Most modern humans are now attempting to cram more data into their heads in a single day than most of our ancestors did during entire lifetimes. In the 15 minutes it takes you to read this essay, the amount of information being generated by the human race will have expanded by about 20 petabytes, equivalent to about three times the amount of information currently in the Library of Congress, or about one-half of all written works from the beginning of recorded history in all languages. The world’s total data is doubling every two years.

It’s not just what humanity is collectively generating that’s overwhelming us; it’s what we, as individuals, attempt to digest daily. Every year we try to cram in, read, understand, and remember at least 5 percent more words than the year before. That means that instead of coping with a mere 100,000 words per day five years ago, we are now coping with more than 130,000--plus billions of compounding bits. Even what used to be the calming act of looking at the stars has been transformed: Within weeks of its launch, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey satellite collected more astronomical data than had all of mankind in its entire history.

From 'I Think I'm Sure' to 'I Know and Can Prove It'

We are shifting from a world in which we “know,” because we sampled a little and extrapolated a lot, into a world in which we know--where all data is collected, analyzed, and stored. We are all becoming citizens of the new realm of truly Big Data.

As we transition from sampling and polling to having a complete census of enormous data sets, we also transition from “I think I’m sure” to “I know it, and I can prove it.” For instance, Google has created a census of every word published since 1500. We now know exactly who used more than 500 billion words, in more than five million books. And we can trace the specific use, frequency, and context of every one of those words and phrases. Thus we know the words love and war battled for frequency of usage from 1800 through 1914. (Love usually triumphed.) Since 1914, war has been the overwhelming victor. And the word sex? For better or worse, it’s been steadily gaining on the ever-declining use of love.

All of this is taking place within a massive and explosive evolution in how we use, store, and transmit information. In 1986, only 6 percent of the world’s data was digital, and www was still three years away. There was no Google. Today, more than 99 percent of the world’s written words, images, music, and data are transmitted in the two-letter Boolean alphabet of 1s and 0s. Other than perhaps the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, no event in human history has ever generated as much wealth and changed as many lives as this transition into a digital world.

The Electronic Tattoo You Can't Erase

According to the global market intelligence firm IDC, in 2011 we played, swam, wallowed, and drowned in 1.8 zettabytes of data. (A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes; that’s a 1 with 21 zeros trailing behind it.) IDC Digital notes that if you were inclined to store this data on 32-gigabyte iPads, you would need only 86 billion devices--just enough to erect a 90-foot-high wall 4,000 miles long from the bottom of your shoes to the center of the Earth. Today, a street fruit stall in Mumbai can access more information, maps, statistics, academic papers, price trends, futures markets, and data than a U.S. President could only a few decades ago.

(continued) Lest all this seem a little abstract and distant from your daily life … then imagine Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media as electronic tattoos. They are very different from yesterday’s ink tattoos. At once trivially easy to apply as well as seemingly painless, these new tattoos can also be far longer lasting and potentially more damning.

Every time we blog, tweet, Facebook, or Google, or visit Amazon, LinkedIn, Meetup, or Foursquare, or upload a video to YouTube, we leave little marks, some more visible than others, of who we are, whom we are with, and what we like. We electronically tattoo ourselves, our preferences, our lives, in a far more comprehensive and nuanced way than any inked skin.

Mostly self-designed and self-inflicted, electronic tattoos are so easy to copy, reproduce, spread, store, and retrieve that they will likely long outlive our bodies. In a very new way, these brandings will make us immortal tomorrow … and inescapable today. Tattoos are serious. Every parent knows this; most kids do not. Once inked, a tattoo is a lifelong commitment to a culture, cause, person, passion, hatred, or love. Once inked, there is no hiding, and it is hard, if not impossible, to change sides. Tattoos publicly advertise membership, fidelity, dedication, love, hate, and--often--stupidity. Beware, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame may now turn into an unbearable eternity.

Redirecting the Course of Evolution

Immortality and Big Data are linked in other ways as well. One of the fastest-growing, and most interesting, aspects of Big Data is at the intersection of the digital and the biological. We’ve come very far, very quickly: A decade ago, reading the code of a single genome was a historic breakthrough. This year, we will decode thousands of individual genomes. When Steve Jobs had the genes of his cancer tumor and of his normal DNA sequenced a few years ago, it was done in a specialized lab and cost more than $100,000. Today, the cost of DNA analysis has plummeted to under $10,000, and with a simple spit test sent to a lab and $299, you can have your DNA analyzed for your health and ancestry.

As we standardize, even trivialize, the coding of life--increasingly not just gene by gene, but entire genomes at a time--we will inevitably also change every carbon-based industry, including energy, medicine, chemicals, biotech, and agriculture. This may seem an outlandish claim, but imagine your reaction had someone come to you in the late 1970s or early ’80s and told you that your work, play, education, entertainment, and citizenship would be forever transformed by a worldwide web of invisible, incredibly fast wireless digital networks connected to devices smaller than your wallet or perhaps implanted under your skin.

(continued) Having the data is only the beginning. As we know more and more about life, the universe, and all other subjects, as we double the amount of data generated by all humans within the next five years, we can begin to model, build, and scale to the point where we directly and deliberately guide the evolution of ourselves and many other species.

In 2010, three scientists--Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, and John Glass--programmed a computer with a basic genetic sequence. Then robotic arms assembled this specific code using the four building blocks of DNA (adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine). It was a little like building a very complicated, very tiny Lego-like structure. By the end they had constructed the world’s largest organic molecule. After discovering how to get this life program into a cell, the trio found it could turn one species into a different species. Some called it the world’s first synthetic life form, but it is really the first fully programmable life form.

Overwhelming the System With Data

As programmable cell platforms like these begin to act, and be programmed, like computer chips, we can make fuels or chemicals, absorb excess carbon, develop miniature vaccine factories, change the growth cycles of plants, regrow organs, and extend the human life span substantially. As we bring together Big Data and life sciences, this will drive further discovery, as well as the world’s economy, which in turn will drive unimaginable amounts of new data. MIT’s Sebastian Seung, who creates 3-D images of mouse brains, estimates that moving from current MRI machine resolution to light microscopy resolution will require increasing storage, per brain image, from one megabyte to a petabyte. But for us to truly understand the connections between neurons, we will need to use an electron microscope, meaning that each of our brains will generate a zettabyte-scale file.

So when we talk about Big Data and where it’s headed, remember: All of humanity, thus far, has generated 1.8 zettabytes of data in history--roughly the equivalent of the image of an entire human brain.

We are barely at the cusp of the Big Data-life sciences revolution, and we are already running out--of bandwidth, of storage, of space. Every day, FedEx trucks arrive at facilities around the globe to deliver hard drives by sneakernet, because it’s faster and cheaper to ship a big hunk of iron from China or Bangalore to Silicon Valley than to stream that data through painfully clogged pipes. Even the cloud, as we know it, could be overwhelmed by life sciences data accumulating 50 percent faster than we can store it. These challenges will, in turn, breed enormous new companies and breakthroughs.

Big Data started as a series of small waves but is morphing into the greatest tsunami of information that humans have ever seen. What we choose to do with all of this new data may lead to one of the biggest adventures of all time.                                                        

From The Human Face of Big Data, created by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt. © 2012 Against All Odds Productions. All rights reserved. Used by permission.