1. CesiumLifeJacket
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    CesiumLifeJacket Member

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    Measuring the amount of human knowledge in an historical era...

    Discussion in 'Research' started by CesiumLifeJacket, May 29, 2011.

    ...is very, very difficult. I want to know, for pretty much every era in history, an approximate estimate of the amount of information in circulation at that period. It doesn't have to be in terabytes or any definite unit, but I do need to know how much information one era contains relative to another, as in, how many times more knowledge is stored in current society than was stored in the world during the 1500's? During the dark ages?

    Right now I'm using a fairly arbitrarily defined function of world population, advancement of computers, and number of books in circulation. Any insights on how to more accurately define this function would be appreciated.
     
  2. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't help to any really long regard, but an interesting point to consider is to realise that for a long time, the only book in print was The Bible, and even after that, only books that the Church deemed okay were printed. So, really, only religious propaganda was printed for a very long time before the printing press became public.

    You also have to keep in mind that you can't base this on eras. The Portuguese and the Dutch were here in Australia (between Darwin and Perth) a loooong time before anyone else (if I recall correctly, it was several hundred years before Captain Cook).
    The Chinese believed that they were the centre of the world until the British came and destroyed a 1000 year old empirical line.
    As I said in your other thread, the aborigines of Australia have been around in their current state (actually, better than their current state. Thanks for nothing, white folks (I'm white, yes)) for thirty thousand years. They had very little contact with the outside world. The few times that anybody discovered Australia (the Portuguese and the Dutch, for example) they would only have wanted to trade, and the aborigines are very very aligned with the land and don't profit from it except with their life.

    So yes, basing it on eras will be hard for you, especially with what you're using the information for.
     
  3. IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer
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    IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer Member

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    You couldn't measure "knowledge" in terabytes anyway. Repeat "XYZZY" often enough, and you have as many terabytes as you want -- but not a lot of knowledge.

    But a small piece of knowledge of what to do about a poisonous snakebite when you've just been bitten by a poisonous snake -- wouldn't take up a lot of bytes on a disk, but it's crucial.

    And you need to say "what kind of knowledge"? There's a lot less knowledge about how to chip flint rocks just so than there was 100,000 years ago, but a lot more about how to program a computer. Less knowledge about this, more knowledge about that. I like to think we've gained more knowledge than we've lost over the eons, but who the heck knows? Measuring what we DO know is hard enough, measuring what we've forgotten is by definition impossible.

    So when you say "amount of knowledge", you first need to know what you mean by that. (Without knowing what you're trying to measure, it's going to be hard to get even an incredibly rough approximation)
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    'stored'?... in people's minds, or more tangibly?
     
  5. CesiumLifeJacket
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    CesiumLifeJacket Member

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    Perhaps it would be best to explain what I'm trying to do with this line of research.

    As I'm sure everyone familiar with memes has already realized, ideas can be considered a kind of life form whose environment is human thought and forms of communication. A weak and common form of such a life form would be a meme, a more complex and powerful life form would be a full-fledged system of beliefs, like science or religion. I'm writing a novella in which the main characters could be considered anthropomorphized versions of two very important concepts in society (yes I realize how crazy this sounds) and as they move through history I need to know the relative size of their environment, where their environment's size is primarily dependent upon the amount of knowledge in circulation at that time.

    So... yeah. knowledge stored in minds is the most fluid and so probably the most important, but I also need to account for all other forms of knowledge storage- hard drives, books, magazines, etc.
     
  6. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmmm!

    As I understand it these life forms being essentially just knowledge, can exist in the digital world, the world of thought and the printed world. (This actually sounds familiar but I can't remember where I read it before).

    Ok so lets start with the world of thoughts contributing to the environment. The sum of thoughts existing in a brain is going to be fairly standard from one person to another and over time as well. Human brains haven't altered that much in the last few thousand years. The thoughts may not be particularly exciting however. So this part of the environment grows to match the growth in the number of people.

    Next the printed part of the thought environment. The Gutenburg printing press only began in the middle ages, so prior to this there were only hand written scribed documents. So there was a sudden explosion in this part of the environment around 1439 AD. And this growth has continue eversince as more and more printed material has become available to every man, woman and child. So start with your population in 1439 AD and allow for an increase for both the population and the for the number of printed items each member of the population owned. Say that maybe it was a one hundredth of a book per person in 1500, and one book in 1600, and perhaps two in 1700 AD etc. (These numbers are pure guesswork).

    Now the digital. This is where things truly get strange. Say that in 1960 the average person had a hundred books. In 1980 with the advent of personal computers, there was an exponential growth in the amount of stored knowledge each person had. I've heard estimates that every year the amount of information held in the net more then doubles. So even if it was doubling. In 1980, 100 books equivalent. In 1981, 200 books equivalent. In 1982, 400 books equivalent. Exponential growth. So now in 2011, the increase in stored information is two to the power of 31, or somewhat more then two billion times what was.

    Hope that helps.
     
  7. IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer
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    IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer Member

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    Love the idea, by the way :)

    Does it need to be a matter of the amount of knowledge and the size of the environment? Or can it be the nature of the knowledge, and the flavor, texture, and atmosphere of the environment?

    Certainly new areas of the environment would open up over time (with some closing down, though that may be less noticeable). But does the total size of the environment matter? Would it be enough to know what has opened up, and how the nature of the space has changed?
     
  8. CesiumLifeJacket
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    CesiumLifeJacket Member

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    I got the idea after reading The Raw Shark Texts, which was a bestseller, so perhaps that's where you've heard of this?

    Psychotic- these all sound like reasonable assumptions that will get me a close-enough answer with the right numbers, so here are the approximations I am using- if you have better numbers or methods please contribute:

    An average book can store: 2 MB of useful information. I have no idea what the growth rate of books is, and Google is being useless.

    Human brain can store: 1 GB of episodic and semantic memory (based on the estimation that a human can store as much information as 500 books in their lifetime). The change here is very easy to measure because it is directly proportional to the number of people.

    Internet currently stores: roughly 5 exabytes of data, but maybe only 1% of that is useful information considering how much is video (which has a very high data:information ratio) and other visuals. So 50 petabytes of useful info. I will also make the assumption that the internet doubles in size every 18 months, and has been doing so since its birth in the 70's. I can estimate its size from here using an exponential decay function.

    Thank you!
    These are also very important aspects of collective thought that I hope to incorporate, but the characters move through a series of rooms (or room-ish places, don't think of anything you'd find in a house or normal building), and I do want the size of these rooms to be dependent upon the total amount of knowledge. Some of the rooms in the internet era become so gigantic they seem boundless and then size becomes less significant, but during other periods, size is very important.
     
  9. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wonder if, in the history of Earth, we've yet achieved even a single yottabyte (largest measurement of data, 10 to the power of 24, I do believe) of memories collectively.
     
  10. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Can't really improve on your numbers afraid, I'm only guessing at best. But given that its a fictional story I don't think accuracy counts as much as simply the idea that it sounds plausible.

    Cheers.
     
  11. CesiumLifeJacket
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    CesiumLifeJacket Member

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    Whoah, somehow I just stumbled upon this graph that looks like it could very well be showing me exactly what I'm looking for in an eerily accessible way, but it seems too good to be true. Also there are no units, which makes this a little dubious. What exactly am I looking at here?
     
  12. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're looking at a bar graph showing the amount of books published between the year 1200 to, basically, the present.

    It is not about knowledge. It's about books. This will include cookbooks, novels, and the Bible.
    Also remember that for probably a good 150 years or more, only the higher parts of society would/could read. Arthur Miller's The Crucible has a woman reading portrayed as being strange, and she's accused of witchery for it when really she just likes reading.
    Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow has the love interest (I forget her name) hide a book when Ichabod stumbles upon her reading because her father believed books to cause her mother's death or something to that extent.

    Both are period pieces, The Crucible set in the 1600s and Sleepy Hollow set just before the beginning of the 19th century. So even if books = knowledge, that graph is a very vast misrepresentation of knowledge. I don't believe it's really very useful to you on more than a trivial basis.
     
  13. AvihooI
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    AvihooI Member

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    I think in order to measure knowledge in a quantised manner you'd have to first define what a unit of knowledge is. A unit of knowledge equal to another would have to address an equally important matter for both units.

    Now of course, needless to say this can't be done in a mathematical way. For importance isn't something one can measure at all. However, we can define importance against our moral values and against the effect they have on human civilization.

    For instance, the invention of the printing press can be represented as "knowledge of erecting and utilising a printing press" that promoted a massive economical and moral revolution in the middle ages and was a large part of the rennaissance in Europe. It would take no more than a ten page book to explain how to construct a printing house using this old technology tho.

    The first measure of human knowledge must be the knowledge held by the most expert in society. For it is they who cultivate progress and change. How much they know is by extension how much their civilization knows. Their knowledge is that which gives civilization the ability to utilisise it. I, personally don't know how to manufacture an automobile. Yet, the knowledge of my civilization to construct one allows me to use an automobile.

    Another measure of human knowledge can be literacy rate. For it is the ability to read and write that actually makes knowledge a massively transferable medium. You have to take into account not just the knowledge of a single person - but also the ability of that single person to distribute it.

    A third measure of human knowledge must be complexity. What was known one-hundred years ago wasn't as complex as today, but it was vastly more complex than what was known two-hundred years ago and so on.

    I urge you to read about knowledge management. I believe human progress revolves around the human ability to manage knowledge as a whole. And technically, every technology owes itself one way or another to the increasing ability to store, transfer and process knowledge.
     
  14. elneilio10
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    I have to say - and I don't wish to appear controversial / confrontational here ;) - that there's a fair bit of "misinformation" in this thread!

    You CAN NOT measure human knowledge in terms of bytes. This is a unit of measurement solely connected to storing information digitally ie. on a computer.

    The brain doesn't work like that at all. Neither do our "collective brains".

    AvihooI makes the best suggestions with literacy rates and technological progress ("complexity" in his words).

    And that's probably what you're best going with - key technological developments and comparisons of such through the ages.

    There is NO OTHER WAY to put a meaningful figure on it.

    Hope this helps! Now where did I leave my necker cube?

    :)
     
  15. wolfi
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    wolfi Contributing Member

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    First off man wow 3 weeks old really?
    You can to, a brain is basically a super computer and has been called an organic computer

    to be fair the you are right it is is for digital information
    But there is no way we cant convert the brains capacity (thin of any time you change any messemnt to any other

    There is no reason why we can not use that messment for this as they work quite the same, the only difince is ours is organic and a computers is not
     
  16. elneilio10
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    First, I don't see anything wrong with dragging up a thread 3 weeks old. Particularly, if you've something useful to say. :p

    And brains should only be compared with computers in the most abstract of senses. So your eyes are your keyboard and your mouth is your power inlet??? What's your mobile broadband? Your pineal body?

    Finally, you lost me with your messemnts / messments. Is that even English?

    :rolleyes:
     
  17. wolfi
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    wolfi Contributing Member

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    First off you can clearly see my sig which says I can't tell the difference :rolleyes:


    Now your being silly, The brain and computer have more incommon then you think, and i never said anything about the rest of the body
    How do the store data? electronic, how do we? same thing we use ours is organic but neurons are used which is the organic eletonice storage




    Anyways what i was saying is you can use it to measure because it's a measurement for storing information while true its not made for the brain there is no reason why you cant convert it
    why use this? to compare humans process with computers
    to give a measurement for the brain which we currently do not have
    and last but not least because

    Byte is used for electronic data storage
    a brain stores things with Neron which is a organic electronic
    While I do AGREE that it was not intended for it you cant just say
    "You can't" it would be simple to do (well the way to convert is simple
    first find out how much bytes a neuron possess
    (be like if your trying to get the voulme of something if you would)
    then caculate the deferent nacreous an Example, some parts of the brain seem to be more powerful with less Neron suggesting that they would have more information or "bytes"

    There is no reason why Bytes can't be used for this

    think of it this way
    You can convert any physical measurement of leangh to another measurement of leanth
    any measurement of liquid to any other measurement of liquid
    this is just another measurement of information storage

    Once again just to be clear while you are right it was not deigned for it there is no reason why
    A. you can't, its not like its physically impossible just set a set start for byte E.X nerouns that do (enter measurement) is one byte
    and form there you work your way up, could we ever get 100% I don't know the brain is very complex but I imagein some time yes but besides when they see how much of soemthing when its this high they always estimate
    B. The idea that "You can't do that cause its only for computers" is a sad idea comming form a time when we did not know the brain works so much like a computer (a very very powerful computer)
     
  18. elneilio10
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    Sorry about the jibe Wofi re spelling. No hard feelings, eh? :)

    When I got my grade A A Level in Biology, neurons (/neurones - either spelling's good though normal consistency rules apply of course) worked by transmitting from sensory organs to target areas in the brain (/effectors in the case of reflex actions). The "unit" they send when stimulated is known as an action potential. True, it's electrical in the sense that it moves along the neuron as a wave of electricity. However, that's no way comparable to a a byte stored on a magnetic recording device or a CD etc. Neither can it realistically be compared with electricity flowing down copper wire. It just can't.

    Furthermore, neurons are not storage devices. There's also various chemicals involved to futher complicate matters. We're darned complex, we are!

    Storage in the brain - we really don't want to go there! That's verging on the metaphysical / "magical".

    We're special things. You die and the electricity does stop flowing I will accept. And it's tragic. And your billions of brain cells will cease to transcend those boundaries that imbue you with consciousness. And (my pet theory and probably true but admitedly "speculative" in nature somewhat ;) ) I'd suggest that x years of lifetime of consciousness with lots of biochemical backup, good genes, (preferably good) parents and other sociological elements of your environment is what gives you all those sweet memories.

    That enable learning.

    :)

    It's all on the Internet / Google.

    Edit: Forgot to say that the brain also fires off impulses whenever you consciously will it to (ie. when you want flex your muscles) and without conscious thought such as in regulating your essential organ systems etc. Those neurons (afferent as opposed to efferent in the earlier case and not to be confused with the relay neurones of the spinal cord) work in an identical manner to the ones detailed in the original posting of this reply.
     
  19. wolfi
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  20. elneilio10
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    Lol Wolfi.

    I guess ultimately you can believe whatever you wish to believe but I only wished to point out the fundamental flaws in your reasoning. (So that others don't make the same mistake.)

    Cells in the brain and surrounding the nerves metabolise sugar (glucose) to produce chemical energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). This ATP fuels everything and is responsible for the electricity throughout your body.

    Your brain contains lots of areas that do lots of different things. And it's mighty complex and I only understand the basics. Relatively. I believe memorys are most likely due to differential brain cell DEATH rates with new "synaptic connections" being some way involved in the mechanism. But I'm not so sure any more on this part, sadly. Synapses are the gaps between cells to that electro-chemical agents must cross incredibly quickly throughout your lifespan.

    But that's why I introduced the metaphysical in the earlier post.

    Does anyone really know exactly how a brain works?

    I don't. I know you don't ;) And though some scientists understand the brain in great depth, there are still things about the workings of the brain for mankind to discover.

    Computers are a piece of cake in comparison.

    Billions of years of evolution and a fair few millennia of co-operative living by a certain species resulted in the computer. It was us. We got together and used our brains.

    Brains invented computers in a way. Brains are their gods?

    Back to memory storage in the brain and everything else. We've long known the brain controls pretty much everything in the body and is the location of all conscious thought.

    I think consciousness where the human form of this most sexy of organs is concerned is extremely difficult to understand / explain but I'll give it a go. It's all about transcending. And we really should be mentioning evolutionary pathways at some point - showing the tendency for brain sizes to increase over time with them also tending to become more complex. Species evolved into other species in a tree of descendent species. That all were then better adapted to survive or lost out by going extinct (for any one or more of many possible reasons) is a key element.

    This brain is special.

    Computer hard drives and cpus and curly wurly software programmes just don't compare.

    So all that brainpower "lights up" the inside of the user's head. And your brain can handle all the sensory overload that is the environment. It quickly habituates to certain unvarying inputs whilst working on potentially life-saving information it receives. It "knows" the importance of distinguishing between the two.

    And it's on 24/7 doing things. Consiously at times and at other times, unconsciously (when asleep). But it never stops throughout your life. It can't or you're dead meat! It's especially good at multi-tasking and could tell a computer a thing or two about the subject.

    So this is all going on 24/7, say for upto 80 years? When you get to 3 / 4 years old, you make the ultimate in quantum leaps. Everything becomes clearer and sooner or later you're learning, learning language(s) in particular and benefitting from all the combined knowledge available.

    Nowadays, that's a lot of knowledge but still of no mention of "bytes".

    That quantum leap is kind of "exponential" in a way. Starts off slow then shoots through the roof. It went exponential evolutionarily (in the lineage from the first prokaryotic organism to the world's current status quo of life forms) and it goes exponential in the first few years of a person's life.

    But just where are those memories, eh?

    I know they're not in my feet and so does everyone. They're obviously in the brain. Of course. But how they're stored and how they're stored exactly is critical in comparing brains with computers but still no-one knows how memories are really stored.

    I propose the transendence view with memories and thought in general (and dreams even) being similar enough a subject to lump together. I think I'm perfectly justified to do so.

    IN a nutshell:

    Memories have to be stored somewhere, eh? I just don't think it's the physical world personally and I'm pretty sure must of science would agree.

    A sweet analogy that I just dreamt up:

    A balloon of hydrogen can explode. Now you don't say "that balloon is where I'm storing explosions". You say, "that balloon's where I'm storing my hyrogen that will blow up if we're not careful."

    So if that balloon doesn't really store explosions is there not a case for me saying brains don't really store memories? Or may not. In the physical sense.


    A few questions for you Wolfi:

    Could you tell me how many GBs you think the human brain can hold and are we all different in this regard, then? If so, what's the range? Or has no-one worked that out yet???

    Can you really say a book holds x MB of information and if so what are the ranges for books in your arguement? No doubt there's a range here too, if so, what is it? The MS I wrote took up around 1MB on my computer when I wrote it. It was 125,000 words in size. It was stored as a word document. But I could have stored it as a notepad doc and then it would have probably only been a few K (though it would lose its formatting. Of course formatting isn't the exciting part of what a book is really about and is perfectly eligible to be disregarded in comparisons between books, e-books, brains and pcs eh?)

    Of course, a paperback is a whole new ball game and to try quantifying the amount of information stored in (the text of) a paper book is the stuff of fantasy. It can't be done. Not legitimately anyway. If you must do it, it can only be in the loosest sense. Surely?

    And if so, what's the point?


    I do warn you though, Wolfi, if you can answer these questions, I'll accuse of being a quack / charlatan / alchemist / alien! ;)

    Anyway, we really ought to change the subject and to do so, I'd like to ask you a favour, if I may.

    I need a writing challenge (to put up in the workshop) that must be FICTION. Can you think of something?

    A reply here or by PM would both be fine.

    I hope you reconsider your views as I think they're erronous but hell, if you don't, it wouldn't be the biggest thing in the world. Maybe, I'm wrong but I'm sure I'm not. Maybe, I even misunderstood your arguement.

    Let's agree to differ otherwise. :D

    Ps. It was a grade A at A level Biology by the way (ie. "top score"). Not an "AA" ;)
     
  21. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fun thread.

    A rather more simple way of approaching things: Leibniz - most famous for his philosophical efforts - is said by some to be have been the last person in history whose understanding encompassed (and invigorated) every field of human knowledge.

    Look him up. Astonishing stuff. But still, slightly flattering, and the assessment - I suspect - doesn't even to begin to accommodate practical wisdom: how to subdue and then milk an angry cow; how to track and kill a kangaroo etc

    Anyway, let's go with it..and say c1700 it is possible that one person was able to entertain all of human knowledge in his one head...and that after that, as knowledge exploded and specialisms proliferated, that became impossible.

    So, today, how many heads - Leibniz type heads - would it take to accomplish the same feat. I've spent hours thinking about it and concluded the answer is 9 (+/- 2 heads).
     

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