Voices of Digital Communities

The Zettabyte Era - Or Why the Future Is Never Like the Past

Listen to the podcast The future is never like the past.  Which is a darned shame, because we naturally base our vision of the ...

by / August 31, 2009

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The future is never like the past.  Which is a darned shame, because we naturally base our vision of the future on past experience.   

The past, of course, has much to teach us.  History is not bunk, no matter what Henry Ford said.  But as the present unfolds into the future, it always charts a fresh course.  That course may be a lot like the course it has charted in similar circumstances for hundreds or thousands of years.  But the differences are always there and they do add up.

When I was my youngest daughter's age, "connectivity" meant postal mail and the telephone.  Contrast that with her summer semester in Rome this year.  Within 24 hours of her arrival, I was video-chatting with her on her boyfriend's Mac. 

It made me think of a report published by Cisco a year ago.  It was called Approaching the Zettabyte Era .  What's a zettabyte?  A byte is a unit of computer code.  It is equal to one number or letter of the alphabet.  When you look at file sizes on your computer, you usually see units of 1,000 bytes or kilobytes.   When I first started using a computer, back when they were still making them out of stone and wood, a computer file of 200 or 300 kilobytes was a big file.  Today, a big file is measured in megabytes or millions of bytes.   

A zettabyte is a million billion megabytes.  It's a really big number.  But according to Cisco, global Internet traffic will exceed half a zettabyte in the year 2012.  They should know, since they sell the technology that runs it all.  The Internet will be 75 times larger in 2012 than it was in 2002, because global IP traffic is doubling every two years.   

This will happen because the way we use the Internet is changing.  In 2008, about one quarter of consumer Internet traffic was video.  Cisco expects that to grow.  By 2012, the volume of Internet video will be 400 times what the total US Internet backbone carried in 2000.  The company expects that growth to happen in three waves.  The current YouTube-style explosion will see online video traffic grow by 600% from 2007 to 2012.  The next wave will be the delivery of Internet video to TV screens.  If you have a Tivo digital recorder, it will already let you watch YouTube video on your TV.  The third wave, beyond 2015, will be video communications: the "vidphone" that has been a staple of science fiction for decades.  Cisco is already doing it in a big way with their Telepresence system.  But I'll tell you one thing: it's going to have to be of a lot better quality than my herky-jerky video-chats with my daughter this summer. 

There are two things you can take away from this blizzard of forecasts.  First, of course, is to keep in mind that they are forecasts.  Nobody really knows how the Internet's culture of use will evolve.  For years, I've been wondering something.  When the teenagers of the first great online boom grow up and have to work for a living, will they still have the same appetite for online video, games, iTunes, social networks and all the other stuff they have pioneered?  I don't know.  I just know that, by the time you finish a day's work, make dinner and put the kids to bed, there's not that much fuel left in the engine.

The other thing to take away is that the future may actually turn out the way Cisco describes it - or at least something like it. In which case, whatever broadband assets your community has are going to become old-fashioned really fast.  Whatever training you are offering to students and adults needs to adapt and grow.  We will be living increasingly digital lives - which increases the odds that vital parts of your community will be left out, damaging your culture and limiting opportunities for growth.  And the innovators in your community, who have to deal with all this change?  They are going to have to run all the harder to keep up.

Anyway, that's how it seems to me, based on past experience.  But then, we know one thing about the past.  The future is never quite like it. 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.