A big byte

National | Study: Three more years worth of "information" will surpass what's been recorded in most of known human history; new product: cell-phone surveillance; and the biggest online survivor, AOL, goes 6.0

Issue: "Here we go again," Nov. 11, 2000

Surfing or drowning?
The information revolution has generated a rising tide of data-in the form of print, computer data, photos, film, video, and audio recordings-and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have just finished their first attempt at measuring it. The Berkeley study finds that humanity will generate more information of various kinds over the next three years than was created in most of known history. Last year's addition to the pile totaled 1.5 exabytes, or 1.5 billion gigabytes. That's one-eighth of all existing recorded information. Considering that one gigabyte is equal to about one million pages of plain text, the mind boggles. This amount is expected to double each year without even counting extra copies. "We are all drowning in a sea of information," concludes the study. "The challenge is to learn to swim in that sea, rather than drown in it." Berkeley researchers say we live in a "content big bang." They say growth is getting faster, putting demands on innovators to create new ways to store and catalog data. Better search engines and fatter hard drives are just the beginning. "Our ability to store and communicate information is quickly outpacing our ability to search, retrieve, and present it," said Hal Varian, the school's dean. "Information management may turn out to be one of the major challenges of the new century." Many have said that even though modern people have more information, they are less equipped to make good use of it. T. S. Eliot famously wrote in 1934, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Every move you make, I'll be watching you
The wireless phone industry is getting ready to provide the ultimate accessibility that many will call either the greatest convenience or the most intolerable privacy invasion: location tracking. Services could begin appearing as soon as next year. If you have a device like a cell phone, in-dash navigation system, or handheld computer, it will become a virtual homing beacon. Your whereabouts could be spotted to within the length of a football field. "There's going to be a dramatic increase in the amount of tracking that's made possible, in part by services they don't know they have," said Daniel J. Weitzner of the World Wide Web Consortium (a technical standards body). The uses of this technology will be many and creative: If you walk by a new restaurant, for example, you could trigger a computer program that sends you a coupon for a free appetizer. One form of location tracking currently available, called Digital Angel, uses a microchip to track someone's vital signs and sends a distress call if it detects a medical emergency. Part of the push for location tracking comes from a federal law that requires cell phones to identify callers' locations to speed 911 responses. Since the wireless industry had to deploy the technology anyway, it decided to find other, more profitable uses for it. So soon you'll be able to find driving directions, an ATM, or the weather automatically set for your location. Right now telecom companies are proceeding with caution, not wanting to scare away business. "It takes years to build a brand and build trust," says Sprint PCS vice president Paul Reddick, "and you can blow it pretty fast." The exec said that phone companies don't want to be in the surveillance business. Nevertheless, some fear location tracking will turn life into a spy movie, with ordinary citizens' every move recorded 24 hours a day. One dot.com survivor
America Online is about to bombard America with free CDs once again-this time for its latest version, AOL 6.0. Available only to non-Macintosh users, the new interface has received a makeover to highlight popular areas. E-mail can finally be sorted by name, date, or subject. Instant messaging has been remodeled to appeal to teenagers (now they can include about 110 different icons, from smiley faces to flowers). Unlike practically every other online service, AOL relies on a special piece of software to guide users through e-mail, chat, Web pages and other easy-to-use services. "AOL is the Internet with an automatic transmission," senior vice president Jonathan Sacks remarks. Customers pay an above-average price-$21.95 a month-for all those extra features. A more experimental addition is the latest permutation of the company "AOL Anywhere" strategy, which looks for ways for people to use the service without a computer. Now some Internet services will be available over the phone. People dial a special number and give voice commands to the system. How well the system works isn't clear. AOL is giving early birds the service for free until January; after that it will cost $4.95 a month. Right now America Online is still a hot player, even after the dot-com crash. Its last quarterly earnings nearly doubled from the same period last year. Its empire includes other big names like Netscape, CompuServe, and WinAmp. Soon the online Godzilla will control the vast "old media" holding of Time-Warner.

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