Part of The Best of Print in 2013

The Rise of Big Data

How It's Changing the Way We Think About the World

(John Elk / Getty Images)

Everyone knows that the Internet has changed how businesses operate, governments function, and people live. But a new, less visible technological trend is just as transformative: “big data.” Big data starts with the fact that there is a lot more information floating around these days than ever before, and it is being put to extraordinary new uses. Big data is distinct from the Internet, although the Web makes it much easier to collect and share data. Big data is about more than just communication: the idea is that we can learn from a large body of information things that we could not comprehend when we used only smaller amounts.

In the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was believed to house the sum of human knowledge. Today, there is enough information in the world to give every person alive 320 times as much of it as historians think was stored in Alexandria’s entire collection -- an estimated 1,200 exabytes’ worth. If all this information were placed on CDs and they were stacked up, the CDs would form five separate piles that would all reach to the moon.

This explosion of data is relatively new. As recently as the year 2000, only one-quarter of all the world’s stored information was digital. The rest was preserved on paper, film, and other analog media. But because the amount of digital data expands so quickly -- doubling around every three years -- that situation was swiftly inverted. Today, less than two percent of all stored information is nondigital.

Given this massive scale, it is tempting to understand big data solely in terms of size. But that would be misleading. Big data is also characterized by the ability to render into data many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before; call it “datafication.” For example, location has been datafied, first with the invention of longitude and latitude, and more recently with GPS satellite systems. Words are treated as data when computers mine centuries’ worth of books. Even friendships and “likes” are datafied, via Facebook.

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