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Data bits: Can you handle a million trillion of these?

With global information growing by nine times in the past five years, power in the digital age will belong to those who can corral it.

The amount of global information created and shared has grown by nine times in just the past five years.
REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Throughout history, power has belonged to those who control information.

Think back on the old sword-and-shield movies. The plot often hinged on who possessed a particular document: a treaty, a deed, a pardon. Later on, many a spy thriller revolved around snatching a photo, a file or a roll of microfilm from enemy hands.

Information was in physical form, and possession was the key. Now, information is digital. And power in the digital age will belong not to those who control it, but to those who can corral it.

The reason I say that is because information is exploding beyond the hope of anyone actually controlling it.

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The amount of global information created and shared has grown by nine times in just the past five years, according to renowned Silicon Valley analyst Mary Meeker, whose annual Internet trends report was released last week.

Meeker estimated that nearly two zettabytes of information were created globally in 2011. A byte is the smallest unit of computer data, roughly analogous to one printed character. Two zettabytes is this much: 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  That would be the equivalent of reproducing this column a million trillion times. (Note on math: based on 2,000 characters.)

For businesspeople, making sense of this almost incomprehensibly vast ocean of data is a huge challenge. “Big Data,” a term much in vogue, describes the effort to sift through all the available information and discern patterns that offer business opportunities.

It’s why, when you do a Google search for lawnmowers, you see Toro ads popping up on every website you visit for the next week or two. Google knows what you were looking for, and it sells Toro the opportunity to help you find it.

The companies currently leading the way in harnessing that information are based in the United States. Eight of the top 10 Internet properties are U.S.-based; it’s a familiar roster that includes names like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Amazon.

But increasingly, the demand for information is coming from outside our borders. Not one of those companies I mentioned gets a majority of its traffic from Americans, even though nearly 80 percent of U.S. residents have Internet access. But in China, that number is 42 percent; in India, just 11 percent.

As those countries and others increase their base of digital users, the ocean of information will swell geometrically. And those who can effectively analyze it and put it to use will be the business leaders of the next generation.