100 zetabytes

The inhabitants of Zeewolde (the place in the Netherlands where I have now lived for about 13 years) realize more than ever that they are part of a digital world. The recent municipal elections have everything to do with that. Meta–the parent company of Facebook–made a deal with the Zeewolde administration to build in our town the largest data center in Europe. Part of the more than 160 hectares of land needed for this purpose is already in Meta’s possession. In the recent municipal elections the construction of this gigantic data center was the main issue. The two parties which were strongly opposed to it emerged as the glorious winners of the elections, and they are now doing all they can to reverse the deal with Meta. It remains to be seen how this will develop. Meta has called for a pause in the process.

Data centers have a lot in common with airports, wind turbines and large fields of solar panels. Most of us realize that they are part of our current world. These things have to be somewhere, but we don’t want them in our back yard. However, data centers are here to stay and most of us, whether we realize it or not, use them on a daily basis.

I got my first computer in 1987. It was a desktop IBM clone from the Far East. The church office in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, where I was working at the time, had bought a load of these devices. To say that they were high-maintenance would be a formidable understatement. At first, they did not yet have a hard disk and all data had to be stored on separate 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. The next version, that soon came along, had a storage capacity of (if I remember correctly) 2 megabytes (2 million bytes). I am writing this blog on a MacBook Air that is over three years old. This already somewhat outdated device has a storage capacity of 250 GB (equal to 250,000 megabytes). That may seem like a lot, but I recently had to deal with a serious lack of space and decided to reduce the number of emails that is stored on my hard disk from about 35,000 to “only” 8,000.

We have become accustomed to producing a lot of data. Our i-phones hold hundreds or even thousands of photos. We constantly watch YouTube videos, which of course have to be stored “somewhere”. Often without knowing exactly what they mean, people talk about the “cloud,” where they keep most of their data. Many people (probably also in Zeewolde) do not realize that this “cloud” is not above us in the atmosphere, but has the form of big warehouses full of computers: the so-called data centers.

Perhaps the politicians in my hometown can postpone the arrival of the data center for a while, but we are dealing with a global development that is no longer under our control. In total there are now about eight thousand data centers worldwide, which together consume a gigantic amount of electricity and produce huge amounts of heat. The latter is, in particular, a problem that my hometown has not yet thought through properly. The administration of our town does not yet know what they are going to do with all that heat.

The amount of digital info that needs to be stored somewhere is rapidly increasing every year. In 2010 it amounted to 2 zetabytes. Now–just a dozen years later–the amount of data to be stored has grown to about 100 zetabytes. I was shocked when I tried to get an idea via Google of how much that is. A zetabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. One zetabyte is equal to 1,000 exabytes, one billion terabytes, or one trillion gigabytes.

The amount of data to be stored continues to grow exponentially. Every day in our world we send over 300 billion emails and 500 million tweets. Within a few years, it will be twice what it is today. The number of data centers will also continue to grow at a steady pace. Human beings have unleashed something that is out of their control. We do know that much of these data has, in fact, no value, and that we–to put it bluntly–are storing an infinite amount of garbage.

Involuntarily, while writing this blog, I was reminded of a text in Psalm 147, where God is described as the Administrator of the perfect data center of the universe. “Great is our Lord and supreme, his understanding is beyond measure.” (vs. 5). “He determines the number of the stars; He calls them all by their names” (vs. 4). An Australian study concluded that the number of stars in the universe is 70,000 million million million (that is: 70 with 22 zeros). God alone knows the exact number, and He knows them all by name. People often think that human technology and knowledge has no limit. But it doesn’t amount to much, compared to the “unmeasurable insight” of the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.