on artificial space

what’s a byte worth nowadays?

A couple of weeks ago I was in the midst of a late night; I was editing two separate podcasts: an episode of my own podcast, as well as an episode of my sister’s podcast. I sat down to edit her podcast first, after a full day at work; after an hour and a half of careful scrubbing, consulting my sister’s edit asks, and actual edits, I had slashed an hour and 45 minutes of material to an hour and six minutes.

I went to save the file to disk. For some strange reason, I wasn’t able to save the file to an MP3 format (note: some audio pros will vilify me for bouncing to MP3 — apologies — I had my reasons), so I opted to save to WAV format. The resulting file was 1.4 gigabytes. It would have taken four hours to upload it to Google.

As I figured out a way to convert this massive WAV file to a smaller format, it struck me that it wasn’t long ago that a gigabyte wasn’t even in the mainstream vernacular. Even five years ago, a gigabyte still seemed so massive that you couldn’t dream of filling an external hard drive of that size. But now, in 2016, a gigabyte is as common as kilobyte was 20 years ago.

I was in my late childhood when the personal computer began to take flight. I saw the internet evolve from slow, tedious dial-up to broadband. The first modern computer that my family owned had a 812-Megabyte hard drive. Compared to today, 812 megabytes is a drop in the bucket; it’s a small collection of songs, and that hard drive wouldn’t have been able to fit anything else.

As we progress forward into higher and higher technological realms, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a limit to how much artificial space we can create. Will gigabytes be reduced to microns the way it was with bytes? Will we ever run out of space? Can we create a file so large that no hard drive in the world will ever contain it?

With the rise of cloud-based computing, it might be that we won’t ever run out of disk space. The days of seeing a dialog box with the message “Hard Disk is full” are long gone. Got a big file? Just save it to the cloud. No need to take up valuable real estate on your local computer.

Perhaps, however, this notion of never running out of space is a false sense of security. Maybe there is a limit to just how many artificial documents we can create and store in a space that we can’t see, touch, feel, or taste; we just aren’t aware of it yet. But if we ever reach that limit, would we realize it, or would we just create more space?

It will be interesting to see what becomes the standard measurement of data in the next decade. Soon, we might be seeing storage media measured in peta- and exabytes, and gigabytes will become small potatoes.