Our relationship with endless data

When Gmail launched on April 1, 2004, many people actually thought it was an April Fool’s joke.

Reason? Gmail was offering 1GB storage space. For context, Yahoo Mail offered 4MB storage space at that time for free accounts, while Hotmail offered 2MB!

2MB and 4MB vs. 1GB!

Shortly thereafter, Yahoo was forced to increase the email storage to 100MB while Hotmail (which was then acquired by Microsoft and was being converted into Outlook) grudgingly started offering 25MB!

Now, in 2022, both Gmail and Microsoft Outlook offer 15GB, while Yahoo Mail offers 1TB!

Digital storage has caught up with hardware too. Our early phones had paltry storage space; now my OnePlus 9 has 128GB of which I have not even used 1/4th!

Another context: the first-ever song I downloaded from the internet was on November 8, 1998. It was ‘Pal pal dil ke paas’, from the 1973 Hindi film Blackmail, and in real media format. It was 362KB and it took me 4+ hours! 🙂

It’s clear that we are loving in the era of unlimited digital data and digital data storage.

This hasn’t manifested in the real world… yet. The real world still has physical limitations that stop us from hoarding an infinite number of anything. Then there is food, of course. Food is perhaps the only thing we humans are forced to say ‘enough’ to because the physical limits to what we can consume arrive very quickly!

But what of the impact of this digital unlimitedness?

Consider just one example: the photos we take with our phones.

Before cameras were added to phones, we had film roll cameras that allowed us to take about 36 photos on each 35mm film. So we were conscious of what we shot, and how we shot it. Wastage (of film, and hence money) was real, and that made is value both film rolls and what we chose to photograph.

Now, with phone cameras that come with 128GB of space, we do not need to care how often we take photos. Sure, we can shoot the same subject multiple times and delete the ones that don’t seem right. But, do we even delete? We don’t delete, we don’t print, we don’t even bother seeing the photos as often as we used to earlier because there are way too many to even see! When Google Photos or Facebook shows us some photos from the past under ‘This day, that year’, it becomes a time to realize some photo was indeed shot that day.

Another example: When digital data storage was offline, in-device (and not in the cloud), we stored them in a folder. Most of the kids perhaps don’t even know what a ‘folder’ is, either digitally or in the real world! We had a directory to know what was stored in the computer that used a nested directory structure to store and retrieve information. This applied even to our emails where we had folders to sort emails under.

Gmail’s endless storage broke that behavior and put search as the only way to find information. Search has made files, folders, and sorting outdated.

Even the OTT space could be an example. Many, many streaming platforms for videos and music, and we struggle to find what to watch! There are dedicated teams working hard on helping us decide what to watch or listen to.

To be sure, unlimited digital data and unlimited digital data storage are here to stay, despite the debilitating costs it has on the environment.

But this seemingly unlimited nature of both digital data and digital data storage also has an effect on the way we see digital information. The utility value of digital data/information is perhaps also at its lowest.

There is just so much of everything. Even if it is not, if it’s digital, it can be replicated instantly and it becomes a lot instead of just one. We are the digital data hoarding generation and to us, what is truly valuable is perhaps hiding in one of the many digital dumps that we own in one of the many online services. We need to depend on those services to help us identify what is truly valuable to us!

We have been trying to force-fit ‘value’, however. Consider the Stories feature on social media platforms like Snapchat or Instagram. They force us to view them because of the artificial scarcity concocted for that feature – they will expire in 24 hours only because they have been programmed that way and not because of any other meaningful reason.

Another example of this artificial scarcity was a popular app in early 2021, called Dispo, that you take photos with, has no filters of any sort (thankfully), but you need to wait till 9 am the next day to see your photos being developed in the form of a ‘film roll’. Why? Because it has been programmed that way, that’s about it.

There was even a social media platform called Minus that lets you post only 100 posts. For life! Why only 100? Because that’s the whole idea!

In a way, we seem to be finding ridiculously silly ways to force ourselves to an earlier period in time when there was scarcity. The Stories feature is like writing what we thought on a piece of paper, passing it on to a lot of people till someone crumples it and throws it into the garbage. The Dispo app is akin to using the dial-up connection to access the internet even when a 1gbps connection is available.

Is there a way out of this at all? Would we ever value digital data or digital data storage when it is available in abundance and doesn’t seem to be stopping or slowing down?

One possibility is that there would be a physical limit to this so-called endless digital data. Google has capped the limit to 15GB. If you need more, you need to pay. Most digital platforms have moved to a free + paid model already. So, economic costs are one filter that could help us take our digital data hoarding seriously and do something about it. But then, if the cost of digital data is relatively cheap, we may end up on the same bandwagon all over again – just that instead it being free endless data, it’d be cheap endless data.

But besides economic costs, what else could help us value what we store digitally in the endless cloud servers?

My only hope is that at some point in the near future, getting what we need, from a mountain of data, would become more difficult than what advances in search could reasonably help. I do agree that it sounds implausible given how much effort is going in the direction of search, tagging, metadata, and information retrieval that even starts to use natural language queries.

But this has always been the holy grail of Google – getting what we need based on our query. Even now, you search Google and for any given query, it tells you that you have a gazillion results, and all we can do is pray that we get what we need within the first 2-3 search results page. You know that famous joke: the best place to hide a dead body is on page 2 of Google search results.

On a smartphone or on Google Photos, that means having way more photos than what we can reasonably expect a bot to find for us based on a query. Sounds implausible? I’m counting on it. Perhaps then we may start approaching data storage differently. Not necessarily going back to nested directories and sub-directories, but some other method that would make us see the value in the endless amounts of data we are creating and storing for accessing someday.



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