I don’t usually stray far from the theme of sustainability, but a friend sent me a recent article from Science about “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information.” It’s in the April 12th issue. [Sorry I can’t give you the link as I am not a subscriber.] The last paragraph summing up the article is very striking. Here it is.

To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4 � 10E18 instructions per second that humankind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second (10E17). The 2.4 � 10E21 bits stored by humanity in all of its technological devices in 2007 is approaching an order of magnitude of the roughly 10E23 bits stored in the DNA of a human adult, but it is still minuscule as compared with the 10E90 bits stored in the observable universe. However, in contrast to natural information processing, the world’s technological information processing capacities are quickly growing at clearly exponential rates.

Don’t obsess on the numbers. All those PCs, Supercomputers, and other computing devices together can’t match one human brain for processing power. I can stop worrying about IBM’S Watson doing much more than winning at Chess or Jeopardy. This data raises questions for me about the precision of current neuroscience’s brain scan. Yes, people can locate the portion of the brain that lights up when stimulated, but there are still gazillions of possibilities in that part.
After a little reflection, I can see a connection to sustainability, however slight it is. With all that computing power of our brains and all the possibilities available in the ways we connect the switches, how come we keep on acting in hurtful ways to ourselves, others and the Earth? Maybe much of that power is in an inactive mode, waiting to get turned on. We better find a way to do that quickly.

One Reply to “Incidental information”

  1. John,
    You ask a powerful question; one that I am often asked as a psychology/sustainability practitioner. I have struggled for a good answer.
    Last year, National Geographic magazine featured a fascinating essay by E.O. Wilson, which dealt with the complexity of life within just a square foot of the Earth’s crust. The amount of life contained in the Earth’s soil is mind-boggling. Of course, most of it is imperceptible to humans because of the physical limitations of our perceptual systems.
    So, I think we have been unable to address environmental degradation, not because we are not capable, but because we cannot perceive most of what is going on. Our input channels are “mute” to the disruptions in the living fabric caused by human “progress”.

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