul Glister: Digital gadgetry, falling storage costs converge to reshape how past is viewed

June 16, 2013 

If taking photos is your thing, you’re probably aware that Yahoo is offering a free terabyte of storage on its Flickr site. In a world where 350 million photos a day flow to Facebook alone, Flickr may seem like just another photo-sharing service. But consider: A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes. The bigger news here is that a terabyte of free storage is now in range for companies aggressively promoting their wares, and that tells us a lot about the computing world today.

I’m remembering looking at a 1 GB hard drive for my original ThinkPad years ago and realizing it would cost me more than $1,000. Today I can buy 32 GB of storage on a thumb drive for substantially less than a dollar a gigabyte. We’ve gotten so accustomed to falling prices and increasing PC power that we take these trends for granted. Even so, storage has its limits as we pack ever more power into the world of the very small. What’s the limit on our digital memory?

Science fiction writer and futurist Charles Stross has looked at the question and found the answer in what we can call “memory diamond.” Stross reasons that we’re unlikely to go much smaller than manipulating individual atoms. So let’s do that: Some researchers believe we are entering the era of nanotechnology, where arranging atoms as we choose will become possible. With nanotech, we can imagine creating memory out of two distinct and stable isotopes of carbon, C12 and C13, transferring our digital data into archives of imperishable diamond.

Jaw-dropping numbers

Playing out the numbers going forward is jaw-dropping. Even without memory diamond, storing a second-by-second record of your life experience in video, audio and telemetry should cost you about $100 a year 10 years from now, assuming current trends continue.

In a couple of decades, a mere 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of memory diamond could carry a century’s worth of life data for the entire population of the planet even as the storage cost per person drops below $1.

We have no shortage of storage today, and we’ll have no shortage tomorrow. Now look at the converging technology. In Sweden, a company called Memoto offers a small camera that can clip onto your lapel. Wear the unobtrusive lens all day, and it will snap a photo automatically every 30 seconds, storing the images onboard or shipping them automatically to cloud storage. Memoto’s software can scan the imagery and reduce your day into a series of “moments,” each marked by an obvious change in scene. A set of 25 or so moments is your digital day.

Era of the ‘quantified self’

Have trouble associating faces with names? No problem. Wear the Memoto camera, and you can refresh your memory by looking at that colleague you met at a conference last week, zooming in to read her nametag. Trying to recall what bottle of wine you had at your anniversary dinner? The bottle is there in your stack of “moments,” along with the restaurant menu and images of the meal. This is “life logging,” and while it may strike some of us as bizarre, our children are going to flock to it as easily as they do to posting on Facebook.

We’re in the realm of what some are calling the “quantified self,” with people wearing digital gadgetry and using apps that record everything from the amount of calories they’re burning to the quality of their sleep. It offers a new way of looking at the past. No more grainy black-and-white photos or snatches of audio – our descendants will see their past second by second in high-definition color with sound. It’s a liberating and, in an era of intrusive data-mining, a frightening prospect. But whether we like it or not, it’s a future that’s being built all around us.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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