I returned to my parents’ house after my final year at university approximately an eternity ago* to discover that they had at last entered the Cretaceous and acquired a broadband internet connection. I was less than impressed with the limits imposed on this connection, though – it came with a measly 1GB monthly data limit, which of course for them was perfectly adequate. I don’t know how much they get through these days (and I’m willing to bet they don’t either), but I suspect their 1GB limit is still firmly in place.

Well, what do you know, I have a 1GB limit too, that this month I’m getting worryingly close to. Only mine is on my mobile phone. My WiFi is always on when I’m at home, leaving at most 70 hours a week at which I might be actually getting through that mobile data. 40 of which I spend at work, sitting in front of a computer. …With internet access. Extrapolating over the month, that implies that I use around 10MB an hour, just passively, not deliberately “surfing” the net.

It’s not by any means a fair comparison, but if those bytes were all printed out as single characters, my passive data consumption is roughly a War and Peace every two minutes.

And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is fucking insane.

I’m guessing that my parents’ passive data consumption is near zero – they both have smartphones but don’t use social networks or really download any apps, and their laptop stays in its bag upstairs until they bring it out to use it. Naturally, when they’re not using it, they turn their router off to save electricity. A laudable idea, to be sure, but therein lay my second problem with my parents’ internet connection.

“Why have it on when you’re not using the internet?” they asked.

“But what if my computer wants to use the internet?”

It’s not just the rate of technological progress that is extreme, it’s the inevitable way in which it transforms our lives. Back in the late seventies, the computers my parents used at university were giant things, all mainframes and time-sharing and punch cards. Consumer hard drives of 10MB were a thing of the eighties. And here was I, not thirty years later, coming back from university with the idea that I should be able to download that amount of data every hour, without asking for it, and mostly without even looking at it. With the idea that not only should I not fight for time on a single computer, but that my computer should be left to talk to others over the internet without me being involved.

I’m not saying my folks are stuck with a 70s idea of computing; far from it. But the extent to which our lives are data-saturated now compared to thirty years ago is monumental. And I wonder what, in thirty years’ time, my son will make of our archaic blogs, social networks and video streaming.

  • 2006.