Technology

Death of the Megabyte, part 2

We’re discussing the world-changing potential of effectively infinite data storage.  If you’re just joining us, start with Part 1 to see how we got here.

Here’s the question: Supposing we have a hard drive with enough capacity for anything we can imagine – what should we plug it into?  There are many incredible possibilities; here are just three.

1. Your Digital Video Recorder

DVRs such as TiVo fill the role that VHS recorders did circa 1988:  making sure the latest episode of your favorite show is ready and waiting for you when you get home, even if you’re out of the house when it’s broadcast.  Handy!

But as of right now, DVRs have some drawbacks.  For one, you have to delete your recordings regularly.  Solution?  Just plug it into one of your handy infinite hard drives, and voila, an infini-corder!  Sure, it comes with a “delete” feature, but it’s totally optional – record three entire seasons of Glee and keep them until the end of time, if you want.

Better still, you don’t even need to choose your shows in advance.  Instead, hit the “record all” button and tape every show there is, on every channel, every day for the rest of your life.  When you feel like watching TV, dip into your collection and browse by channel, date or genre.

Limiting factors:

This opens up a huge can of intellectual-property worms.  For decades, cassettes and video tapes (and later, CDs and DVDs) have allowed us to record things without any repercussion – it’s not as though the Recording Industry Association is going to kick down your door and confiscate your tape deck, because some friend made you a mixtape with a Metallica song on it (although I wouldn’t put it past them, if only they had the ability).  No, tapes and CDs hold very limited amounts, are clunky to record with, and take up physical space.  DVRs rely on your cable company to provide the space, so naturally they’re very limited in size.

But if you could keep all that stuff on your own hard drive, recorded in your own home, with no time limit, that would obliterate the fine line between consumers and providers, shaking the movie (and music) industries to their foundations.  Therefore, production companies, cable channels and other stakeholders will do all they can to restrict, regulate and circumvent recording of this type.  Either that, or we’ll have to come up with a new model for how to make money while providing people with content that is so easily copied.

2. A Camcorder

Yep, that little rectangular device you brought out at your cousin’s wedding or your best friend’s birthday.  Those are moments you want to remember, and if you’re ever feeling nostalgic, you can relive the scene exactly as it happened.

But plug this humble device into an infinite hard drive and behold its transformation.  The situation is analogous to #1 above: why pick and choose which moments to record?  You can just grab it all.  Make it a high-definition camera, or even a 3-D camera if that’s your style.  Let’s also make it small and highly portable – dare I propose a sub-dermal implant?  Leave it on all the time, and suddenly you’ve got a flawless photographic memory (if you’ve seen the gloomy movie The Final Cut, you’ll recognize the concept).

With all that footage socked away (and a half-decent indexing algorithm), you could recall your whole life in perfect clarity – relive spontaneous moments, find the name of that one restaurant you went to ten years ago, or even do a thorough evaluation of your own behavior.

Limiting factors

Besides the technical obstacles I glossed over above, there’s the major question of whether this would be a positive development or not.  Security and privacy concerns abound, not just for the person with the recorder but for everyone s/he interacts with.  And I haven’t even touched on the philosophical implications of being able to see your life exactly as you lived it.  In fact, there are so many wild things going on here that I think I’d better give the idea its own standalone post – stay tuned for that.  But let’s not stop now, we still have one more item on the list.

3. Noah’s Ark

Your DNA is bound up in a genome, essentially a set of instructions for how to make you, and those instructions are written out in a 4-character language (A,T,C and G).  The typical human genome contains just over 3 billion base pairs of these letters, or the equivalent of roughly 1,540 MB.

Suppose it were possible to sequence and record the genomes of every human on the planet (or even just a large representative sample).  We could then fill our infinite hard drive with the sum total of human genetic diversity.  Or take it one step further, and use our gene sequencer to slurp up DNA from decently-sized, genetically diverse populations of all the other species we can grab – from muskrats to mushrooms.

Beyond the broad scientific gains that would be possible with all of this information collected in one place and cross-referenced, our infinite hard drive would become a repository of biblical significance: the blueprints to all life on earth.

Limiting factors

Collecting all that data would surely be a larger problem than storing it; for one thing, we would need gene sequencers much faster and cheaper than what’s available today.  Then again, those may not be very far off.  Also, although picking mushrooms is easy enough, we would need a major advance in muskrat-chasing technology.

Final Thoughts

Whatever obstacles these developments may face, they’re just too fascinating not to consider.  Do you think any of these are plausible?  Or desirable?  What would you plug your infinite hard drive into?  Let me know in the comments.  In the meantime, don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here, running a gene sequencer on my cat.

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