Inside the Box: Too Much Information
In 1981, the English rock band The Police released their fourth studio album Ghost in the Machine, which contained several hit singles, including “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Spirits In The Material World”. That album also contained the less-known poppy Reggaesque song “Too Much Information”, which features Sting repeatedly belting out the song’s main lyrics with guitar riffs and horns pulsing to the backbeat of Stewart Copeland’s mechanical drumming:
Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane
The song is an odd melodic mixture of disruptive sounds accompanied by those repetitive trance-inducing lyrics that alternate between that opening salvo and the song’s only other verses:
I’ve seen the whole world six times over
Sea of Japan to the Cliffs of Dover
Over my dead body
“Too Much Information” didn’t become a hit and today has only had 3 million plays on Spotify as compared to “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” at 279 million. But some 40 years later, those lyrics strike me as being prophetic for the plight of us humans in the Information Age. We bombarded daily with information: news, emails, texts, pictures, videos, social media posts. The amount of information we are pummeled with is six times more than during the 1980s.
I’m old enough to remember a time when modern life was not like this. The evening news was on at 5:00 p.m. and lasted for an hour. If someone wanted to send you a written message, they wrote a letter and mailed it to you. If you wanted to read something, you read a newspaper that was delivered once a day or a book that was printed and stored in a place called a library. Movies were watched at movie theaters or were on VHS tapes (and later DVDs) that you had to go rent from a video rental store. If you wanted to listen to The Police, you or a friend had to have the record, or 8-track, or cassette tape. There was no cyberspace or social media, just real socializing in meatspace. No Facebook or Twitter. If you had something to say to someone, you said it directly to their face.
I recall this era not to be nostalgic, but to point out that before the Information Age, the rate at which information was being created and disseminated was much slower than it is today. The pre-Internet world was not necessarily a better world but it was one in which too much information wasn’t running through our brains and driving us insane. Perhaps Sting was the canary in the coalmine of the up and coming Information Age.
Ninety percent of all the information that has ever existed in recorded history was created in just the past 2 years.
According to a study done by the University of California San Diego, the average American daily consumes 34 gigabytes (GB) of information. That study was done back in 2009. That amount is most certainly more today and likely approaching the theoretical daily limit of 74GB. Today, we spend, on average, 12 hours of our day consuming digital information.
As a species, we are reaching information saturation. At the same time, the deluge of data being created is exponential. Ninety percent of all the information that has ever existed in recorded history was created in just the past 2 years. Currently, we’re cranking out data at a rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. That’s 1 billion gigabytes.
Today’s smartphones have an average storage capacity of 100GB, which means we’re generating enough data to fill up the storage of 10 million smartphones every day. If that sounds impossible and you’re envisioning the planet quickly becoming encased in smartphones, don’t worry. Most of that data is stored on millions of high-capacity hard drives whirring away in large data centers located all over the planet; one of the largest being the Google data center in Oklahoma estimated to be 980,000 square feet or 22.5 acres.
I don’t know what happens when we reach total information saturation but I suspect we’re probably not going to find out. We’ll likely continue to offload data processing to artificial intelligence (AI). We’ve already been doing that for some time now and this process will continue to accelerate as AI systems become more prevalent and increasingly sophisticated and capable.
In a future arriving perhaps as quickly as next year or next week or maybe even tomorrow, you will no longer read books. An AI system will summarize the most important points for you and answer any further questions you might have. In fact, the AI system will have written that book, which will no longer be a “book” in the traditional sense of how we think of books but a custom-written, just-in-time, curated knowledge artifact.
But that’s just the beginning of the seismic shift that will radically transform humanity as we leave the Information Age behind and dive headlong into the Age of AI, an era in which every human profession will initially become augmented by AI then eventually replaced by it. Whatever humans currently do as a profession will be done better by an AI computer system or an AI robot. No profession is immune—doctor, lawyer, teacher, artist, writer, pilot, actuary, software engineer, carpenter, plumber, electrician—all of them will be done better by an AI.
It’s difficult for me to imagine this and I don’t want to believe it. But it’s already happened and will continue to accelerate and expand into more and more professions until it is over me, over you, over everybody.