We humans produce a frankly ridiculous amount of data, whether that's your dissertationfinalfinalfinal.docx word file containing what went on to be your rough first draft of your dissertation, or an adorable video of a panda sneezing.
In 2020, it was estimated that the world produced about 2.5 quintillion digital data bytes per day. By 2025, based on an estimated 61 percent compound annual growth rate for data, we could be producing around 175 zettabytes, or 1,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Bits.
So, what is the information catastrophe? Simply put, as outlined in a 2020 paper by physicist Melvin M. Vopson, the information catastrophe is when the number of bits we produce outnumbers our supply of atoms. Even when using fairly conservative estimates of growth, that date comes earlier than you'd like.
"Currently, we produce ∼1021 digital bits of information annually on Earth," Vopson wrote. "Assuming a 20 percent annual growth rate, we estimate that after ∼350 years from now, the number of bits produced will exceed the number of all atoms on Earth, ∼1050."
Assuming a growth rate of 50 percent puts the information catastrophe around 150 years in the future. Before that point, the planet (assuming no real and large scale expansion into the solar system) would have to go through another impossible milestone.
"About 110 years from now," Vopson wrote in the Conversation in 2021, "the power required to sustain this digital production will exceed the total planetary power consumption today."
This calculation rather generously assumes that "production of digital content" will take place at maximum efficiency, which is definitely not the case today.
"Hence, it appears that the current growth rate is unsustainable and digital information production will be limited in the future by the planetary power constraints."
Long before either point, the planet will have to grapple with the environmental issues involved in storing ever-growing volumes of data, and place some sort of limit on it. No, this is not some liberal plot to take away your data, it's just a fact that you can't store more information than you have the power to store.
Is there any way around the information catastrophe?
"If the number of bits grows larger than the number of atoms available on Earth," a 2023 paper on the topic suggests, "a straightforward solution is to obtain more atoms".
In short, if our data is to continue to grow at the rate we're enjoying, we can only really do so (in the long run) by moving off planet. As the 2023 paper, published in the journal Futures, suggests, there are a number of places in the solar system that are ideal for our data needs, particularly with regards to keeping data storage cool and getting it to run at maximum efficiency.
Though it may seem a far flung solution to our problems, the researchers argue that a lot could be achieved with only a modest amount of hardware.
"Future human technosphere spanning the cold and rich regions of both the inner and especially the outer Solar System is the best warranty of long-term survival of our species and all its values and creations," they conclude. "In the same time, it is the best shot for saving the planet itself and its non-human inhabitants, which are virtually certain to be the first victims of this, as well as of any other human-induced existential threat."
As far off and sci-fi as the "go to space" solution may be, the only other option, assuming we don't find some new and incredibly efficient way to store information that has hitherto gone unnoticed, will involve limiting our data creation altogether.