Taking A Byte Out Of The Internet

Feb 1, 2015

A “bit” is the smallest unit of digital information. Put 8 bits together and you get a “byte”. Amass a billion bytes and you have a “gigabyte”. A thousand gigabytes is a “terabyte” (TB), which is the storage capacity of the hard drive in an average desktop computer today. Now imagine a billion 1TB hard drives. Together, all of those hard drives have the storage capacity of 1 zetabyte. 

Every email and text we send, every picture and video we take, every Twitter and Facebook posting we make—all of it is stored out in “the cloud”.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Today, it’s estimated that all the information that’s available on the World Wide Web is in the neighborhood of 4 zetabytes, which would require 4 billion 1TB hard drives to store it all. The average hard drive is an inch thick. Stack all of those hard drives on top of one another and the tower you’ve created shoots out into space more than a quarter of the way to the moon.

The reason for this astronomical amount of data storage is that we’re storing everything. The data systems we’ve developed have a storage bias. They’re architected with the underlying premise of retention. Every email and text we send, every picture and video we take, every Twitter and Facebook posting we make—all of it is stored out in “the cloud”, that ethereal non-place out in cyberspace that we cannot touch, or smell, or see.

But the cloud is a very real place too because all of that storage capacity is made up of millions of computers in massive data centers all over the world. All of those zetabytes are stored on hard drives spinning away 24/7/365.

In addition to that is data backup and replication. Data isn’t just stored on one hard drive because that hard drive is eventually going to crash. Data gets backed up to other hard drives. It gets replicated to other high-availability computers in the cloud so that when one of those computers crashes, the data is still seamlessly available. The data systems we’ve architected are not only designed to store everything, but to never lose any data. Ever.

“Everyone is so excited about the cloud,” said Howard Lerman, co-creator of an app called Confide, in a recent interview in the New York Times, “but the cloud is really a drunken Xerox machine making copies of pretty much everything that everyone has said anywhere and spewing it all over the place.”

It’s Happy Hour at The Cloud and we’re all drunk on data.

Folks like Lerman want to begin deleting data out of the cloud (a.k.a. the Internet) one byte at a time. Confide is a secure messaging app that enables users to send messages via a smartphone to one another that are deleted as soon as they’re read.

When a Confide message arrives on your phone, you can’t even see the text until you run your finger beneath each line. This prevents users from taking screen-shots of your message and saving it as a picture. When you’re done reading a message, it breaks apart into bits and disappears, graphically simulating what is (supposedly) happening on a computer’s hard disk out in the cloud.

Lerman and his partner Jon Brod, created Confide for secure messaging. Data destruction is a secondary effect of that.

“For you to be truly secure, the stuff that you say shouldn’t be lying around in one place you have no control over,” said Lerman. “It used to be, 20 years ago, that the stuff you said in conversation would be gone. That’s not true anymore.”

That’s because more and more of our conversations, both personal and business-related, are not face-to-face conversations, but digitally brokered communications passing through the conduit of the cloud—and being stored there forever whether we want it to or not.

Perhaps the first app architected for data destruction rather than retention was SnapChat, which allows users to share pictures and short videos with one another that are then deleted. Released in 2013, SnapChat is designed for spontaneity not preservation for posterity. When you send a Snap to a friend, they have to tap and hold their finger on it to view it for up to 10 seconds. Then, by default, it’s gone.

The development of apps like SnapChat and Confide signal the beginning of a new communications paradigm that doesn’t have a storage bias, one that’s designed to delete rather than retain and replicate. Some of this will be driven by increased public awareness of security and privacy concerns as stories of hacked companies, such as Sony, and invasions of privacy and leaked email and photos of celebrities and politicians continue to make the headlines.

But I think more than that will be the Millennial Generation’s attitude toward data. Their generation—those born between 1980-2000—is the first generation to grow up amidst the digital data deluge of the cloud. They use email sparingly, if at all. It seems that the older the technology and the more storage-oriented it is, the less they use it. They’re opting to use SnapChat to interact rather than other cloud-based social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They’re more inclined to throw away data rather than keep it.

I’ll admit that my evidence for this trend is purely anecdotal. While I’m no expert on digital trends, I do have two teenage daughters and work at a high school where I get to be an anthropologist observing and studying the natives’ behavior in the wild.

Their backlash against the “keep everything” mentality and desire for only keeping that which is relevant and important might run deeper than I initially suspected. A former student, who is now in business school, contacted me recently to bounce an idea he had for an app for one of his school projects.

“Basically, it’s similar to Twitter,” he explained, “but there’s a built-in expiration on the posts. They automatically disappear from your feed and get deleted unless enough of your followers vote to keep the post alive because they deem it to be worthy of saving.”

It’s an idea worth keeping.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.