Zettabytes and the Digital Divide

Last week the BBC reported that as recently as the year 2000, 75% of the world’s stored information was in analog format, but by 2007 the tide had shifted to the point where 94% of stored information was now in digital form.

The Digital Divide in Action


The article didn’t say whether this was because so much analog information has now been digitized (doubtful) or because the quantity of digital information produced each year continues to expand exponentially (more probable).

The turning point came in 2002, when digital storage exceeded analog storage for the first time.  Researchers estimate that the total amount of stored data in the world is now in excess of 295 exabytes (For those of you scoring at home, an exabyte is 1 billion gigabytes) and that information being broadcast across the internet exceeds two zettabytes (1 zettabyte = 1000 exabytes).

But we knew that, kind of.

The real story comes in later in the article which reports that the “digital divide,” that is the gap between the information processing capabilities in the developed and developing world continues to increase. Some years ago there was great concern here in the US about the digital divide between rich and poor, or those with access to the information superhighway and those who without.  That issue has been vigorously addressed in recent years. In fact, last week, a story on NPR’s All Things Considered reported that the FCC was planning to change the recipients of the money collected from the Universal Service Fee on your phone bill from rural phone companies to internet providers in underserved areas. The near ubiquity of broadband access in the US has virtually erased the digital divide dilemma in most circles.

But the digital divide lives on in the rest of the world where, according to the BBC article, the gap in the communication capacity between the developed and developing world has doubled in the last five years.  Today, the average person in the US has a communications capacity 15 times greater than a person in a less developed country. Whatever that actually means, for archivists it means that, while we have entered the digital age, and now live there most of the time, we must remember that documenting underserved and developing communities will continue to be an analog process, or at best a process of understanding obsolete technology for a long time to come, and it may be our responsibility as archivists to give voice to these “hidden collections” by continuing to pursue projects that will preserve and transform material originally produced in these “old” formats, including paper, even after digitization is no longer the hot topic of the day.

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