I'm in Boise, Idaho, of all places, at the moment, getting ready for a talk tomorrow (Jefferson's moose, the Internet, and all that), and I'm just wandering around and wondering about something (and I've found that when I'm wondering about something, VC readers can sometimes help me out). Has the Internet been the fastest-growing thing on the planet over the past 30 years or so? It's a funny question, but an interesting one, when you ask it like that. The Net's been growing pretty steadily at a rate of around 4-5% a month at least since 1980 or so — say 30 years, going from a couple dozen machines to over 550 million. Is there anything else on earth that can match or better that, over that long a period? I can't think of anything.
At least, I can't think of anything tangible. There may be intangible things — like "computing power," for example, or maybe "human knowledge," or the like — that kept up a growth rate this high over this long a period. But is there anything with real, material existence — any population of bacteria, or grains of sand on a beach, or leaves on trees, or houses on a stretch of road, or ... that did so?
And if not, that's got to amount to a pretty remarkable achievement — to have built the fastest-growing thing on the planet? How did we do that? And who do we give the medals to?
Update: Thanks for all the ideas -- keep 'em coming. Many of the suggestions, though, fall into the "interesting, but not really close" category, e.g. kudzu, bamboo, human population, bacteria . . . The Net's growth rate, 4-5 % a month, implies doubling every 14 months or so — if the amount of kudzu on the planet had been doubling every 14 months or so, for 30 years, we'd be covered with it. Literally. Like many organisms, it can grow really, really fast - but it does not keep it up, year after year after year after year. And human population isn't even close - if it had been doubling every 14 months since 1980, the total population would be over 150 trillion.
Other networks are interesting - I don't have the data for railroads, telephones, cell phones, etc., but I seriously doubt they can match it for this long a period - adding that much capacity is incredibly costly, and doubling capacity every year or so starts getting expensive after a while . . . but I'm going to look into it.DavidP