Generational Storage Capacity

From words per page to books per gigabyteIf you remember the first personal-computer hard drives, the idea of carrying a gigabyte in your shirt pocket has historical meaning that's probably lost on someone who thinks of a gigabyte primarily as an insufficient amount of storage. I may be a bit jaded when it comes to technology, but I still smile when I see those $20 index-finger-size flash drives in their blister packs at the local megamart. I don't remember how much the first 10 MB drives cost, but it wasn't pocket change, and they certainly weren't the sort of thing you'd want to carry around with you.

But this comparison was utterly lost on the senior citizen I was talking to the other day, in part because her world specifically excludes computers and relative storage capacities, and also because, to her, words like gigabyte are meaningless in any practical context. As I pondered this communication dilemma, it occurred to me that the common applications of a given slice of technology are what we generally use to describe its benefits. In other words, the current context of a gigabyte is likely to involve things like digital music, photos, or video, non of which are of particular relevance to someone who's never used a digital anything in her life, and doesn't want to.

So I told her she could store about 20 record albums in that amount of space. I didn't mention sampling rates, relative levels of compression, or other digital issues that would have needlessly complicated the discussion. I figured MP3 tracks at a 44 kHz sampling rate would result in about the same quality she was used to from vinyl on a middle-of-the-road turntable; this would take up somewhere around 50 MB per album, give or take.

I said she could fit approximately 1,700 copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a gigabyte storage space. This assumes a 583 KB file, which is what you'd have after downloading and unpacking the text from Project Gutenberg. Or The War of the Worlds, a 356 KB file on the same site; you could cram about 2,800 copies of that in a gigabyte space.

Vinyl albums and plain text may not be anywhere near the cutting edge of technology, but they're useful for conveying a sense of scale that might otherwise be lost. And as the senior citizen pointed out, they aren't bad for music and reading, either.


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