Doug Bonderud

Oct 14th 2020

Zipping Past the Zettabyte Era: What’s Next for the Internet and Digital Technology?


In 2016 the world reached a digital milestone: One zettabyte of internet traffic.

It’s a big number — a ridiculously huge number, in fact — but what does it mean? What’s next for the future of the internet and digital technology?

Welcome to the Zetta Zone

So what’s a zettabyte? Easy! It’s one trillion gigabytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

It took a while to reach this mark — large-scale commercial use of the internet didn’t start until the 1980s and it took a decade more for consumer applications to catch up. The widespread adoption of mobile phones and wireless broadband networks increased the pace of information creation, and in 2016 the world finally crossed the one-zettabyte threshold, heralding a new era for (very) big data.

But as noted by IT Pro Portal, we didn’t stop there: Current predictions suggest that by 2022 there will be more than 12 billion connected devices worldwide generating 4.8 zettabytes of data per year. And that’s just for starters — according to a recent IDC report, the “global datasphere” will grow to 175 zettabytes by 2025. While that number seems absurd on paper, it makes sense in context: The development of 5G mobile networks, fiber optic connections, peer-to-peer internet connections and the uptick in mobile device use has conspired to create a massive data deluge.

Big Numbers — What’s the Big Deal?

From the perspective of companies or individual users, there’s little change to their connected experience as data numbers ramp up. Sure, files load faster and streaming data plays with fewer interruptions but there’s little sense of data scope and impact.

At scale, however, the zettabyte era comes with bigger implications. As noted by Tech Native, big data means a big market for cloud computing and other distributed internet services — a trillion-dollar market, in fact. According to Forbes, this huge information pool offers potential to help solve problems around population, food production and global mobility as companies learn to better leverage the data they own and access.

But concerns are also emerging. As The Hill points out, every internet interaction generates data. When users log on to social media feeds, access online banking, use in-car mapping data or talk to their home smart speaker, data is created. Some of this data is stored — most isn’t — and some is monetized to create improved marketing profiles or analyze consumer trends. Much of this data, however, isn’t accessible to those who created it in the first place, leading to an uptick in legislation, such as GDPR which mandates how companies can access, store and use data, and also requires organizations to delete user data upon request. Other countries — and states such as California, Maine and Nevada — are now drafting their own laws to manage data and protect consumer privacy.

Ultimately, this raises the question of effective use: With massive amounts of data to discover, how much is relevant, how much is redundant and how much is simply lost?

That’s a Yotta Zeros

According to Tech Republic, experts anticipate that by 2022 there will be 4.8 billion internet users worldwide on 28.5 billion devices accessing the internet at 75.4 mbps on average with 82% of all traffic used to view or create videos. The result? Yottabytes.

So what’s a yottabyte? A yot more than a zettabyte, that’s for sure.

It’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,00 bytes, and, as noted by the IEEE, humankind will start generating yottabytes within the decade as data fidelity, transfer speed and usage rates rapidly increase. Worth noting? The highest prefix in the international system of units (SI) is yotta, meaning once we’ve rocketed past the yotta years we’ll need an entirely new way to describe data. Maybe uberbytes? Incredo-bytes? Gargunta-bytes? The potential is endless.

Bottom line? We’ve arrived at — and rapidly overshot — the zettabyte era. Next up are yottabytes, promising both the potential to address human-created problems with human-created data but carrying the caveat that making more information, more quickly isn’t the future of the internet and digital technology — only its foundation.