By Randall Niles
The universe of digital information created, captured, or reproduced in 2007 was 281 exabytes. This includes every Web site, e-mail, document, image, video, phone call, surveillance photo, banking transaction, store scan, and any other digital record you can imagine. Soon, this annual figure will be nearly 1,800 exabytes, representing a sixty percent compound annual growth rate.1
For those of us who missed this class, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes, a gigabyte is a billion bytes, and a byte is comprised of eight bits of binary code (each bit being a one or a zero). A byte represents the typical letter, number, symbol, or character you are reading in this article. The bits would be analogous to the digital atoms underlying the molecular structure of the byte.
If we look ahead to the digital universe of the near future, we can visualize (but probably not comprehend) 1,800 exabytes as 14,400,000,000,000,000,000,000 “atoms” of digital information competing for our attention in digital space!2
Are you overwhelmed yet?3
Information Explosion. During the Industrial Age (nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), information was relatively scarce, expensive, produced by institutions, and developed for consumption. Now, in the midst of the Information Age, information is virtually everywhere, usually free, created by individuals, and designed for interaction. We now produce more unique information each year than the total volume of information generated during the 5,000 years preceding it!
Not only is this new information produced and stored everywhere, we now have the technology to push fourteen trillion bits of information per second down a single strand of fiber optics. This means that information can ultimately reach anyone, anywhere, at any time. How did this happen? For those of us still using rotary phones and eight-track tapes, they call it The Internet.
The Internet Revolution. Nearly 1.6 billion people are now on the Internet. This worldwide figure is up from 360.9 million in 2000, representing a 342 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2008.4 In the U.S. alone, the Internet population grew to 190.7 million visitors by the end of 2008.5
According to the Pew Research Center, forty-six percent of U.S. adults were on the Internet and fifty percent owned a cell phone in 2000. Only five percent had broadband in the home and nobody had a wireless connection to the Web. By 2008, seventy-four percent of U.S. adults were on the Internet and eighty-two percent owned a cell phone. In addition, fifty-eight percent had broadband in the home and sixty-two percent had a wireless connection to the Web.6
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In 2008, U.S. Internet users performed nearly 137 billion searches across Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and AOL, representing a twenty-one percent increase over 2007. Google generated nearly eighty-five billion of these U.S. searches, accounting for nearly ninety percent of search query growth in 2008.7 In April 2009, Google continued its dominance of the U.S. search engine space with 64.2 percent of total search volume, followed by Yahoo (20.4 percent), MSN (8.2 percent), Ask (3.8 percent), and AOL (3.4 percent).8
The percent of time people spend communicating online has increased eighteen percent since 2006, while time spent on traditional entertainment declined twenty-nine percent during the same period.9 As I presented in a previous Viewpoint article,10 communication and entertainment is shifting to online tools such as social networks, blogs, microblogs, video channels, photo sharing, and other Web 2.0 media. According to a Harris Interactive Poll in April 2009, forty-eight percent of U.S. adults now have a page on Facebook or MySpace.11
So what? Aren’t Google, YouTube, and Facebook just delivering a bunch of irrelevant information, meaningless media, and narcissistic noise? As I indicated in my Viewpoint column, the Internet indeed has issues. However, it’s also the primary way that many people inform, investigate, and interact on the “big questions of life.” Ready or not, the Internet now plays a huge role in the delivery of spiritual information. If we’re not strategically engaged in the online marketplace of spiritual ideas (yes, including crazy worlds such as Google, YouTube, and Facebook) we will miss one of the greatest opportunities for the Great Commission in history…
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